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Early Childhood Education

Less Money, New Leadership: LA's Largest Funder Of Early Childhood Programs Hits A Crossroads

Two young boys sit on the ground outdoors. They drive robots using iPads at one of LAUSD's early education centers, as an adult guides one of them.
There are an estimated 731,000 kids 5 and under in L.A. County.
(Mariana Dale
LAist )
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First 5 LA, the organization responsible for doling out Los Angeles County’s share of California’s tobacco tax for early childhood programs, is at a crossroads as it faces declining revenue and the loss of its leader for the past decade at the end of this year.

It’s by far the largest organization of its kind in the state and last year received $78.9 million in tax revenue. Since 2000, First 5 LA has funded dozens of initiatives from education to increasing developmental screening and improving the health of Black moms and babies.

“Investing in early childhood is an investment in prevention,” Executive Director Kim Belshé told LAist in an interview last week. “If we really, as a society, want to address criminal justice issues, economic issues, education issues, health issues, we have to focus on young kids.”

Belshé announced her resignation earlier this month.

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A woman with short brown hair, pearl earrings and dark red glasses.
Belshé became First 5 LA’s executive director in 2012
(Courtesy of First 5 LA)

At the time she joined the organization in 2012, First 5 LA was probably best known for funding preschool for thousands of L.A. kids each year. But she faced a problem that her successor will also have to grapple with as well.

“The good news is people are smoking less,” Belshé said. “The bad news is that means our revenues have been steadily declining, and we hope will continue to decline.”

The reality is that tobacco tax revenue and First 5 LA cannot meet all the child care, early education and health needs of the estimated 731,000 kids 5 and under living in L.A. County.

“Figuring out how to continue to be really effective and have less money over time, it's a huge challenge,” said Judy Abdo, vice chair of the board that oversees First 5 LA. “It really requires thinking differently about the future.”

Changing The Focus Of Spending

First 5 LA ended Los Angeles Universal Preschool, known as LAUP, in 2016. That program had funded about 11,000 preschool seats for children from low-income families across L.A. County. Belshé said the transition was part of the organization’s new strategic focus on “systems change.”

“We have evolved to focus less on individual services and support to work in the public policy arena with systems leaders to ensure the child- and family-serving systems actually work for children and families,” Belshé said.

It can be a little hard to understand what “systems change” actually means. Belshé pointed to one example: the organization’s work around home visiting, a program that connects expectant and new parents with support for breastfeeding, newborn care and other services.

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First 5 L.A. began funding home visiting soon after its creation in 2000 and a version of the program called Welcome Baby is now available at 13 L.A. County hospitals. First 5 LA commissioned research that found several positive outcomes, including that participating families were less stressed, and more likely to breastfeed and engage in learning activities like reading with their kids.

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“When L.A. County can demonstrate something works, something's making a difference in the lives of children and families, people in Sacramento pay attention,” Belshé said.

First 5 LA says its work informed several public investments in home visiting, including more than $40 million through the L.A. County Department of Public Health and the statewide home visiting program for CalWORKS recipients.

An Expert In Government And Health

Belshé became First 5 LA’s executive director after working at the Public Policy Institute of California and leading the state’s Health and Human Services Agency under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

She moved to northern California during the pandemic to be closer to her 89-year-old mother and said she plans to spend more time with family.

“I'm stepping fully in, both feet,” Belshé said, “and with deep appreciation to have that kind of time with my family at this stage in their lives.”

The Board of Commissioners is still determining how it will fill the executive director position. The succession policy gives it the power to select a new permanent leader within the organization’s ranks or through an outside search.

“[Belshé’s] understanding about how government works and her expertise in health care as well really helped First 5 LA step up to the challenges that were there and still are there for L.A. County,” Abdo said. “The person who comes along next needs to be able to build on that.”

Full disclosure: In previous years, First 5 has given money to support LAist's early childhood coverage. LAist retains full editorial control of our stories.

What questions do you have about early childhood education and development? What do you want to know about kids ages 0-5 and those who care for them in Southern California?
Decades of research indicates early childhood education significantly boosts children’s readiness to learn. Mariana Dale wants families, caregivers and educators to have the information they need to help children 0-5 grow and thrive by identifying what’s working and what’s not in California’s early childhood system.