Preschool campaign heats up with first TV ads |

Preschool campaign heats up with first TV ads

SACRAMENTO (AP) – Opponents and supporters of a June ballot initiative to provide preschool for all 4-year-olds are embarking on a media blitz this week, as polls show voters divided over the measure with the election just three weeks away.

The Yes on 82 campaign began airing an ad Monday featuring Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, while a statewide advertising campaign sponsored by the No on 82 committee was set to launch Tuesday.

Noticeably absent from the supporters’ campaign is been Hollywood director Rob Reiner, a longtime preschool supporter who launched the initiative last year.

Reiner was forced to step down in March as head of the First 5 coalition, a taxpayer-subsidized statewide early education program, after questions were raised about whether the group violated campaign laws. The questions revolved around First 5 commercials supporting the preschool initiative just before the Yes on 82 campaign secured enough signatures for the ballot.

“It looks like the controversy over the First 5 funding has dramatically changed the way this campaign is being run,” said Dan Schnur, a Republican campaign consultant who is not affiliated with either preschool campaign. “It’s got to be very difficult for (Reiner) to sit this out, particularly after having been so high-profile.”

The campaign declined a request from The Associated Press to speak with Reiner.

With their Hollywood insider out, the campaign has sought other big names, such as Villaraigosa and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

In the most recent poll, conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in April, about 51 percent of likely voters said they support Proposition 82, with 40 percent opposed. The sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points. In February, about 55 percent of voters supported the initiative, with 34 percent opposed.

The initiative would make universal preschool available to all 4-year-olds whose parents want it by raising income taxes 1.7 percent on individual incomes over $400,000 or couples’ incomes over $800,000. It would raise an estimated $2.4 billion a year.

With limited campaign funding available ahead of the November general election races, both sides may have decided to save their spending until just before the election so it would have more effect, said Kareem Crayton, a professor of law and politics at the University of Southern California law school.

He said other topics, such as immigration and the war in Iraq, have dominated headlines for months, making it tougher for preschool backers to get their message out.

“Both of those stories are very difficult to upend, when you’re talking about getting the public’s attention,” Crayton said.

Starting Monday, the Yes on 82 campaign began running three 30-second spots. One statewide ad features a teacher of the year who says she can always tell which students have gone to good preschool, because they “read better and learn faster” than their peers.

The others are virtually the same, one in English and one in Spanish, narrated by Villaraigosa and airing in the Los Angeles market. He says all children should have the chance to attend a high-quality preschool with certified teachers.

The No on 82 commercial begins with ominous music and features an authoritative figure walking down a hallway and parents at a school. Parents complain the initiative would create a costly new bureaucracy and could even include a “parent tax.”

Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the No on 82 campaign, said that refers to a portion of the measure that would allow legislators to decide what to do if the program ever fell short of funding in the future. One of the options available would be to charge a fee for preschool, she said.

The initiative also has a built-in fund that would have money funneled to it even before the program launches in 2010.

Supporters and opponents have offered differing figures on the number of children who would benefit from the program. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, about 62 percent of California 4-year-olds currently attend some kind of preschool program, although some are more akin to day-care centers.

Both campaigns declined to say how much they are spending on the ad buys.

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