Members of the Los Angeles County Children and Families Commission expect to have a blueprint by fall for implementing a new preschool initiative. And by spring or summer of 2004, it’s possible that pilot programs will begin serving children.
“I would like to see an early launch begin in the first or second quarter of next year,” Karen Hill-Scott, a Los Angeles-based child-development expert and the chief consultant to the commission’s Universal Access to Preschool Initiative, said to reporters during a recent conference call. “But the worst thing that could happen to us is to trip all over our own feet as we rush to do something tangible. We want it to be meaningful.”
Last summer, the commission—which administers the county’s share of tobacco-tax revenues dedicated to such services under a state ballot measure—committed $100 million toward expanding early-childhood education for all 3- to 5-year-olds in the county and working to craft a 10-year plan for serving all children from birth through age 5. (“L.A. Preschool Plan Draws Attention,” Sept. 4, 2002.)
Since then, an advisory panel of roughly 100 people has been meeting once a month to develop the new preschool system’s various parts, covering such aspects as program standards, research, and financing, Ms. Hill-Scott said.
“We are moving at a speed that other states tell us is quite accelerated,” said Teresa Nuno, the Los Angeles commission’s director of programs and planning. She added that next year’s launch would include activities intended to build public awareness about the new services. And she said that the initial spending would most likely go toward expanding existing high-quality preschool programs to serve more children.
Need for Identity
Officials estimate that roughly 100,000 Los Angeles children in the relevant age span are not participating in preschool now, and that many more are in programs of poor quality. When the program is implemented, it’s likely that the county will be serving more preschoolers than most states do through their publicly financed pre-K programs.
The challenge for the commission is to decide how the system will be managed over time and how to give it a “clear identity” that doesn’t make it seem like just another source of money, said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
He mentioned, as an example, Georgia’s Office for School Readiness, which controls funding for a variety of early-childhood programs, including that state’s lottery-financed pre-K program, and sets standards for providers that want to participate.
“The commission has this huge task of getting a lot of players under this same umbrella,” Mr. Fuller said.
As the Los Angeles County panel moves forward, efforts to significantly expand preschool programs are also building at the state level.
Last month, the education committee of the California Assembly, the legislature’s lower house, passed a measure that would set up a statewide system of school-readiness centers. The bill would also establish universal access to health and developmental screenings for young children, beginning in communities with low-performing schools and expanding across the state by 2014.
Sponsors of the bill are in no hurry to get it passed this year, however. Their intent is for it to move slowly through the two-year legislative process so that support for the concept of a statewide preschool system can build.
“While we know the costs and challenges are daunting, we know from the research that this is the right thing to do,” Jane I. Henderson, the executive director of the California Children and Families Commission, said during the April 23 press briefing at which Ms. Hill-Scott spoke.
Support for the movement is also coming from the private sector. Late last year, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, based in Palo Alto, Calif., announced it would commit more than $7 million of its $18 million “children, families, and communities” budget to building public awareness of universal preschool and awarding grants for the construction of early-education facilities.
Foundation president Richard T. Schlosberg III, who also took part in the press conference, said that the present might appear to be an unlikely time to call for increased spending on programs for young children. He noted that the state is facing a $35 billion deficit through the rest of this fiscal year and the next fiscal year, on an annual budget of about $80 million, and that “child care is on the chopping block.”
“But we believe that it’s important to lay the groundwork now, for when the economy is likely to be better,” he said.
Of all 50 states, California ranks fifth from the bottom in the percentage of children enrolled in either public or private preschool, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. About half the state’s 1 million 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool programs, compared with a national average of 64 percent.
Yet advocates for early education point to a growing body of research indicating a high-quality preschool experience not only prepares a youngster for school, but also brings society a return on its investment, several times over.
At last month’s biennial conference of the Society for Research in Child Development, researchers representing three independent and long-running studies on early-childhood programs gathered to present cost-benefit data demonstrating that money spent on preschool can lead to a wide range of positive outcomes.
For example, compared with people who hadn’t attended preschool, participants in the programs were found to be less likely in later life to require special education services, go on welfare, or be arrested for a violent crime. Preschool alumni, the researchers found, also earn more money over their lifetimes than their peers who didn’t attend.
The programs studied were the High/Scope Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich., the Carolina Abecedarian preschool program in Chapel Hill, N.C., and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers.
Aid From Initiative
In addition to the Los Angeles County effort, other local commissions across California are identifying preschool as a top priority for funds under Proposition 10, a ballot initiative passed by California citizens in 1998. The measure, spearheaded by the actor-director Rob Reiner, uses a 50-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes to help pay for health, education, and other services for children from birth through age 5.
In San Mateo County, just south of San Francisco, for example, the children and families commission plans to allocate $1 million each year for the next 10 years toward expanding access to preschool—first for 4-year-olds and then for 3-year-olds.
Lois Salisbury, the director of the children, families, and communities program at the Packard Foundation, sees more local commissions taking a similar tack.
“I’m quite sure,” she said, “there will be some other major counties coming on line soon.”