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Preschool ballot measure: Will it be a test?

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KAI RYSSDAL: Tuesday's election day for voters in 8 states. From South Dakota down to Alabama. There are primaries for gubenatorial races. House and Senate seats. And loads of ballot measures. Here in California we've got two of them. Including Proposition 82. Funding for universal pre-school. It's controversial. It isn't cheap. And it's being watched closely. From our Work and Family Desk, Apryl Lundsten has the story.


PROPOPSITION 82 AD: You know the best way to help our kids do better in school? Get them ready to learn with preschool. Prop 82 means quality preschool for every four year old.

APRYL LUNDSTEN: That's an ad to vote Yes on California's Prop 82. The measure is probably best known for one of its main endorsers, actor-director Rob Reiner. What 82 proposes is quality universal preschool for every 4-year-old in California. What the ad doesn't say is "quality preschool" costs big bucks.

BILL HOAK: We're talking about $2.5 billion. That's a lot of money.

Bill Hoak is president of the California Business Roundtable and he's campaigning against Prop 82. He says his group isn't against preschool. The problem with Prop 82 is its plan to get those billions of dollars by taxing the wealthy.

HOAK: They are relying on the most volatile source of revenue. The income tax is very volatile because we go through economic cycles, and economic cycles go up and they go down.

But one thing is consistent. Many states have an increased interest in preschool because they believe it better prepares kids for school and life beyond. Missouri, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Georgia and Oklahoma are starting up universal pre-K programs. Last year, states spent $600 million to add spaces for 120,000 more children. How are these states paying for it? Various ways.

CLIVE BELFIELD: The Georgia program is run through a single agency. And that is funded through a lottery in Georgia. And then there is the Oklahoma system which is run through the K-12 education system.

That's Clive Belfield, economics expert for Pre-K Now - an education advocacy group. He says Arkansas and Missouri use "sin taxes" to fund pre-K. In Arkansas that means a tax on beer. And in Missouri, that means using revenue from gaming. He says these funding methods aren't ideal.

BELFIELD: They are taxes on relatively low-income groups.

Belfield says California's approach is fairer.

BELFIELD: It's progressive: it's taxing those who have the higher ability to pay at a proportionally higher rate.

In California that could add up to a lot of dough.

KAREN HILL-SCOTT: Twenty-one percent of the billionaires in this country live in L.A. County.

Karen Hill-Scott is an education consultant and one of the drafters of Prop 82. She says the Prop 82 funding plan just makes sense for California.

HILL-SCOTT: This income tax restores a rate that was established by Reagan and Wilson when they were governors of the state.

Vote No on Prop 82's Hoak says a special tax on the wealthy could hurt economic growth. But Pre-K expert Clive Belfield says if voters approve this proposition, other states may follow suit and for good reason.

BELFIELD: There is a reasonable consensus that for every dollar that you invest in pre-schooling, you will get at least one dollar fifty, possibly three dollars back from a universal program.

He says that's money saved because children who attend preschool have less need for special education, are less likely to be held back in school, and are more likely to stay out of jail. All big-ticket services.

In Los Angeles, I'm Apryl Lundsten for Marketplace.

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