Friday, August 4, 2017

Is the Strong Start Tucson Initiative a Good Idea?

Posted By on Fri, Aug 4, 2017 at 10:00 AM

Tucsonans will be voting on an initiative, Strong Start Tucson, which, if it passes, will provide money to make preschool more available and affordable for the city's children. It will be funded by a half cent sales tax. That sounds like a wonderful idea to me, but some people have voiced strong objections to the details of the initiative, including people I generally agree with. So which side should I be on? Is the upside of the initiative greater than the downside, or is it the other way around?

The Tucson Sentinel has two columns about Strong Start Tucson, one for and one against the initiative. Both of them are informative and well written. If you're interested, they're worth your time.

Let me cut to the chase. My answer is yes, Tucson should vote for Strong Start Tucson. Now, let's discuss.

The argument for Strong Start Tucson is direct and straightforward. Most Tucson children don't have the opportunity to attend a quality preschool. The programs are very expensive, out of the reach of most families. Yet the vast majority of research agrees that the benefits of early childhood education starts when the child enters school and continues into adulthood. Comparing similar children, especially low income children, who attended a preschool with a strong educational foundation (basic daycare doesn't count, it's a different thing altogether) and children who didn't, studies conclude that the children with a strong preschool experience graduate high school with greater frequency, are less likely to need government assistance, earn more money as adults, are more likely to have stable families and are less likely to get in trouble with the law.

That's a heady list of positive effects with significant personal and economic consequences. People who went to preschool are more likely to have stable, fulfilling lives and less likely to be social and economic burdens on society. With most educational programs, the long term benefits outweigh the short term costs. It may be the preschool experience has the biggest bang for the buck.

So if Tucson can place up to 8,000 children in preschool who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity, the children and the city will reap long lasting dividends. And the other side of the coin is also true. Inaction is also a course of action. If we decide not to increase the availability of preschool, our inaction will be detrimental to the lives of many of the city's children.

The argument against Strong Start Tucson is clear and straightforward as well. The idea of providing more preschool opportunities may be a good one, opponents say, but the initiative lacks specifics to assure that children will be well served and the money will be well spent. It doesn't specify where the money will go, what the term "high quality preschool" means, who will be chosen to manage the program, the sliding scale which will determine how much families pay for preschool and what kind of reporting about the program will be made public. If the initiative passes, a seven member board appointed by the Mayor and City Council will work out all the details and oversee the program. Should we really trust all those unknowns to a seven member committee?

The concerns are genuine, but I believe they are far outweighed by the value the city and its children will derive from the Strong Start program.

There's a pretty good chance that somewhere, somehow, some of the money will be wasted. I've never seen a public program or a private business that uses every dollar to maximum effect. A certain level of waste is built into any system, no matter how effective. We live in the real world, so we have to decide whether the concern that some money will be wasted if the initiative passes is greater than the certain waste of human capital if we pass up the opportunity to enrich children's lives. I'll put the value to children's lives over the value of some misspent dollars any day of the week.

What's a high quality preschool? We have lots of observation of early childhood education and decades of research to give us some solid parameters. Putting together a list of qualifications a preschool must meet to accept Strong Start children should be reasonably simple. But no list will guarantee that every accepted program and every classroom within that program will do an excellent job. The only certainty in education is uncertainty. Every parent who has seen their child have a great school year with a gifted teacher and a less successful year with a teacher who isn't as skilled knows that. So does every teacher who has taught classes where everything goes beautifully and others where they feel like banging their heads against the wall in frustration simply because one mix of children clicks and another is a teacher's nightmare. A thousand variables determine the level of success a given child will have in a given classroom. It's foolish to believe any list of qualifications or any committee of seven people can guarantee quality preschool for every child in every program.

All this means we're dependent on the committee of seven chosen by the Mayor and the City Council to make good decisions. That's a bit of a gamble, but so is every other public or private venture. The results won't be perfect, but they also won't happen all at once, so the people administering the program will have time to modify their approach as they see the preliminary results. The goal is to place up to 8,000 three and four year olds in school. That's going to take about 450 separate classrooms of 15 to 20 children. There's probably room to accommodate some of those children in existing preschools, but it's going to take a lot of ramping up to pull together enough spaces and enough teachers to offer education to thousands of new children. TUSD has empty space in a number of its schools, and no doubt the district will be eager to set up preschool programs scattered around the city if Strong Start Tucson is supplying the funding. It's a triple win for the district. Schools will make use of unused space, children will enter kindergarten more prepared and parents will be likely to keep their children in schools they have grown accustomed to. That also means those classes will be in facilities built for education and administered by a system which is set up to provide curriculum and educational oversight. That will add stability to the process and help the program grow more quickly as other schools get up to speed.

Strong Start Tucson isn't perfect, but it's pretty much guaranteed to answer a pressing need by increasing access to preschool in the city, and it's very likely that most of the early childhood education programs will be of a high quality. And what do we have if it doesn't pass? Nothing as far as the eye can see that hints at increased access to early childhood education. No one in the opposition has brought forth a better idea, or an idea of any kind. I know the Mayor and the City Council are wary of the initiative, but I have yet to hear any of them say, "If Strong Start Tucson goes down, here's what we're planning to do the next day to begin the process of providing the preschool opportunities our children need and deserve." Not a sound so far. Nothing but crickets. If this initiative goes down, it will be years before anything happens. So I ask the opponents of the initiative, if you agree the idea is good but the execution leaves something to be desired, what d'ya got? If you got nothin', well, I don't want the perfect be the enemy of the good. I'm going to take a good program rather than waiting for something better that may be hiding somewhere out there just below the horizon.

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