Preschools to Receive $100 Million
Preschools to Receive $100 Million
Revenue: County panel will use tobacco taxes to create a system, enroll 100,000 children
A commission voted Thursday to spend $100 million in tobacco tax money on a broad-based system of all-day preschools that would be free for all Los Angeles County toddlers.
The five-year initiative, one of the largest of its kind nationally, could begin enrolling participants within six months to a year.
It would initially benefit as many as 100,000 children now on the waiting list for subsidized preschool slots, and eventually could enroll another 100,000 or more.
"This is a revolutionary and extraordinary undertaking," said Rob Reiner, the filmmaker and advocate for children who spearheaded the state tobacco tax. "We are not only giving children a better chance to succeed in school but in life. We are going to be able to cut crime and create a stronger economy as a result of what we give these children early on."
The initiative initially will target 3- and 4-year-olds and seek to dramatically expand existing services, including Head Start programs, child-care centers and home-based family child care. Later, younger children will be included and new facilities built.
The plan represents one of the biggest initiatives to date for the Los Angeles County Children and Families First Commission, which was established in 1998 to oversee Proposition 10 tobacco tax revenues.
The nine-member panel acknowledged the tremendous challenge posed by the preschool plan, but it said the dramatic effort to improve the readiness of children entering school is exactly what Proposition 10 was designed for.
This system "has been lacking not only in Los Angeles County but in the rest of the country," said Commissioner Marvin Southard, who is director of the county Department of Mental Health.
The preschool plan was praised by child care advocates as a bold move that could make the county a national model in early childhood education.
Caprice Young, president of the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education, told the commissioners that local educators would do everything they could to make the plan work.
The school board has already voted to place an $80-million bond measure on the November ballot to be used to build early childhood education programs.
"We felt it was so important for us to get ahead of the curve and ... provide the facilities so that all of this can happen," Young said.
At first the preschool initiative will target low-income children eligible for subsidized care, and will expand half-day programs to a full day. The commission also will seek to improve the quality of all programs, stressing reading and math skills.
In time, the initiative will open slots to middle-income families who otherwise might not be able to afford them and will establish a credentialing program for preschool teachers.
Commissioners stressed that in the long run, the plan is intended to provide enhanced child care for infants too, regardless of family income.
Tanya Lopez, a mother of two whose son was on a waiting list for a year before he landed a spot, hopes the initiative means her 1- year-old daughter won't have to wait as long.
"If parents don't have to worry about finding someplace for their children, or the quality of the centers, it's a great thing," said Lopez, who is on a parents committee at her son's preschool, Children's Institute International.
The initiative is the second major commitment of money approved by the commission. Last month, the panel approved a five-year, $100-million plan to provide health-care coverage for low-income children who are not covered by other subsidized programs.
The states of Georgia and Oklahoma are the only other jurisdictions to fund broad-based access to preschool, according to education experts. Georgia's lottery-financed program is free to any family and has enrolled about 70% of the state's preschoolers.
Commissioners hope to enroll about the same percentage of Los Angeles County's nearly 300,000 3- and 4-year-olds.
The vote capped an intensive campaign to enlist the support of child-care and preschool providers, community leaders, educators and public officials. Reiner had broached the idea of universal preschool in Los Angeles County only within the last few months.
He was motivated by a sense of urgency, knowing that as smoking decreases, revenues generated by the tobacco tax will decline as well. He argued that the concept of providing an enriching environment for young children and relief for working parents was something the public could readily grasp and would support even when tobacco funds ran out.
Proposition 10, also known as the California Children and Families First Act, was approved by voters in 1998. It levies a 50-cent per pack tax on cigarettes.
The proposition established a statewide commission and 58 local county commissions to oversee the tax revenues. Los Angeles County, which has sole discretion over how to spend its portion, received about $164 million this year. Statewide, about $700 million is generated each year.
Twenty percent of the overall revenue goes to the state commission for technical assistance to counties and for research into the best ways to aid child development.
The bulk of Proposition 10 fundsó80%ógo to the county commissions, which must develop strategies on providing services for young children. Members of each commission are appointed by the county Board of Supervisors.
Counties have discretion to use funds to meet local needs, as long as they meet the overall aim of fostering early childhood development. Santa Clara, San Francisco and a few other counties have used the taxes to fund health measures similar to that recently adopted in Los Angeles County.
Since the money started flowing in late 2000, Los Angeles County has received about $550 million from the state commission. With the preschool and health-care initiatives, most of that money has been allocated.