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Reason Foundation

Your Tobacco Tax Dollars at Work

Lisa Snell
May 6, 2008, 2:07pm

Your "First Five" dollars working for poor children? NOT. From the "you can't make this stuff up files," the San Francisco Chronicle reports on some San Francisco parents benefiting from some dubious First Five grants. Scores of savvy San Francisco parents have tapped a pot of taxpayer dollars for everything from children's ice skating lessons and Monterey Bay Aquarium field trips to supplies for Halloween parties and chartered buses to the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield. Last year, about $564 million in Prop. 10 revenue was distributed by the state and its 58 county First 5 commissions, which have wide discretion over how the money is used. San Francisco's commission receives about $9 million annually and uses $200,000 each year to fund its unique Parent Action Grants program, which began in 2001. A sampling of the grants: -- "Multi-Family First Time Camping Experience" included a camping lesson and overnight trip to Big Sur for six families. -- "Couples Travel and Learn Together" included an overnight stay at the Four Points Sheraton in Pleasanton, where couples from Chinatown took marriage workshops. It also included $250 in Target gift cards. -- "Families of La Piccola Scuola Italiana" included holiday party space rental and the purchase of a Babbo Natale (Italian version of Santa Claus) costume. Check out these "savvy" parents justification ... While she was grateful for the grant and its positive impact, she did feel uncomfortable knowing the funding came from a cigarette tax, which is regressive. "It's taxing something that's being marketed more at lower-income people and consumed by lower-income people and redistributing it in ways that aren't attentive to income," she said. "And that might be a moral dilemma. ... I'm glad we got it - it did good things for us. On a personal level, I did think, 'How strange that they don't require you to be needs-based.' " Michelle Lever, who won the grant for the Italian immersion preschool her children attend, said her group discussed whether others might benefit more from the funds. "If people can afford to pay 5 or 10 bucks to do something, why would you get the Parent Action Grant, but it's more than that, right?" she said. It's an "opportunity to learn leadership skills ... and interact with parents in a different way on behalf of their children in the community." Annemarie Kurpinsky won a grant for a group of a dozen women to do a project on gardening and healthy eating called "From Garden to Table." The kids grow their own planter garden and learn that food doesn't originate in a grocery store. Without the grant, she wouldn't have taken her son to a private class at the zoo on how animals eat, nor would she have paid for the cooking class her group took. The grant process, she said, is elaborate and time-consuming and anyone willing to go through that should get the money, no matter what their income level. "Even though we're well-educated enough to apply for the grant and carry it out doesn't mean we have the financial resources to do this on our own," she said. "Families that are willing to go through the process - regardless of income - should be allowed to have it."

Lisa Snell is Director of Education


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