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Published in Print: September 4, 2002, as L.A. Preschool Plan Draws Attention

L.A. Preschool Plan Draws Attention

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A recently approved plan to spend $100 million over the next five years to make preschool more widely available to youngsters in Los Angeles County is being touted as a national model.

And experts say similar early-childhood initiatives and proposals in other metropolitan areas may be a signal that support is growing for publicly financed preschool programs.

The nine-member Los Angeles Proposition 10 Commission, the body that decides how to spend state tobacco-tax revenues collected in the county, voted unanimously last month to approve the allocation. The commission has now entered a six- to 12-month planning period to work out the details.

"This is exactly what Prop 10 was designed to do," the actor and filmmaker Rob Reiner, who led the campaign to win state voters' approval of the tobacco-tax measure in 1998, told the commissioners. "This is a historic day for the children, not only of L.A. County, but of the country. This is going to be the model."

Instead of building a new program from scratch, the initial plan is to use the money to help existing preschool services—such as Head Start and California's state preschool program—enroll more poor children who are eligible, but are not currently being served. The money will also be used to expand services provided by nonprofit agencies and to secure full-day preschool services for families that need them.

Beyond Los Angeles

Although the plan will first target children who are eligible for subsidized services, the commission's intent is to work toward offering early care and education services to all children in Los Angeles County, from birth to age 5. The county has 81 different school districts, and local officials estimate there are about 100,000 3 and 4-year-olds in the county who are not receiving preschool services.

"There seems to be a trend of cities taking this into their own hands," said Anne Mitchell, an early- education consultant and expert on the growth of prekindergarten programs nationwide. She is the founder of Early Childhood Policy Research, a Climax, N.Y.-based consulting group.

While Los Angeles County is unusual in that its preschool initiative will eventually focus on all children under 5, it's not the only major area that is working to make preschool available to more children.

Residents in Florida's Miami-Dade County, for example, will vote next week on whether to approve a new property tax that would be used to finance programs for children. The tax, if approved, would bring in roughly $60 million a year, and half of that would be used for child-development and school- readiness programs for children from birth to age 5.

In Houston, the Greater Houston Collaborative for Children, a project involving business leaders, government representatives, and service providers, is working with the Center for Houston's Future—a group led by business leaders—to design a plan for expanding preschool programs for all children throughout the Houston region. The initiative has been under way for about six months.

While no specific source of funding has been identified, organizers of the Houston project say they first want to help existing preschool providers pull together money they might not know is available.

"We're looking at how we can maximize current resources," said Todd C. Litton, who is heading the early-childhood effort.

Special committees, he added, are also working to determine how many preschool-age children in the Houston area need services, reviewing child- development research, and discussing ways to involve child-care providers, Head Start centers, and local school districts.

Reiner's Lobbying Pays Off

The vote by Los Angeles County's Proposition 10 panel came just two months after Mr. Reiner urged the members to take such a bold step. ("L.A. Panel Set to Vote on Preschool-for-All Plan," July 10, 2002.) And it came just one month after the commission voted to spend another $100 million over five years to provide health insurance coverage to young children in the county living in families that earn up to three times the federal poverty rate.

The commissioners' buy-in to the preschool plan, however, did not come without last- minute lobbying by Mr. Reiner, who serves as the chairman of First 5 California, the new name for the statewide Children and Families Commission.

Some members of the Los Angeles County panel were not sold on the plan until the proposal also gave attention to the needs of infants and toddlers. When the panel first openly discussed the topic of "universal" preschool in June, some members were worried that younger children were being ignored.

As a result, the plan that was approved by the Proposition 10 commission states that one of the objectives of the county's initiative is "to improve the quality of preschool and early-childhood-development programs and early learning experiences for children birth to 5 starting with 3- to 5-year- olds."

The plan has support from many representatives of the county's child- care community.

"Rob did his homework to involve the different preschool and child-care constituencies," said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "He showed a lot of skill and a lot of patience."

Lingering Concerns

But some family child-care and faith- based providers say they are not yet convinced that the new initiative—and efforts to improve wages—will include them.

"We want inclusion. We want a broad base and the funding to support it," Joanne Shalhoub-Mejia, the president of the county's Hispanic Providers Association, said in a press release.

Leaders of the 737,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, who won't be in charge of the new preschool classes but have said they will work in partnership with the commission, have also expressed strong support.

In fact, the district's school board has set aside $80 million specifically for early-childhood-education facilities in the $3.35 billion school bond that is on the Nov. 5 ballot.

"Our goal in Los Angeles is to close the achievement gap," Caprice Young, the president of the city's school board told the Proposition 10 commissioners. "We have to make sure there isn't an educational gap at the beginning."

The Long-Term Goal

As Los Angeles County moves forward with its initiative, experts on early-childhood policy say it will be important to build something that will be sustained in the future, regardless of what happens to the 50-cent per pack cigarette tax, which generates about $650 million statewide each year.

"I hope this doesn't dissipate into spreading some money around and not inventing a system," said Karen Hill-Scott, a member of the statewide commission.

Mr. Fuller added that the Los Angeles Proposition 10 commissioners also need to think about ways to attract Latino and Asian-American families into the programs.

"I have this nagging worry that we'll build more centers and the parents won't come," he said.

Mr. Fuller also pointed out that the early-childhood workforce, which is primarily made up of white and African-American women, needs to be transformed to reflect the diversity of the community.

Vol. 22, Issue 1, Pages 1,16

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