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How do you tell the story of a huge early childhood program over time?

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

How do you tell the story of a huge early childhood program over time?

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(Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
(Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Thanks — for nothing, Mr. Reiner.

When I started my reporting on the 20th anniversary of California’s Proposition 10 — now known as First 5 — I fully expected to have filmmaker Rob Reiner’s quotations and retrospective as a central piece of the package. After all, he was the sponsor of the ballot measure that created the tobacco tax-funded system for programs serving young children from birth to age 5. And, he welcomed me into his Beverly Hills office for an interview when the measure was on the ballot. So I certainly expected to have the same access to him this time around.

But he turned me down. While Reiner is an essential part of the First 5 story, I learned, however, that there was much to tell without him — way too much to tell, and I’m honored that the Center for Health Journalism awarded me a fellowship to investigate the impact of the system over time.

For 20 years, First 5, which includes a state-level commission and 58 local county commissions, has used the tobacco tax revenue to finance health, education and other programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. They’ve built strong partnerships with other agencies — in the interest of sustaining services — and they’ve taken on a more active advocacy role at the state level.

My challenge was to try to capture key milestones that exemplify what First 5 has accomplished and the challenges facing the system. But in doing so, I had to leave a lot of examples, stories and progress reports by the wayside. Overall, my package chronicled the shift within First 5 from directly providing and paying for services to focusing more on building up systems that have more sustainable funding sources.

Here are a few lessons from the reporting that I hope might be useful to other reporters covering early childhood.

1) No one source of funding or policy is likely to lead to major positive outcomes for children and families.

I initially went into the project with some overly simplistic ideas such as, “Since First 5 has existed since 1998, shouldn’t there be a corresponding increase in academic achievement outcomes in California, or at least in the early grades?” But First 5 was never just child care and preschool, or a child abuse prevention program, or a parent education initiative. And even in an area where the state has seen a noticeable increase — rates of health insurance coverage for children — other policies and advocacy came into play to make that happen.

2) Officials were eager to tell their story.

I didn’t encounter one First 5 official who was unwilling to talk or hesitant to discuss how the tax dollars have been spent. More than half of the executive directors of the 58 county commissions responded to a simple survey I conducted through our company’s Survey Monkey account asking how their agencies have been affected by a sharp decline in the revenue available for First 5. Many gave extensive answers discussing the programs and services they would expand if additional funds were available. Their voices only confirmed what I was hearing in my reporting, and it was a way to get input from leaders in the counties that I would not have gained otherwise. I’ve never used a survey as part of a project before, and I’m glad I did.

3) The present became more important than the past.

There were plenty of current issues affecting First 5 that became more important material than tracing the history of the system. In fact — and I think this is one of the biggest takeaways for me — First 5 became a vehicle for reporting on other issues such as the governor’s election, the shifting legal landscape regarding marijuana use, the vaping “epidemic” and the expansion of home visiting programs to prevent adverse childhood experiences. All of those issues are now affecting First 5 leaders, staff and partner organizations. I would encourage anyone writing about young children and families to put programs in a larger and present-day context.

4.) Data played a part in the reporting, but not as much as I expected.

There was no shortage of data — 20 years of data. But as one official told me fairly early in the reporting process, “The success of First 5 is never going to be within First 5.” So, whose data was I going to focus on? Early childhood leaders speak a lot about “systems change,” which is one of those terms that can make reporters roll their eyes. But First 5 leaders were able to give me concrete examples of how they work with schools, child welfare departments and other agencies to expand programs for families and young children.

The early childhood field, which tends to get what’s left over after K-12 and higher education are funded, depends greatly on partnerships with other agencies and organizations, and this has only become more true for First 5 as tobacco revenues decline. When leaders fund programs with grants or “sin taxes,” what plans do they have to continue those services or embed them elsewhere when the funding declines or runs out. 

In addition, because First 5 is such a locally driven system, individual evaluations or audit reports weren’t going to answer the broader question of what has or hasn’t been achieved over the past two decades — and it wouldn’t have been relevant for Education Dive’s national audience of school and district leaders. I incorporated data where it made the most sense. One example was pulling as much spending data from annual reports as possible to show how funding in certain categories has shifted over time. I also added charts on significant aspects of the First 5 story, such as decline in tobacco use in California.

While the way First 5 is designed is fairly unique, I think there are still lessons for reporters covering young children or education in general. Early childhood leaders often talk about having a seat at the table. Find out who else is at that table. Who else are they working with to reach their goals — libraries, school districts, less obvious partners? I’ve tended to gravitate toward covering early childhood because it is such a complex field, and it leads to unexpected destinations.

I don’t expect my package to result in any policy changes and I didn’t set out to expose an injustice. But the project caught the attention of the Bay Area News Foundation, which published the stories on its site. I think the articles have illuminated a system that is a fascinating part of the state’s education story, but can’t be summed up in short, snappy headlines. (Believe me, we struggled with those headlines.) 

I’ve noticed that national media outlets covering early childhood issues rarely mention First 5 because it’s not an easy entity to explain. I was happy to take on that challenge. And I’m still leaving the door open for a sit-down with Reiner. Maybe on the ballot measure’s 30th anniversary.

Read the stories in Linda Jacobson's fellowship series here.


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