Efforts to create high quality accessible preschool for all children in Arizona have not materialized at the Arizona Legislature. Prop. 204, which would have increased Tucson’s sales tax to pay for preschool, was rejected by voters in 2017.

With those options exhausted, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said they are now being viewed as “the funders of last resort.”

Early childhood education advocates have drafted a proposal for high quality, full day, year-round preschool for 13,000 3-and 4-year-olds in Pima County, including every child living under 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, offered at no cost to families.

The cost would be covered by an investment from the county budget. A variety of private funding sources have been identified as well, but the county is needed to get things started.

“The concept is proven to be beneficial, but how do you fund it?” Huckelberry said.

That crucial question is what’s keeping the Pima County Preschool Investment Program from moving forward. Advocates, business leaders and public officials agree: High-quality preschool is a necessity for ending the cycle of poverty and increasing quality of life. But no one wants to bear the financial burden.

“I think it’s more of a collaborative effort,” Huckelberry said.

The recommended county budget he submitted to the Board of Supervisors on April 25 does not include any funds for the program.

The backers of the proposal want to see it as a publicly-funded model. They have identified a variety of private funding sources as well, and expect continued investment from the community should the supervisors vote to put county dollars behind it.

“It’s a little bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ situation because I think that if the county were to take the lead on this it would really spur some private investment,” said Shelley Watson, vice president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, which is supporting the initiative.

Unlike Prop. 204, the PCPIP doesn’t call for voters to approve a tax increase. The former would have increased City of Tucson sales tax by one half-cent and generated about $50 million annually for preschool subsidies for low income families.

Those eligible for subsidies had to be living within city limits, which Watson said lacked sufficient reach in addressing the problem.

“We wanted to take a regional look at this and not confine it to the city,” she said. “You have school districts that go beyond the city’s borders.”

Eligibility for the PCPIP would be based on household income and serve only those at 200 percent below the FPL. Every family applying for the program would be required to apply for Department of Economic Security childcare subsidies as well, which would factor into the total amount of assistance rewarded.

The scholarships would be based on the current market rate and may be used at any high-quality nationally accredited preschools, according to Strong Start Tucson, the organization that created both this proposal and Prop. 204.

First Things First, a statewide network for supporting early childhood education funded by tobacco taxes, would be the administrator of the program.

Strong Start Tucson reports there are about 27,000 3-and 4-year-olds living in Pima County. Some of those children already receive high quality preschool, so it is hard to say exactly how many scholarships will be needed because not every family who is eligible for the program will want to use it.

Huckelberry believes if the county funds the majority of the program, they could wind up in legal trouble. Their biggest constraint is an expenditure limit dictated by the state.

“The problem is that in 1980 the voters of Arizona passed constitutional amendments,” he said. “Even if we had the money, we couldn’t spend it without getting a voter override. Without any real public education campaign, the likelihood of voters approving that is nearly impossible.”

However, if the county provided funds to just close the gap between current market rates for preschool and DES subsidy rates, that would require about $4.8 million, according to an assessment by the county attorney.

The backers of PCPIP want that $4.8 million to start, and then see how many families actually use the program so they can possibly ramp up dollars and expand the program in the future.

“The county, as a poverty abatement strategy, would do well to engage in this at least in a moderate way that could be scaled when proof of concept has been established,” Watson said.

She believes $4.8 million seems doable when considering the county’s overall budget of more than $1 billion.

Huckelberry said all efforts going forward should be focused on finding a workable funding strategy within the next year. One proposal that he believes hasn’t been fully explored is a special district tax, or a secondary property tax. It would have to be authorized by the Legislature to allow the county to increase their spending.

Penelope Jacks, Strong Start Tucson’s campaign chair, says the program’s concept has received overwhelming support at this point, but the county supervisors have their hesitations about funding it. Supervisor Richard Elías of District 5 has been the champion of the initiative so far, but Jacks says it might not have the three votes necessary to approve funding. 

“It’s mostly about the funding restrictions imposed by the state,” Huckelberry said in response to her claim. “Even three members of the board can’t override funding restrictions.”

Jacks said the University of Arizona, United Way of Tucson, Southern Arizona Leadership Council and the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona have all committed funds and local school districts have committed space to house this program.

“My view is that this should be a public program, but that these private funds are very good for getting off the ground,” she said. A figure between $200,000 and $250,000 has been committed so far.

Jacks said they will investigate Huckelberry’s concerns about legal constraints, but contends that he has “laid out a good framework going forward.”

“I think the Board of Supervisors needs to make a commitment to our future and to acknowledge that spending this money now is an investment in Pima County’s future prosperity,” she said. “And to balance children against roads, to say it’s somebody else’s responsibility simply misses the point which is that children need this now, the community needs this now.”

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