Twenty years ago, filmmaker Rob Reiner sponsored a successful ballot measure that created First 5, a tax on tobacco products to fund services for California children from birth to school-age. The initiative — detailed extensively in Education Dive: K-12’s recent series — created a statewide commission and 58 local county commissions to make decisions about how to distribute the funds.
To recognize the 20th anniversary, First 5 Los Angeles asked Reiner to reflect on his motivations for taking his plan to the voters and whether his outlook as an early-childhood advocate has changed. Reiner’s responses have been edited for length and clarity.
FIRST 5 LA: It's hard to tell people that don't have kids, “You should care about kids.” What were some of the challenges you faced?
ROB REINER: You know, there are two things — there's the environment and there are the people who live on the Earth. You don't want to have a toxic environment and you don't want to have toxic children, because those are the things that create all the ills in society. And to be honest, as somebody who went through therapy, I started thinking about my early years and how they affected me, and I realized … how important the early years were to me and how they shaped me. And I started thinking, how can this be translated into public policy in some way? Goals 2000 had just come out, and in it, the first goal was “All children will start school ready to learn." And I looked at all this and I said, you know, it seems to me if you could meet that one goal, if you could just make sure that every child has what they need to be healthy and ready to experience kindergarten, maybe all those other goals would kind of fall into line.
Bill Clinton had just been elected president, and I went to D.C. and I had heard that Tipper Gore was interested in mental health issues. So I decided to see if I could meet with her and talked to her about what it is I could be doing. And she put together a group of people. There was somebody from [Health and Human Services] and somebody from the Department of Education and a number of people were in the meeting.
We did some research and we found out that there were a number of programs all over the country, but they were kind of piecemeal. Nobody had done anything in a comprehensive way, and I decided to see if I could get something going in California.
Talk a little bit about what you've seen shift since then?
REINER: The biggest change I've seen is there is now a universal acceptance of the idea of preschool. The thing that has stayed the same is how you fund it and the fights that we've had in terms of trying to fund this on any kind of meaningful, universal level. Why we wanted to do it is not that we knew we were gonna solve all the problems, but we wanted to jumpstart this investment in young children and hopefully that would trigger more investment.
Politicians run in two- and four- and six-year cycles. So the results of an investment in young children isn't going to pay off until 10, 15, 20 years down the road. And so the politicians are not seeing the results on their watch and, quite frankly, they're hesitant about making those kinds of investments. That to me is still the biggest problem that we face.
People who don't have kids say, “Well, why should I do something for kids?” How do you tell people you should care anyway?
REINER: “We know that if you give children the right kind of start in life, you're going to reduce drug abuse, child abuse, teen pregnancy, incarceration. And all of those things affect people who don't have children. You’re paying for that, you're paying your taxes to support all of that. So if you want a safer, more secure society, then that's one of the best investments you can make.
What would you like to see happen next? What's that vision today? Is it the same? Is it different?
REINER: The vision is exactly the same. People even before me have been trumpeting the idea of an investment in early childhood. We're in a global economy, and if we're going to compete on a global level, we're going to have to have an educated workforce. You want quality child care? You want a high-class preschool? You want to make sure every child has access to good healthcare? All of these things are important for the future economy of the state and of the country.
What about someone who's maybe just a fan of your films. They're working 9 to 5. They're not the head of anything. What do you think they could do?
REINER: What they can do is advocate. There are First 5 commissions all across the state, 58 of them, and you can go to them and see where the needs are, and they can give you an idea about where you can advocate and how you can best use your time and resources.