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The Reiner Riddle 

Whatever his Sacramento troubles, Meathead’s created a smart progressive initiative

Wednesday, Mar 15 2006
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FOR ROB REINER, IT’S THE BEST AND WORST OF TIMES. Revelations that the state commission on early childhood that he chairs funded an ad campaign for universal preschool, at the very moment that signature gatherers were circulating petitions for his universal preschool initiative, and that the commission had his campaign consultants under contract, have prompted state legislators to order an audit of the commission’s work. A few prominent Democrats, most notably state Senate Leader Don Perata, have withdrawn their endorsement of his initiative.

At the same time, Reiner’s ballot measure, Proposition 82, which would create universal preschool for the state’s 4-year-olds, has a wide lead in the polls. The AFL-CIO has endorsed the measure, as have the state’s two powerhouse unions, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). It’s the first time the CTA has ever backed a measure that establishes a system based on choice (public funding can go to public, private and parochial preschools). It’s also the first time in its 117-year history that the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce has backed a measure that will raise the income tax. (Prop. 82 funds the preschools by raising taxes on individual incomes over $400,000 and couples incomes over $800,000.)

So take your pick. Reiner’s a scoundrel. He’s a master pol who’s able to unite business and labor behind a major new program. Perhaps he’s both — those are not mutually exclusive alternatives.

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My own reading is that Reiner is a gifted policy entrepreneur who seems to have gotten dangerously careless when given his own barely visible bureaucracy to create new programs. But whatever emerges from the investigation of his First 5 Commission can’t detract from his ballot measure. For Proposition 82 is the most significant, thoughtful, important piece of legislation that Californians have seen in some time, whether in the form of an initiative or a bill. It addresses the crisis of K-12 education by offering one of the only remedies that’s been proven to work: high-quality preschool, which greatly increases the school-readiness of kindergarteners. It’s also smart industrial policy at a time of dumb laissez-faire stagnation: As incomes flat-line, it professionalizes and provides better pay to thousands of child-care providers. If Californians reject Prop. 82 because of the reports of First 5’s misdeeds, they’ll be throwing out the baby — more precisely, the 4-year-olds — with the bath water.

Most of the reports of First 5’s misdeeds don’t quite convey what the commission’s mandate actually was. Charged with promoting the health, welfare and development of California’s infants and toddlers, the commission has established governing boards in every county. In San Francisco and Los Angeles the boards have embarked on establishing universal preschool in their respective counties. The Los Angeles program has already funded nearly 100 new schools, mainly in disadvantaged areas, and is providing extensive teacher training at existing facilities. So with 6 percent of the state budget mandated to go toward public-education campaigns, it’s no surprise that the state commission promoted universal preschool too — though the timing of its campaign seems strikingly uncoincidental. Given the board’s mandate, however, it doesn’t seem illegal. That some of its contracts went to Reiner’s political associates strikes me as more questionable.

But none of this takes away from the merits of the initiative itself. A raft of longitudinal studies, from Chicago to Carolina, has made clear that a good preschool program is one of just three ways (along with smaller classes and intense teacher training) to improve students’ K-12 performance. From the RAND Corporation to conservative Nobel laureate economist James Heckman, the academic authorities agree that preschool pencils out. Not that it’s a cheap program — the $2.3 billion annual budget is more than one-third of the nation’s annual spending on Head Start. For its money, the state would get a program that offers a half-day program to all 4-year-olds, with one certified teacher with a bachelor’s and one teacher’s aide for every 20 pupils. All manner of schools could qualify for funding if they met the criteria laid out by the state superintendent of public instruction, who will administer the program. First priority for funding would go to schools in poorer communities. The requirement for teacher credentials and certification would be phased in over a decade, and $700 million would be set aside to pay the schooling of current providers who couldn’t otherwise afford the courses.

Critics of legislation by initiative have compared Reiner’s measure to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s four doomed initiatives of last year, but in putting together his measure, Reiner did everything that Arnold failed to do. Schwarzenegger’s measures were dreamed up by his consultants in consultation with no one but themselves. Reiner met monthly from September 2004 to May 2005 with prominent child-development experts, leaders of teacher unions and SEIU, and such business figures as Phil Halperin and Michael Milken. He consulted regularly with such corporate leaders as John Doerr, Reed Hastings, Eli Broad, Richard Riordan and the heads of the L.A. Chamber. The business leaders wanted more accountability; the labor leaders wanted more resources; the childhood-ed folks wanted higher quality. What Reiner crafted with them — a 33-page initiative that went through 30 drafts — delivers all three: a competitive system with decent teacher pay (and a right for teachers to unionize) that results in high pedagogical standards.

The initiative has its critics. Perata, for one, complains that in offering a universal system rather than one targeted solely to the poor, the measure spends state funds on a middle class that doesn’t need the help. He also argues that ballot-box legislating diminishes the ability of the legislature to appropriate funds as it sees fit.

What Perata overlooks is that preschool is often not the kind of rich learning experience it should be: Some studies estimate that just 20 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds receive quality educational experiences. Reiner’s program addresses that need. Perata’s argument that the program not be universal could be applied to the K-12 grades as well. The point of a universal program is that it’s the best way to ensure quality: Programs tailored to the poor tend to become poor programs. A universal program is also more likely to be enacted by voters.

As to Perata’s argument that the Legislature is the better arena to craft policy, Reiner heartily concurs. He asked Gray Davis, early on in his governorship, to go to the Legislature to make such a program, but Davis demurred: Raising taxes requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature in California, which means it requires Republican votes, and Davis knew they weren’t there. Perata, too, knows that Republican legislators will not vote to raise taxes, and also knows that there’s no way in the current apportionment for the Democrats to win two-thirds of the seats in either house, let alone both. Going to the voters, as Reiner is doing, is the only way to bring about a progressive social program in California — at least, one that requires additional funding.

Whatever the Reiner scandal, the Reiner initiative is a signal contribution to education and social equity in California. If California voters reject it, they’ll be a bunch of meatheads.

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