The high cost of preschool

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And you thought college tuition was the most extortionate expense associated with child rearing. Think again. USA Today reports that daycare costs are rising so quickly, sticker-shocked parents are comparing preschool with the cost of a second mortgage. In some cities, day-care centers (not private nannies, remember, but a supposedly less-expensive alternative) charge almost $2,000 per month.

That from research by National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, which also shows that in Massachusetts, the average annual cost of preschool care hovers perilously close to $10,000. Nationwide, for the parents of the nearly 12 million children under 5 who spend at least some time in child care, the average costs range from $3,803 to $13,480 per year. The newspaper cites data that show that "the average cost of part-time private preschool and child-care programs in every California county exceeds the cost of full-time California state university tuition, according to a report by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California, a Washington-based organization of law enforcement leaders. "

The burden falls most heavily on single parents, with some spending more than 40 percent of income on preschool care. Again, we're talkin' preschool and child care here, not private school tuition or Mary Poppins-like (i.e., professional) nannies. Some parents are forced to relocate for better-paying jobs or to places where child care is cheaper. Others are switching to jobs with subsidized care or picking up extra work. If that's not effective birth control, what is?

One might think Mount Whitney-size child-care bills would unite a populace to support government-subsidized care. Not in California. Universal preschool is highly controversial in this state. In June, Californians will vote on Proposition 82, or the Preschool for All program.

If approved, the law would levy a 1.7 percent tax on individuals earning more than $400,000 or couples earning more than $800,000 annually to pay for free prekindergarten for all the state's 4-year-olds. But not everyone is lining up behind Rob Reiner, the actor/director and would-be politician who spawned the idea.

The überconservative religious group, Focus on the Family, is running radio ads to gin up anti-Prop 82 sentiment. The group writes on its California chapter Web site: "Preschool for All will reduce preschool choices for California families. Government-run programs are never as efficient as privately run programs. And not all private preschool teachers are in favor of such an effort for several reasons. For example, after attending a Preschool for All conference, one private provider told this writer, 'I was appalled. Instead of the $20 a day I now charge, it would cost $40 per day. It's just crazy.' "