AS a longtime child advocate, Margaret Brodkin knows firsthand the challenge of funding services for children - the constant appeals to legislators for money, the ongoing concern that funds obtained this year might not be available when a new budget cycle begins.
And so three years ago Ms. Brodkin suggested a daring new approach: Bypass politicians and take children's funding directly to voters. As executive director of the private, nonprofit Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, she drew up an amendment to the San Francisco city charter and spearheaded a campaign to get it on the ballot. Volunteers collected 68,500 signatures, which children then delivered to City Hall in little red wagons.
In November 1991, 55 percent of local voters approved Proposition J, known as the ``children's amendment.'' The measure allocated 1.25 percent of property-tax revenues for a children's fund the first year, then 2.5 percent for each of the next nine years. Although San Francisco has the smallest percentage of children of any American city, it holds the distinction of being the first urban area in the nation to assure funding for children's services.
Today, two budget cycles later, the success of the initiative is apparent. Despite what Brodkin calls a ``horrendous'' city budget crisis, many children's programs have been protected.
``The only new money in town is children's money,'' she says. ``Without the children's amendment, there is no question in anybody's mind that a high number of children's services would have been decimated - most specifically children's recreation programs, which are one of the best ways to help children. And people in the health department call here all the time and say, `Thank goodness for this amendment for children.' ''
In addition to funding new services for children, the amendment prevents cuts in existing youth programs. It required the controller to document what the city was already spending on children. That amount, $43 million, became the base line. The amendment added $6 million the first year and $13 million last year, most of which went to programs such as tutoring and job training.
As news of San Francisco's success spread, advocacy groups from San Diego to Denver to Westchester County, N.Y., expressed interest in adopting similar measures. Brodkin now conducts workshops across the country to share information about the initiative.
Sitting in her eighth-floor office in the Mission District, overlooking the city's skyline, Brodkin, an energetic woman who is a social worker, explains the amendment's appeal.
``It inspires people to look very differently at how they advocate for children,'' she says. ``Instead of spending all your time pounding on the doors of city officials, you reach out much more to the grass roots.''
In Portland, Ore., Bill Weismann, executive director of Children First for Oregon, says, ``We've been inspired by the example of San Francisco to put forward a similar proposal in two counties.'' But rather than designating a portion of future property taxes for children's services, his group is considering the possibility of dedicating a percentage of future revenue growth to these funds. He sees the proposal as a possible ballot measure in 1995.
Diane Bernstein, president of D.C. Action for Children, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., says of Proposition J, ``I think it was a stunning example of getting the voice of the people to speak out. It's certainly the way to go.''
Even so, after spending a year exploring the possibility of a similar measure, Ms. Bernstein and her group concluded that it is not yet workable in Washington.
``We have more basic structural and revenue problems in the District,'' she says. ``As child advocates we're recognizing that the most basic place to start is to advocate for a fiscally viable city - a healthy city financially. Then children and family issues belong at the table for the allocation of funds.''
Heidi Callen, program officer at the Frey Foundation in Grand Rapids, Mich., a private family foundation that gives about 40 percent of its grants to programs benefiting children, notes that her group has been frustrated by a lack of long-term financial support for good programs.
``We felt that a better-educated public would be necessary to help our public sector redirect a tiny bit of its resources to prevention and support for children and youth,'' she explains. ``Prop J is a great example of how that's been able to happen with better-informed residents and a strong group of advocates taking that message to the policymakers.''
FOR Brodkin, Proposition J serves as just one of many avenues for helping children.
After the children's-amendment campaign, she published ``Every Kid Counts: 31 Ways to Save Our Children'' (Harper SanFrancisco, $9), a handbook showing how ordinary citizens can turn concern for children into concrete action.
She has also formed what she calls a ``positive images coalition'' to counter the barrage of negative images of young people in the media. She wants to get at least one positive story about young people in newspapers and on TV each month.
Summing up her crusade for citizen advocacy for children, Brodkin says, ``My going theory is that there is not one right way to be involved with children. People have to find the right thing for them. But no matter what you do, it will have a ripple effect.''