Preschool Blues

PRESCHOOL BLUES….E.J. Dionne surveys the defeat of a recent ballot initiative to fund universal preschool in California and concludes that liberals need to face the fact that the public remains deeply skeptical of big government programs:

Progressives have a lot to think about. For one thing, there remains a deep skepticism about government spending, even for the best purposes. On the same day the two propositions went down, voters in five California counties rejected sales tax increases, mostly to fund transportation projects. Attacks on tax-and-spend sound old and tired, but they still have force.

….It gives me no joy to say these things, since I wish both California propositions had passed. But realism is not the enemy of idealism, and taxpayers aren’t being selfish when they place a heavy burden on those who would ask them to part with some of their money. Advocates of public action need to meet that test.

I said something similar yesterday, but I want to offer a slightly different take anyway.

Dionne mentions several reasons the initiative might have failed (the wealthy bankrolled plenty of opposition, Californians are suffering from initiative fatigue, and preschool supporter Rob Reiner got caught up in a messy mini-scandal), but I think he might have missed a couple of dynamics that weren’t entirely clear from 3,000 miles away.

First, California’s fiscal problems are truly gargantuan, and everyone in the state understands this deep in their guts. This problem won’t last forever (I hope), but for now any major spending proposal faces even higher than usual skepticism.

Second, Californians are really, really suffering from initiative fatigue. I’ve routinely voted against ballot initiatives for years, and it looks like my view is finally becoming much more mainstream. As near as I can tell, it’s almost flatly impossible to pass a major initiative these days if there’s any kind of serious opposition.

Third, the opposition to Prop 82 didn’t really revolve around demonizing of higher taxes. Rather, the television ads and flyers pounded relentlessly on the idea of creating a “new preschool bureaucracy.” I suspect that this resonated pretty strongly with voters, who have practically given up on the ability of state government to tackle even modest problems these days. Believe me, the gridlock in Sacramento makes Washington DC look like a model of Swiss efficiency.

Fourth ? and this is strictly anecdotal ? I ran into a fair number of people who were convinced that the whole thing was just a giant pander to the teachers union (Prop 82 required preschool instructors to be credentialed and paid at the same level as K-12 teachers). I may be off base on this, but I have a feeling that this might have been an underlying cause for a substantial part of the opposition.

These are all just details, of course, and basically Dionne is right. Californians ? liberals included ? see a state that’s become largely dysfunctional combined with big-city school districts that are worse than dysfunctional. The idea of pumping money into a new education program while old ones still aren’t working just wasn’t going to fly. State government needs to work tolerably well in order for people to support funding more of it.