S.F. Ballot Measure Would Prohibit Cuts in Children’s Services

By Deborah L. Cohen — October 23, 1991 5 min read

A ballot measure to be decided by San Francisco voters Nov. 5 would guarantee a set level of funding for children’s services and generate additional money for such services through property-tax revenues.

The measure, which observers believe would be the first of its kind adopted by a U.S. city or state, is designed to “insulate” children from a budget process in which they have no voice, according to its backers.

Advocates say the amendment to the City charter would help San Francisco bridge gaps in children’s services that are being reported nationwide, ranging from inadequate prenatal care for mothers and health insurance for children to a shortage of child care and a backlog of child-abuse cases.

While San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children of any major city in the nation, statistics indicate that its children are more likely to be removed from their homes than youths anywhere else in the state, and that the rate of sexually transmitted diseases among its teenagers is 10 times the national average.

Because children do not vote or lobby, they “are the most popular constituency in terms of rhetoric and the least popular in terms of resources,” said Margaret Brodkin, executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, a local group that spearheaded the campaign to place the measure on the ballot.

“Children simply can’t compete with adult special interests when it comes to getting their fair share in the budget process,” she said. Coleman Advocates decided to take a new tack, Ms. Brodkin said, after it failed for four years, “using the traditional political and budget process,” to garner support for a so-called “children’s budget.”

The group decided to take the issue directly to voters, she added, “because the political process rewards the constituencies that the politicians believe they owe-they don’t want to waste political chits on a constituency they think has no political clout.”

Reductions Barred

The measure would amend the city charter to bar any reduction in children’s services below their current base-now estimated at from $75 million to $100 million-for the next 10 years.

In addition, it would dedicate 2.5 percent of existing property-tax revenues- raising an estimated $6 million the first year and about $13 million the second year-to new and existing children’s programs.

Three-quarters of the funds raised under the measure would be equally divided among child care, job training for youths, and health and social services for children, while the remaining portion would support child-related services such as recreation and libraries.

According to Coleman Advocates, the measure would help subsidize child care for about 1,000 additional children; establish mental-health and family-support centers to help prevent child abuse; provide prenatal care for all expectant mothers now without care; expand AIDS prevention and school-based health care; and offer job training for 1,500 youths.

The measure’s backers include more than 60 children’s and youths’ groups, clubs, charities, unions, and advocacy groups as diverse as the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club, the United Latin American Political Association, and the Green Party of California.

The petition drive to place the measure on the ballot garnered 67,000 signatures-well beyond the number needed to qualify-and an August poll of 600 registered voters by the San Francisco Chronicle indicated that 75 percent of those polled supported the proposal.

Hindrance to Flexibility?

Groups in opposition, however, say earmarking funds for a particular set of programs would rob the city of the flexibility it needs to address pressing problems as they arise.

If funding for children’s programs were “frozen 10 the budget,” said Chris Bowman, a spokesman for the San Francisco Republican Party, “it means that if there is a shortfall; basically funding has to come out of other programs, and we don’t think that’s appropriate.”

He also cited the need to address other crises, such as homelessness and AIDS.

“It makes it difficult for the city to respond to a need that may come up,” said Carol Piasente, a spokesman for the city’s chamber of commerce.

“The proposed initiative will seriously impact the city’s ability to react to changing civic needs and to balance future budgets,” a statement from the chamber concluded. But supporters say the measure could serve as a national model.

“I’m really pleased to see this movement spreading,” said Jule M. Sugarman, who recently launched the Center for Effective Services for Children, based in Washington.

Mr. Sugarman, one of the founders of Head Start, has long argued that an earmarked trust fund-financed in large part through a new tax source-is the only way to ensure a stable, sustainable funding source for children’s programs.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, introduced a bill last spring that would establish such a fund at the federal level, but he conceded that enactment could be years away. (See Education Week, May 22,1991.)

A statewide initiative that would have guaranteed a certain amount of funding for children’s services in Washington State was unsuccessful a few years ago. Last year, however, Seattle voters approved a new property- tax levy raising $8.5 million a year for seven years to support a wide range of school and community programs for children and families.

But the Seattle plan does not shelter children’s services from cuts as does the San Francisco measure. If the amendment passes, San Francisco officials will have 90 days to submit to the city’s board of supervisors a plan for how to allocate the monies.

Mayor Art Agnos, who supports the measure, has launched discussions with a wide range of experts to help set priorities, said Rita Boyle, director of the Mayor’s office of children, youth, and families.

City officials also hope to use the planning process to coordinate children’s services more effectively.

The measure, Ms. Boyle said, would create “some fiscal incentive for various agencies to collaborate with each other and better integrate their services.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 1991 edition of Education Week