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With First 5 Under Attack California's Kids Will Lose Out

By Jessica Mihaly

Research shows that every dollar invested in high quality preschool for low income children provides a return of $2-$17 through reduced spending on special education and the criminal justice system, and higher tax receipts due to those children becoming more productive adults.

Ten years ago, California voters approved a revolutionary ballot initiative to address the needs of children prenatal to five years-old, otherwise known as First 5 (originally known as Children and Families First).  First 5 commissions were established in every county, responsible for determining how best to use new tobacco tax revenues to meet the needs of children in their communities.  Their mission was daunting:  to ensure that all children enter school healthy and ready to learn.  But the results have been impressive. First 5 is accomplishing its objectives and exceeding expectations.

Since 2000, First 5 commissions have invested more than $800 million statewide in communities served by low-achieving schools.  Last year, the First 5 School Readiness Program reached nearly 300,000 California children in targeted neighborhoods, offering comprehensive services such as early literacy, parenting support, access to developmental screenings, health care, summer bridge programs, and preschool. And the strategy is working:  students at schools in low-income neighborhoods where First 5 has invested are increasing their test scores at a significantly faster rate than the overall average.  By closing the school readiness gap, First 5 is helping to close California's achievement gap as well.

County First 5 commissions provide a safety net for children and families at risk due to diminishing resources and state budget cuts.  First 5 focuses on children up to the age of 5 by providing health care, dental care, child safety programs, obesity prevention, quality childcare, preschool, and support for their families. Last December when the state Healthy Families insurance program faced a deficit and threatened to impose a waiting list for all new enrollees, First 5 stepped up, providing more than $16 million to save the program " and the children it serves.

Unfortunately, First 5 is under attack.  With the state's budget in crisis, legislators are turning to any resource to pay the state's bills.  In the middle of the night during the marathon legislative budget session last month, a bill slipped through designed to siphon upwards of $1.6 billion from First 5 to the black hole of the state budget.  That proposal " Proposition 1D " now is before the voters. 

First 5 is a victim of the budget crisis and everyone will suffer as a result. Shifting money from local communities to the state merely shifts the pain from one place to another.  What do communities throughout California stand to lose?  Local programs that are working because they are designed to meet local needs.

For instance, First 5 Sacramento supports the Sacramento Crisis Nursery " the only program of its kind in the county that prevents child abuse and neglect by providing support, food, shelter and counseling to families in times of crisis.  In Santa Clara County, First 5 provided $750,000 in matching money to help the Family Court win a five-year, $3.7 million federal grant to create a program for drug addicted mothers and pregnant women.

Research shows that every dollar invested in high quality preschool for low income children provides a return of $2-$17 through reduced spending on special education and the criminal justice system, and higher tax receipts due to those children becoming more productive adults.

A summer kindergarten transition program that has served over 6,800 children in San Mateo County eliminates the "school readiness gap" among children who are English-language learners or who live in low-income families.  Eliminating the school readiness gap is the first step towards eliminating the achievement gap for these children.

First 5 Contra Costa boosted the developmental skills of 1,500 low-income children who otherwise would have entered kindergarten without any preschool experience.  First 5 LA launched Los Angeles Universal Preschool, which already is serving more than 14,500 children who previously had no access to early childhood education.

Aside from school readiness and healthcare, First 5 commissions provide prevention and early intervention services that reduce later more costly problems.  Fluoride varnishes that prevent cavities mean children don't enter school with dental disease.  Early identification of developmental problems means children can receive therapy early, often catching up with their peers by the time they enter school.  Children with health insurance and regular health providers avoid emergency room visits and unnecessary hospitalizations. 


As the state faces tough economic times, the services that First 5 provides are more important than ever.  Without First 5, vital local services will be severely reduced or eliminated.  Ultimately, the people who lose out will be society's most vulnerable " our young children.

Now, it is up to the voters to decide.  Do we want to pour precious local dollars into a voracious and unchecked state bureaucracy or do we trust local First 5 commissions that have a winning track record to make decisions on behalf of our children and families?  To me this is a no-brainer.  Please join me in keeping First 5 alive and vote NO on Proposition 1D.


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Jessica Mihaly is an Early Childhood Education Consultant based in northern California. Contact information: jessica [AT]

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