San Francisco's bold experiment in children's issues

Ten years ago, the initiative started a national trend. Now, it may be extended.

Children used to be mainly the props of political campaigns, held up and kissed, but rarely addressed as real issues themselves.

That's changing at the local level across the country, thanks in part to a pioneering program in San Francisco that has transformed the power of children's issues at the ballot box.

The transformation began a decade ago. Tired of seeing funding for children's programs rise and fall in each budget cycle, children's advocates here asked voters in 1991 to approve a requirement that a fixed percent of city tax revenues go to funding youth activities.

They won, despite opposition from the city's political and business establishments, but now the program is about to expire.

A successor measure, extending the program for another decade, is on the Nov. 7 ballot. And this time, as an indicator of how the political dynamics of children's issues here and elsewhere have changed, the ballot initiative is as close to a slam dunk as anything gets in politics.

Children's issues have gained political clout all across America, say analysts, and San Francisco has been a principal reason why.

In recent years, mandatory formulas for funding youth programs have been set up in Seattle, Oakland, Calif., and Arizona's Pima County.

Next month, voters in Denver will decide whether to increase the local sales tax and dedicate the new revenues - $30 million annually - to children's programs. It's one of numerous fixed-funding approaches being pursued nationwide.

What's more, San Francisco's bold venture on behalf of children has exerted influence not only as a model, but as a threat, say children's advocates.

Imitation

In New York City, for example, former commissioner of the Youth Services Department Richard Murphy says city officials have become more supportive of youth programs in hopes of avoiding being required to provide a set amount of funds, a la San Francisco.

The movement toward mandatory funding of youth programs has been spearheaded by Margaret Brodkin, a former social worker turned children's advocate. From her small office in a converted church in a San Francisco working-class neighborhood, Ms. Brodkin nominally runs a youth-advocacy organization called Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth.

But her real job has been inspiring a revolution in the way children's programs get funded.

"She has been the beacon, a floodlight really, for the whole country in learning to speak up for kids," says Mr. Murphy, who since leaving New York has become vice president of the Academy for Educational Development in Washington.

In fact, Denver's push for greater funding can be traced to a visit from Brodkin shortly after the 1991 success in San Francisco, says Barbara O'Brien, president of the Colorado Children's Campaign.

Patience pays off

While it's taken nearly a decade of organizing to get something on the ballot, Ms. O'Brien says advocates would have never done so without encouragement from Brodkin.

One reason the new measure in San Francisco has such broad-based support, says Brodkin, is because the program has been so effective.

Since 1991, the Children's Fund has raised more than $122 million for children's programs here. The new money has gone to more than 180 children's programs in every neighborhood of the city. They range from early childhood-development centers to new health and recreation services that are operated out of public schools during nonschool hours.

"I never in my wildest dreams thought it could impact so many kids," says Brodkin.

The funds are administered by the mayor's office, though child advocates like Brodkin and others monitor the process.

The renewal measure for the Children's Fund actually increases the amount of tax dollars that will be earmarked for youth programs, from 2.5 percent of local property taxes to 3 percent. Total revenues will come to more than $20 million annually.

At a recent campaign meeting for the Nov. 7 initiative, the mood was confident, bordering on giddy. With good reason. Based on endorsements, the new measure is one of the few measures on the ballot that nearly everyone seems to agree on.

Almost everyone.

The right way to help kids?

There are a few scattered critics who worry that the program reduces the city's funding flexibility, which could create unintended problems during an economic downturn. On principle, some critics feel fixed-formula funding is a bad idea, for whatever purpose.

Some children's advocates had different concerns when the Children's Fund was first proposed. They worried that the city would simply use the new funds to supplant existing programs. To prevent that, the law undergirding the program specifically requires that baseline spending on children's programs be maintained.

The net increase in local funding of youth programs as a result of the Children's Fund has been about 50 percent, say analysts.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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