The scene at San Francisco's Grace Child Development Center could have been lifted straight from a feel-good movie. On a perfect summer day the cameras rolled and reporters crowded around as filmmaker and preschool activist Rob Reiner joined a table of 4-year-olds. He found himself talking about movies with a precocious girl named Diamond, who has ambitions to be a movie star–both Reiner and Diamond are fans of The Cat in the Hat–and April, a would-be doctor who can almost spell her name.

Reiner was on hand to celebrate the launch of the city's universal pre-kindergarten program. Flanked by local politicians, he turned the occasion into a rally for a proposed measure that would guarantee access to a high-quality preschool for every 4-year-old in the state. The initiative will be on the June 2006 ballot. "Even though preschool isn't a sexy issue, it's a critical issue," he said. "If we don't make an investment in young children, we have no chance of reaching the society we want."

In recent years this message–that early education isn't something that should be left entirely to families; that the government also has an obligation to improve the lives of young children–has started to resonate with parents, voters and taxpayers. Publicly supported pre-kindergartens are proliferating nationwide. Four states (Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia and New York) now formally guarantee universal preschool, and thirty-seven others support some preschool programs.

"California is the future of this movement," says Karen Hill Scott, a child-development expert who has been deeply involved in shaping preschool policy. "It's one of just a handful of states where the number of children is increasing. There are enough children under age 5 to constitute the seventh biggest state in the country." Because of the sheer magnitude of the preschool initiative–its $2.3 billion price tag is more than a third the size of the entire Head Start budget–as well as the state's outsized influence on national politics, a yes vote is a potential tipping point. Within a generation, preschool may be almost as commonplace as kindergarten–and preschool could become the entering wedge in a broader campaign to improve the lives of children.



The Power of Science


The ideological sea change, away from rugged individualism and toward greater public involvement in the service of the very young, stems less from altruism than enlightened self-interest. It owes a lot to the emerging research-based understanding of how the cognitive and emotional lives of children unfold.

Long-term studies of model programs like Abecedarian, in North Carolina, which provided an array of services to children from birth to age 5, and Chicago's Child-Parent Centers, demonstrate that young children reap the benefits for the rest of their lives–fewer repeat a grade or are assigned to special-education classes or get into trouble with the law; more graduate from high school.

The results of the Perry Preschool study are especially impressive. In 1962, before Head Start or the "war on poverty," fifty-eight African-American children from poor families enrolled in a preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan. There was a well-trained (and well-paid) teacher for every six youngsters, and in addition to the half-day classes, teachers met with parents for several hours a week. Because there were more applicants than the program could accommodate, a similar group of children was denied this experience, and that became the basis for one of the most famous social science experiments ever conducted.

Forty years later the ex-Perry students are middle-aged. Their median income is $20,800. That's 25 percent more than the average earnings of a matched group of children who didn't get this opportunity, the difference between an income that's above or below the poverty line. Not only earnings but life in general is better for the former preschoolers: 65 percent graduated from high school, compared with 45 percent of those who didn't go to Perry; 57 percent of males raised their own children, versus 30 percent of the nonpreschool group; 36 percent had been arrested five or more times, versus 55 percent for the control group.

That more than a third of the ex-preschoolers have been arrested at least five times is a useful reminder that pre-kindergarten isn't a panacea. Still, the 2004 analysis finds a spectacular $17 return, to society as well as to the former Perry students, for every dollar spent on their early education.

Like the other exemplary programs, Perry Preschool enrolled only disadvantaged children, who doubtless have the most to gain from the experience. Results from a recent study of Head Start, which enrolls three-quarters of a million 3- and 4-year-olds, lead to the same conclusion: A decently crafted program reduces the school readiness gap between poor and middle-class youngsters. But poor children aren't the only ones who benefit from preschool. A 2004 study finds that children enrolled in a universal pre-kindergarten program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, registered a 16 percent increase in language and cognitive test scores. Since Tulsa's preschools serve a socially and economically diverse population, this is a model that other communities can readily adopt.

Brain research has added the imprimatur of hard science to the argument for preschool. During the past fifteen years neuroscientists have effectively settled the ancient "nature versus nurture" debate. The research shows that genetic potential isn't fixed at birth but is shaped by the environment, especially during a child's first years–that there are "sensitive periods," windows of opportunity in early brain development.

Moreover, first experiences also become building blocks for what happens next in children's lives. "The early childhood years," the National Research Council concludes in its influential report From Neurons to Neighborhoods, "lay a foundation that influences the effectiveness of all subsequent education efforts."

This accumulated evidence, filtered through parenting magazines, books on the latest child-rearing techniques and over-the-fence chats, has led a majority of Americans to endorse the proposition that a good preschool is essential for 3- and 4-year-olds. Yet many working-class parents, including those pushed into the workforce by the welfare rule changes of the mid-1990s, have nowhere to send their young children. Because they earn more than poverty-line wages, they don't qualify for Head Start, but they can't afford the fees charged by qualified private providers. They are the backbone of a new movement.



Pre-K Gets Political


"Preschool for all" isn't just a slogan; it's hard work to design what amounts to a fourteenth grade–and politicians are tempted to take shortcuts. California's step-by-step, quality-first approach to expanding pre-kindergarten sends the right message. Preschool isn't baby-sitting with a fancy name. It can't be delivered on the cheap–as Florida is doing, spending a derisively low $2,500 annually for each 4-year-old. To make a lasting difference in the lives of children requires talented, well-educated and decently compensated teachers, as well as a developmentally appropriate curriculum.

The heavy political lifting in California is coming not from state officials but from well-connected activists like Rob Reiner–the "grass tops," as preschool advocates call them. Since 1978, when California voters endorsed the tax-cutting Proposition 13, the big policy decisions have been made by voters, through statewide ballot measures, rather than by Sacramento lawmakers. Conservatives have been especially adroit at turning this Progressive Era ideal of direct democracy into a tool for decimating government.

For liberals to succeed at direct democracy, they have had to persuade the voters that a goal like improving public education is too crucial to be left to the vagaries of state budgetary politics. "In convincing voters," says Geoff Garin, a pollster who has done work for California preschool advocates, "the question isn't only what's important but what's important enough to deserve a claim on public resources."

Policy mavens and newspaper editorial writers fulminate about this ballot box budgeting, and they make an excellent point. "In a better world, relying on the initiative wouldn't be how I'd solve a major social problem," acknowledges former State Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, who was unsuccessful in getting a modest preschool measure signed into law. Though Democrats in the legislature keep trying, it's a Sisyphean task. "Preschool won't happen legislatively for decades," predicts longtime legislative aide Joe Landon.

That's why the voters, not the lawmakers, will once again settle the issue. "We have a choice," says Chad Griffin, who for nearly ten years has worked with Reiner on early childhood concerns. "We can unilaterally disarm [by staying out of ballot box politics] and let the other side get everything, or we can meet them on the mat."

"If we believed that there was a chance to do this legislatively, we'd do it in a second," says Reiner. "In 1999, when the state was flush, I talked to [then-Governor] Gray Davis. He thought preschool was a great idea but that this wasn't the right time. For those politicians, it's never a right time."



A Universal Program Benefits Everyone


The push for universal pre-kindergarten in California grew out of a broader interest in improving young children's lives. In 1998 Reiner organized a broad coalition, including the Cancer Society and the American Heart Association, to back a first-in-the-nation initiative that would subsidize everything from home nurses' visits to childcare. The measure specified that funds would come from a 50 cent tax on every pack of cigarettes sold in the state, generating about $650 million a year, and this spurred the tobacco industry into furious opposition. Conservatives grumbled that the ballot measure subjected "public policy to the midlife crises of bloated Hollywood big shots." Although the tobacco companies raised more than $40 million, outspending the zero-to-five (pro-young children) forces by more than 4 to 1, the initiative passed. Two years later an industry-sponsored attempt to repeal it was overwhelmingly rejected.

"First Five is the national model," says Jane Henderson, former executive director of the First Five Commission. "Other states are jealous. 'That's California,' they say. 'They have the initiative and they have Rob Reiner.' But we don't have any political leadership." The state commission, which Reiner has chaired since its inception, parcels out 80 percent of the tobacco tax money to the state's fifty-eight counties, which are essentially free to spend those funds on anything that benefits youngsters.

With so many competing needs, money has been "sprinkled around," Henderson adds. "Pressure groups have pushed for everything from fluoridation to breast-feeding."

In order to focus the counties' efforts, First Five decided to make school readiness its priority–"that's really what zero-to-five is pointing to, the start of school," says Karen Hill Scott, a former member of the commission–and it has offered $400 million in matching funds to counties that expand their preschools.

The attention of preschool advocates nationwide is focused on Los Angeles. The county has committed $600 million in First Five funds for the next five years, with the goal of providing preschool to every 4-year-old. About 10 million people, nearly a third of the state's population, live in the county, including 153,000 4-year-olds. "That's more kids age 4 than there are kids, period, in most states," Scott points out. "If universal preschool can happen here, it can happen anywhere."

The Los Angeles Universal Preschool (called LAUP), which is managing the initiative, requires every pre-kindergarten to meet tough quality standards for teacher training and student-teacher ratios in order to merit extra money–and the better the preschool, the more money it's entitled to. "This is a universal program, not a poverty program," notes Peter Shakow, LAUP's vice president of communications. Initially, funds are going to increase the capacity and quality of preschools operating in "hot zones," the neighborhoods where the need is greatest. That strategy has generated citywide support.

Edison State Preschool, located in a strip-mall neighborhood on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks from classy Redondo Beach, is a LAUP-supported pre-kindergarten. The room is filled with picture books and art supplies, animals and blocks and the makings of science experiments; the teachers freely dispense ideas and hugs to their young charges. The day I visited, a cockatoo named Edison was ruling the roost, and dance music was in the air. It is the kind of place where you'd want to spend time if you were a kid.

The parents of these children are immigrants, attending English as a Second Language classes in the same building. Many of the youngsters at Edison have never spoken English. "Sometimes they won't say anything for five or six months," says Nancy Pekarek, the lead teacher. That's why she is using part of her First Five money to bring in an American Sign Language instructor one day a week, "so that they can have a common language."



The Electronic Bully Pulpit


Across the state, First Five's greatest success has been its use of the electronic bully pulpit to promote early childhood education. Since 2000 the commission has spent close to $50 million on TV public-service spots.

The campaign was crafted to open parents' eyes to the importance of early learning. In one spot the opening image shows a parent reading a book to her child; fast-forward to a shot of those kids, years later, reading big books themselves. "Education is more than school" is the theme: A park is a science lab, and a grocery store is a place to teach about math. Another promo tells a child's story in reverse, first showing a teenager going to college, then looking back to his high school years, with a basketball in his hands, and then back still further to preschool, where he is finger-painting. The most hard-hitting ad links crime prevention and pre-kindergarten. Two policemen, one of them African-American, tell parents there's something they can do now that will help keep their children out of the back of the police car later on–send them to preschool. "That ad was controversial," recalls Joseph Munso, former acting director of the commission. "It's also the one that people remember most."

This media campaign has made a discernible difference. In a 2004 poll three out of four Californians agreed that making preschool available to all interested parents is an important priority, and by a similar margin they said the state should fund these schools. A majority sees preschool as a priority that must be addressed now, not postponed until the K-12 system is improved. And 83 percent of parents who have young children would send them to a good state-funded pre-kindergarten.

In 2001 the populace was evenly divided about whether enough was being done to help preschoolers; just two years later more than six in ten believed that big changes were needed. And while in 2001 more than half of all parents thought it was better for children to stay home full-time, in 2003 two-thirds were convinced that preschool was the better option. The leading Democratic candidates for governor have both endorsed the initiative. Those are promising signs for the preschool initiative.



Public Preschool and Beyond


If Californians do vote yes, Rob Reiner deserves much of the credit. For nearly a decade he has been a forceful advocate for young children as well as a savvy political coalition-builder. While Preschool California, an advocacy group, was organizing statewide meetings to test the idea of universal preschool, he brought together a diverse group to hammer out the critical details. Among those at the table were: investor Michael Milken, who believes that competition is the best way to assure quality; childcare providers, who needed assurances that they wouldn't be frozen out; and the teachers' union, eager to add new members. Whenever there were threats to back out, Reiner was able to persuade the parties to put aside their parochial interests and concentrate on the needs of the children.

The ballot proposition that emerged from those discussions can be read as a blueprint for a good, though financially constricted, preschool program that guarantees a first-rate half-day class for every 4-year-old. While there's no disputing that a full-day program open to 3- as well as 4-year-olds would be educationally better, the cost seemed prohibitive. The initiative specifies a "developmentally appropriate" curriculum and sets a maximum of twenty children in a classroom. Within ten years every preschool teacher must have a BA degree as well as an early-learning credential. That regimen tracks the research on what's needed for an education that benefits young kids.

Critics have complained that the state, which has been struggling since the dot-com bust to remain solvent, can't afford a universal program. But a recent RAND Corporation report suggests that it's a sound investment: The report estimates that universal preschool in California will generate $2.62 in benefits for every dollar that's spent, and that by the time the first class of preschoolers is entering high school the investment will begin to pay off.

The initiative specifies that the preschools will be paid for by a new, 1.7 percent income tax on individuals earning more than $400,000 and couples making more than $800,000 (a 2004 initiative requires that millionaires pay a similar tax for mental health programs). This soak-the-rich approach has generated opposition from editorial writers and policy analysts–though not from focus groups, notes Maryann O'Sullivan, the CEO of Preschool California. "They said, 'It's not me who's going to pay.'" Now the drive is under way to raise the millions of dollars needed for the campaign.

O'Sullivan finds cause to cheer in Californians' growing awareness of the importance of early-childhood education and the responsibility of society to make it accessible to everyone. Even though the state is often regarded as the epitome of anomie, she says, "somewhere we are a cohesive society. Somewhere we care commonly about one another, not just about our own kids."

"Universal pre-kindergarten has a massive impact on a kid's development," says Reiner. "It's also a fulcrum, a point of leverage. Get 4-year-olds into preschool and you have an opportunity to show their parents the link between education and health; to get them interested in what happens with younger children; to work with them on parenting skills and motivate them to demand a better public school system." That sounds like an agenda, not just for California but for the nation.