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Panel Funds 'Universal' Preschool

A commission led by director Rob Reiner earmarks $100 million in Proposition 10 cigarette tax money to serve children under 5.

July 23, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The commission that distributes money collected under the Proposition 10 cigarette tax agreed Tuesday to use $100 million to begin providing preschool programs for the state's estimated 3.5 million children under age 5.

As the unanimous vote of the eight-member First 5 California Commission was announced, a crowd of preschool operators, children's activists, educators and other advocates broke into applause and whoops of approval.

"This is a dream come true," said Larry Aceves, superintendent of an ethnically mixed blue-collar school district in San Jose, as the commission signaled it was about to launch the first installment of its "preschool for all" enterprise.

Calling the allocation historic, commission Chairman Rob Reiner said it represented a "down payment" on what panel members hope will expand into a statewide program to reach children in every urban center and rural hamlet of California.

"When we say preschool for all, we mean preschool for all," said actor-director Reiner, who sponsored and campaigned for Proposition 10 in 1998. The ballot initiative imposed a tax of 50 cents on each pack of cigarettes sold in the state and ordered the proceeds to be spent exclusively on infant- and early-childhood-development programs.

Commission staff members said they believed that approval of the funds was the biggest such commitment by any state. The money will be appropriated over the next five to seven years.

Revenue from the tobacco tax, which by law is out of the reach of Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature, totals about $600 million a year. The commission is one of only a few agencies that is awash in money to give away when the rest of state government is threatened with cuts to cope with a worsening $38-billion budget shortfall.

The tobacco taxes flow to the state commission and 58 county commissions, which design and finance learning, socialization and other programs for young children before they tackle the rigors of kindergarten and elementary school.

Local "universal" preschool programs already have been launched in Los Angeles, San Mateo and Alpine counties. The Los Angeles commission last year committed $100 million to its program, a sum that is to be augmented by matching grants from the state commission.

Reiner said a state and local matching-fund formula will be devised soon. A commission spokesman said that a precise sum could not be forecast, but that Los Angeles County programs were expected to receive millions of dollars.

Commission members on Tuesday appeared to relish handing out huge sums of money. But commissioner Louis Vismara, father of an autistic child and national advocate for disabled and special needs children, insisted that an unspecified amount of the $100 million be earmarked for these children.

"The most vulnerable of our population, those with disabilities and special needs, must not and cannot be ignored," the retired Sacramento physician told the panel.

He said parents are repeatedly promised that their children will receive a fair share, but they rarely do.

To reassure Vismara that such children were specifically included, Reiner read aloud his motion to approve the funds, including a sentence directing that money be targeted at children with "disabilities and special needs."

Reiner and other backers of Proposition 10 said their plan was intended to correct a severe shortage in the government financing of early-childhood-development programs.

They argued that studies increasingly demonstrate that children's early exposure to their physical, social and developmental environments is critically important in whether they reach their highest potential as students and responsible citizens.

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