Thursday, August 18, 2011

First 5 Shasta and the budget

Last week-end at dinner I sat next to the former director of First 5 Shasta, the organisation charged (under 1998 voter-approved Proposition 10 and First 5 California) with disbursing funds collected from tobacco taxes. Muffy Berryhill described how the organisation she ran for 10 years—each county has its own version—evaluated existing programs that work with the education of children in their earliest and most formative years. These programs and institutions range widely in their specific targets and ambitions, but must focus on supporting children so that they might “live free of abuse, neglect and exposure to violence [be] healthy and eager to learn” and grow up supported by a “community [that] understands and values early childhood”.

First 5 Shasta spends in three broad areas: improved child development, improved child health and improved systems of care, and has an annual budget of around $1.5 million. These funds are directed with an aim to “increase the capacity of community members and organizations to address the health and well-being of children prenatal to five. This building of capacity may be accomplished through the development, expansion and provision of direct services; through training, education and technical assistance efforts to expand provider and parent/caregiver skills, knowledge and capabilities; through efforts that affect attitudinal change; and through efforts and organizational practices to increase the number of 40 Developmental Assets among children age 0-to-5” (Strategic Plan 12).

Berryhill was enthusiastic about the program, and described some of her favourite initiatives. Given that First 5 Shasta sounds like a sensible, relevant organisation, doing much-needed work to fill the still-existing void around pre-K education, you would think that it would have been eviscerated years ago in the drive for efficiency embraced by California’s chain-saw wielding Republican Party. And its survival this long has not been for a lack of the anti-society brigade trying. Twice, interests brought forward initiatives to cut funding from First 5, and twice voters rejected those assaults. The most recent attempt, in 2009, failed “even in Shasta County!” Berryhill marvelled. First 5’s strength has paradoxically been what is often the weakness of California’s political system: its direct endorsement by voters. The value that voters have traditionally placed on educational enterprises (including those like First 5 California which deal with very young children) has preserved its pool of money, which has proved a boon to North State agencies and groups who otherwise struggle to secure funding.

Now First 5 Shasta (together with its counterparts around the state) is coming under attack from the sometime progressive who is now the foremost proponent of the Republican Party’s cuts agenda: Governor Jerry Brown. One component of Brown’s initial budget onslaught involved cutting First 5 California by 50%. Proponents of First 5 are currently bringing legal action to reclaim First 5 funds which, current Shasta County director Joy Garcia was quoted as saying, “have always been local money, with local control—just the opposite of what the governor is proposing”.

This is in line with Brown’s hypocrisy and short-term thinking. His model of choice, he proclaims, is the devolution of power along with responsibility, but here he launches an assault on those powers to salvage the state’s finances. His budget is supposed to be one in which Californians share responsibility fairly, but here is yet another instance of the socially and economically marginal being asked to take cuts in order that the wealthy, the propertied (LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is stepping into the leadership void left by Brown to call for Prop 13 reform) and the powerful can come through the downturn unscathed.

If Brown were a serious progressive, he would recognise that cutting away at education is the most obvious of non-starters. Not only do the earliest years of life shape future citizens, the provision of services and support to the parents, teachers and communities of those children is the best way of ensuring some measure of equality later in life. Brown’s cuts to services like First 5, the increases in CCC, CSU and UC tuition, the loss of federal funds that has come along with cuts to state education services and the threat to cut the school year all constitute a grave threat to our state’s future. The unconscionable assault on education is now compounded by the rank stupidity of Brown’s and state Republican’s insistence on relying on rosy and unrealistic revenue windfalls, the absence of which would trigger further grave cuts.

Our Governor and the Republican Party are abjectly failing to prioritise the well-being of those who are most vulnerable at this moment. Simultaneously, they are demonstrating a criminal lack of foresight and a reprehensible inability or unwillingness to think clearly about the consequences of their harmful actions.

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