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What did California’s novel approach to funding early-childhood programs achieve?

October 10, 2018
Linda Jacobson
Education Dive

This article is part of a series about First 5 — a tobacco tax initiative in California passed by voters 20 years ago to fund services for young children, from birth to kindergarten age. The series is supported by a University of Southern California 2018 Center for Healthcare Journalism fellowship.

Filmmaker Rob Reiner spent this summer plugging his new movie “Shock and Awe” on late-night talk shows and frequently tweeting his expressions of disgust for the man who currently occupies the White House.

But 20 years ago, Reiner was campaigning for a different cause — passage of Proposition 10 on California’s general election ballot. Called the California Children and Families Act, the measure would create a 50-cent tax on tobacco products to fund programs that improve the health, welfare and school-readiness of the state’s youngest children.

Overcoming almost $30 million in opposition advertising by the tobacco industry, the initiative barely passed by just over 50% of the vote. Creating a funding stream for early-childhood programs, Proposition 10 — later renamed First 5 to reflect the early years of a child’s life — the statute has continued to survive efforts to redirect the revenue to other state expenses.

But in accomplishing one of its goals — reducing tobacco use — First 5 is now experiencing a corresponding, steady decline in its primary source of funding, and increasingly faces decisions over where to direct those dwindling resources and how to secure additional sources of revenue.

With Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat and the front-runner in the governor’s race, pledging to expand programs for young children — an area that has received little attention from Gov. Jerry Brown — First 5 officials see an opportunity for some of the innovative program models they have tested locally to spread statewide.

They also see taxes on legalized marijuana in the state as a potential new funding source for programs serving young children and families. Two years before passage of Proposition 10, California voters passed the first medical marijuana law in the U.S., but Reiner might not have predicted the day when cannabis taxes would be used for home-visiting programs and toddler play groups.

First 5 has been a departure from the way many states have provided funding for young children. It wasn’t a governor’s initiative or a pilot program, and it has advanced a more comprehensive view of being prepared for school that goes beyond early academics.

“We’ve been blessed in this state to have First 5 because of the opportunity it has presented to think innovatively as well as outside of any one particular program area,” Scott Moore, the CEO of Kidango, a nonprofit that runs a variety of early learning programs in the San Francisco Bay Area, said in an interview. “We do such a good job of creating silos. First 5 has been a real bridge builder.”