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Veteran Educator to Head County's Preschool Effort

Using $100 million in tobacco taxes, 10-year plan would offer free, full-day schooling for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

November 15, 2002|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

A veteran educator was appointed Thursday to head an ambitious plan to spend $100 million in tobacco taxes to provide universal preschool in Los Angeles County.

Karen Hill-Scott, co-founder of the Los Angeles child care agency Crystal Stairs, will be charged with implementing a 10-year project to provide free, full-day preschool to more than 100,000 3- and 4-year-olds in the county.

She was unanimously chosen by the county's First 5 Commission, which controls local funds generated by the statewide Proposition 10 for early-childhood programs.

Hill-Scott, 55, will be seeking to unite an often fractious assortment of community leaders, child care advocates, educators and parents to complete the project. Many experts said Scott has the political savvy and vision to succeed.

She is a member of the statewide First 5 Commission, named for its emphasis on children's first five years of life.

Hill-Scott is an ally of that commission's chairman, Rob Reiner, the filmmaker and children's advocate who first championed universal preschool in Los Angeles County and led the state campaign for Proposition 10.

Los Angeles County receives about $164 million each year from Proposition 10, although the money is expected to shrink as smoking declines.

The preschool initiative "will affect the life of every child in Los Angeles County," said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who is the county commission's chairman.

"It will be a model for the country, and I can think of no one better to design this program than Karen Hill-Scott, who has long been an innovator in the field of early education."

Hill-Scott has taught at UCLA, has been co-chairwoman of the California Department of Education's Universal Preschool Task Force and runs a consulting firm that helps corporations design child development programs.

She said her goal over the next 10 months is to create a high-quality system that will be easy for parents to negotiate.

"I'm hoping to put a lot of focus on how the end users -- parents and children -- experience the system," said Hill-Scott, who has four grown children and five grandchildren younger than 4 and who experienced the difficulties of finding preschools for them.

"This planning process is a big part of that. Most people see implementation as the kids going to school, but they don't want to see chaos when they get there."

Under the commission's initial plans, existing preschool programs such as Head Start would be expanded from half days to full days, child care providers would be trained to become preschool instructors, new centers would be built and needy families could receive other social services. The program would be free, regardless of family income, and eventually younger children would be included.

In other action, the county's First 5 Commission chose the L.A. Care Health Plan to administer its equally ambitious $100-million Healthy Kids program, a health insurance plan targeting low-income children who do not qualify for Medi-Cal, Healthy Families or other forms of government health insurance.

Healthy Kids will provide outpatient, hospital, dental, vision and prescription coverage to children whose families earn as much as 300% of the federal poverty level and will accept children regardless of immigration status. Earnings at 300% of the poverty level amount to about $54,000 for a family of four.

The county's First 5 Commission has committed $100 million over five years to help enroll children to age 5, and hopes to find additional partners to insure children 6 to 18 years old.

L.A. Care is a nonprofit, publicly governed HMO that already serves more than 800,000 Los Angeles County residents who receive Medi-Cal and Healthy Families coverage.

The new insurance program hopes to begin enrolling children by spring, and patients will be able to use an existing network of county clinics and private community clinics, said Chief Executive Howard A. Kahn.

"For the first time, if you're low-income or poor and you've got young kids, we'll figure out with you which health programs your kids are eligible for -- not if your kids are eligible," he said. "That's the big change -- to be able to provide some continuity."

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