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$500 Million Is Committed to Preschools

An L.A. County panel will use tobacco tax funds to create a system that eventually would seek to enroll more than 150,000 4-year-olds.

October 10, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles County commission on Thursday voted to spend $500 million in tobacco tax money over the next five years to launch an ambitious system of preschools that could begin enrolling students early next year.

The vote fulfills a commitment made more than a year ago by the county's First 5 Commission for a broad-based preschool program. The decision came despite misgivings by some members that the huge outlay would leave little money for youngsters' health care and programs for newborns.

Although the commission already had committed $100 million to the preschool plan, proponents said the bigger long-range funding commitment was necessary to fully implement a full-day system that eventually would seek to enroll more than 150,000 4-year-olds.

The funding will allow planners to move forward with building new facilities in communities with the greatest need and help to speed the expansion of existing preschools. Money will be available to public and private preschools.

"This makes a huge difference in moving forward. It means we can start thinking about the team of people we need in order to create the system, and we can hire them," said Karen Hill-Scott, a veteran educator who was hired to direct the planning process.

Hill-Scott said a draft plan is scheduled to be completed by mid-November and an official launch is set for next September. However, students could begin enrolling in some test programs soon after the beginning of the year, she said.

Filmmaker and child advocate Rob Reiner, who is chairman of the statewide First 5 Commission and has championed universal preschool, said he was thrilled.

"It does what we needed to do, and we feel comfortable with that," he said after the vote.

Though other government agencies are struggling with shortfalls, the First 5 Commission has ample tobacco tax funds provided via Proposition 10 for the health and education of children during their first five years.

Spearheaded by Reiner, Proposition 10, also known as the California Children and Families First Act, was approved by voters in 1998. It levies a 50-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes. The proposition established a statewide commission -- currently headed by Reiner -- and 58 local commissions to oversee the tax revenues, which are expected to shrink as smoking declines.

The L.A. County commission is projected to receive about $581 million over the next five years, though the actual figure could be more or less.

Some commissioners said they were worried about committing preschool money that is not yet in the bank. Another concern is that the preschool commitment might slight health programs and other services for younger children.

The panel also has undertaken a five-year, $100-million plan to provide health care for low-income children who are not covered by other subsidized programs.

To preserve flexibility for other programs, the commission voted Thursday to cap funding for preschool at $100 million per year.

"I'm satisfied, and hope that we'll have additional money for reserves," said Commissioner Jonathan E. Fielding, who is director of public health for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who heads the commission, called the unanimous vote a "marvelous victory. I was a little concerned that we didn't want to spend money we didn't have, but I think we can achieve our goal of having universal preschool and have sustained programs and also have fiscal responsibility," she said.

Under the commission's initial plans, existing preschool programs such as Head Start would be expanded from half-days to full days and child-care providers would be trained to become preschool instructors. Initial plans also called for a half-day of preschool to be free, with sliding co-payments for full-day services. Eventually, younger children might be included.

Hill-Scott said planners also will be able to begin securing state and municipal funding and philanthropic grants that will be essential to sustaining the preschool system. Officials estimate that 10 years from now, a full-service program with 150,000 students could cost as much as $400 million to $500 million annually.

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