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Journal Issue: Caring for Infants and Toddlers Volume 11 Number 1 Spring/Summer 2001

Reports from the Field: Implementation of California's Children and Families First Act of 1998
Karen A. Bodenhorn Deborah Reidy Kelch


When California voters passed the Proposition 10 ballot initiative in 1998, they set in motion an unprecedented experiment to reshape how California communities address the needs of very young children and their families. Since 1999, the California Children and Families First Act has dedicated nearly $700 million per year to services for children, prenatal to age five, through increased state excise taxes on cigarettes (an additional $0.50 per pack) and other tobacco products. By allocating 80% of the revenues at the county level to ensure that programs meet local needs and calling for an overhaul in the way services are developed, funded, and implemented, Proposition 10 has challenged the nation's largest state to embrace young children in a new way. (See Box 1.)

Proposition 10 is intended to foster opportunities for physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development for California's youngest children before they begin school. The Proposition 10 interventions are aimed at providing better outcomes for children in later years. The task in reaching out to California's diverse children and their families is daunting. In 2000, the state had nearly 2.8 million children ages zero to four. Importantly, in 2000, California ranked 45th among states and the District of Columbia in poverty among children and youths, and ranked 46th in health insurance coverage. Only one-half of children eligible are enrolled in Head Start.1 Many California youths face stiff odds as they move through California schools—California ranks 46th in the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds who complete high school and 48th in incarcerated juveniles.

As a result of Proposition 10 and concurrent changes in public understanding and recognition of the importance of the early years, California is now engaged in a fundamental shift in how government, service providers, and the public view and respond to the needs of young children in the state. In 1997, only 54% of Californian parents surveyed identified birth to age three as the time during which the greatest amount of brain development occurs. By 2000, 76% of Californian parents, when asked the same question, were aware that those early years are the most critical ones for brain development.2

Moreover, Proposition 10 has changed the landscape in California by involving new and diverse local participants in a common discussion about the needs of young children, and about innovative and promising strategies to meet those needs. What remains to be seen is whether or not this citizen-sponsored initiative can achieve the impact intended by its sponsors: to facilitate an "integrated, comprehensive, and collaborative system of information and services to enhance optimal early childhood development."

This article reviews the Proposition 10 initiative, as well as the political campaign that led to its passage, and it offers some early observations on the challenges and opportunities presented as California moves to implement this new focus on very young children.