A commission that chooses how to spend tobacco-tax revenues in Los Angeles County is expected to decide next month whether to establish universal access to preschool across the county.
Filmmaker and actor Rob Reiner, who serves as the chairman of the state Children and Families Commission, led the campaign to win voter approval of the tobacco tax in 1998. Last month, he urged the nine-member Los Angeles County Proposition 10 Commission to adopt the far-reaching preschool plan and approve a proposal to provide medical-coverage to uninsured young children.
The commission was expected to vote this week on the medical coverage proposal.
If one of the largest counties in the country can offer such services, “imagine the groundswell this will create across the nation,” Mr. Reiner told the Los Angeles commission members at their June 13 meeting.
In an interview late last month, he said the commission has been “extraordinarily responsive” to his plans. Less than a week after he addressed the members, a planning committee met to discuss the proposals and recommended that a “work group” be created to formulate the actual details of the plans.
“This is an incredibly exciting time,” said Los Angeles commission member Beth Lowe. “We can’t let it pass.”
Ensuring that every young child in the county has health coverage and giving all children access to preschool—instead of limiting the program to needy families—would help define Proposition 10, Mr. Reiner said, and create a service that the public would demand and support in the future.
“It is our job to get public buy-in and to put out a bold program,” he told the commission.
Proposition 10, also known as the California Children and Families Act, instituted a 50-cent-per- pack cigarette tax and set up the state commission and 58 county commissions. The groups have been working since 1999, using revenues from the cigarette tax to fund improvements in prenatal services and programs for children from birth through age 5.
The Los Angeles commission, for example, is spending up to $50 million on a child-abuse-prevention project and more than $21 million to improve child-care quality, and is participating in a statewide effort to create model school-readiness programs.
Yet the average resident might still be unaware of what Proposition 10 is accomplishing, Karen Hill-Scott, a member of the state commission, told the Los Angeles commissioners.
“Because of Prop 10, we have more discretionary resources to invest in children than we’ve had in the last 50 years,” she said, but “if John Q. Public doesn’t know” where the money is going, the initiative won’t make much of a difference.
Mr. Reiner used his time at the June meeting to introduce broad principles without specifics.
But his spokesman, Ben Austin, said Mr. Reiner thinks the commission should use Proposition 10 funds to provide health coverage specifically to children from working-poor families whose parents earn too much to be eligible for Medicaid or Healthy Families, the state’s version of the federally funded Children’s Health Insurance Program.
And the preschool initiative, Mr. Austin said, would most likely begin with 4-year-olds, with cost estimates ranging from $70 million to $115 million a year.
As in other places that have launched universal preschool initiatives, such as Georgia and New York state, early-education services would likely be offered in existing preschool, Head Start, and child-care centers, including the homes of some family child-care providers, Mr. Reiner said. He added that he’s also committed to linking the program to child-care services for those families who don’t have other arrangements for the rest of the day.
‘A Bold Initiative’
One key challenge for the commissioners will be to decide whether providing preschool programs to 4- and possibly 3-year- olds in the future could shortchange infants and toddlers.
“At what point along the 0-to- 5 spectrum are we going to invest the bucks?” Zev Yaroslavsky, the chairman of the Los Angeles County panel, asked the other members of the local group.
But Dr. Neal Kaufman, a pediatrician and a Los Angeles commissioner, responded that spending money on preschool services could strengthen communities in general and “enhance the ability of families to meet the needs of children of various ages.”
Representatives from the child-care field who spoke at the June meeting were overwhelmingly positive about Mr. Reiner’s proposal.
“The early-care and -education field is in need of a bold initiative,” said Kathy Malaske-Samu, Los Angeles County’s child-care coordinator.
Another hurdle for the commissioners, if they decide to implement Mr. Reiner’s vision, would be deciding which government agency should manage the early-education initiative.
Roy Romer, the superintendent of the 737,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, and Caprice Young, the president of the district’s board, both voiced their support for Mr. Reiner’s ideas on universal preschool.
“You just need to start, and we’re there to start with you,” Ms. Young said.
Yet Mr. Romer said he doesn’t think the school district should assume complete authority over preschool, largely because of funding concerns.
If the commission moves toward creating a new system of providing preschool, it will mark the first time in several years that Los Angeles has seen growth in child-care-center or preschool capacity, according to new data compiled by Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank based at the University of California, Berkeley.
Statewide growth in spaces for children under age 6 at centers and preschools has been negligible, increasing from just 13 to 14 slots for every 100 children between 1996 and 2000. In Los Angeles, there was almost no growth during that time.
A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as L.A. Panel Set to Vote On Preschool-for-All Plan