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Los Angeles

Reiner Says Cigarette Tax Could Fund Preschools

June 14, 2002|EVELYN LARRUBIA and CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Four years after he led the successful campaign to hike cigarette taxes to fund programs for California children, Rob Reiner on Thursday proposed using a chunk of those funds to make preschool available to all 3- and 4-year-olds in Los Angeles County.

The actor and movie director also advocated using funds from Proposition 10, the statewide smoking tax increase he advocated, to provide health care insurance for undocumented and low-income children not covered by other subsidized programs.

Reiner's staff estimated that his ideas would cost between $95 million and $140 million a year from the money generated by the 50-cent-per-pack tax approved by voters in 1998. He says those costs can be easily covered by the $165 million allocated yearly for Los Angeles County under Proposition 10. Statewide, about $700 million is generated annually.

"When I envisioned Prop. 10, I had a simple goal--to create a broad, bold program that touches the life of every young child in California," Reiner, 54, told the Children and Families First Proposition 10 Commission at its meeting Thursday in downtown Los Angeles.

That local group, which has the sole authority to spend the money for Los Angeles County, approved Reiner's plan in principle and asked its staff and its planning committee to develop details of how such an ambitious concept could become reality.

Reiner, who heads the state group overseeing the Proposition 10 program, has never before asked any of the autonomous county boards to take on a particular mission, according to his staff. He advocated that full-day preschool be made available to all Los Angeles County youngsters whose families want it, regardless of income. Such programs would stress early reading and math skills and mainly use existing child-care centers in both the private and public sectors.

He offered few other details but suggested that the program start slowly in targeted areas, where the need is greatest. Reiner's idea won support from many local child advocates who stress the shortage of quality child care and early education. But not all child development experts agree that universal preschool is the answer, and some officials are worried that it might be too ambitious to sustain.

The proposal would put Los Angeles County and California at the forefront of an idea that is gaining attention nationwide.

Georgia and Oklahoma are the only states to fund broadly based access to preschool, according to education experts. Georgia's lottery-financed program is available to any family and has enrolled more than 70% of the state's preschoolers.

"It's an idea with a great potential to be a model for other counties throughout the state and nationwide," Amy Dominguez-Arms, vice president for the California child advocacy group Children Now, said in a telephone interview. Caprice Young, president of the Los Angeles Unified School District board, spoke at Thursday's meeting.

"The bottom line for us is, you just need to start and we'll start with you," she said. Although the overcrowded district's current schools don't have space for expanding programs, the district would provide room in any elementary schools it builds and would also help design programs.

A statewide study released this month by UC Berkeley found at least 100,000 preschool-aged children in Los Angeles County on waiting lists for subsidized child care.

In 2000, there was room for only 15 out of 100 children in Los Angeles County in any day care and preschool programs. That represented an increase of only one slot over four years.

Some officials said they are concerned about taking on such an expensive program.

"We are not government, per se. I hope that we do not become the provider of health care or preschool," said Zev Yaroslavsky, who as chairman of the county Board of Supervisors also serves as the Proposition 10 commission chairman.

The commission already was working on the concept of health coverage for those children from low-income families who don't already qualify for other programs. Reiner's staff said his health plan would cost between $11 million and $25 million at its peak.

Reiner said his ideas were meant to give voters something concrete from Proposition 10. It is intended as "a bold program that the public can understand."

Many experts say participation in preschool programs with trained staff can contribute to early learning and social development.

However, not everyone agrees it is that crucial. Although he had not seen the Los Angeles proposal, David Salisbury, director of the Center for Education Freedom at the Cato Institute, said such programs provide few long-term benefits to children.

"The problem with the education system is not occurring in the early grades where children enter school ready to learn," said Salisbury. "It is not until middle school or high school that performance declines. It's the later grades where schools are not being effective, and I argue that officials ought to be fixing the problems where they occur."

Salisbury argued that the child-care industry would benefit from expanding preschool access in Los Angeles.

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