Over the last decade, the state of Arizona has cut preschool funding by tens of millions of dollars. Last year, state lawmakers left $56 million in federal childcare funds unspent. And in 2017, Tucson voters rejected a half-cent sales tax that would have funded high-quality early childhood education programs.
So now supporters of early childhood education have turned to Pima County—making the jurisdiction, as Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry put it in a recent memo, "the funders of last resort."
Early childhood education advocates have drafted a proposal for high-quality, full-day, year-round preschool for 13,000 kids 3-4 year old in Pima County. In its most ambitious proposal, the program would cover every child living under 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, offered at no cost to families. County taxpayers would pick up the tab, with possible support from the private sector. Huckelberry says he sees the value, but there's one big challenge: "The concept is proven to be beneficial, but how do you fund it?"
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.
Backers of the proposal want to see the county set up the program with the hope that private dollars will follow.
"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.
Watson said the new proposal takes a more regional approach.
"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 those at 200 percent below the FPL—or roughly $51,000 for a family of four in 2019. Families 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 could be used at any high-quality, nationally accredited preschool, according to a plan presented by Penelope Jacks of 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 kids aged 3 and 4 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. The 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.
Jacks says she's had strong support from Pima County Supervisor Richard Elias, but the other board members have been cool to the idea.
But Huckelberry said the expenditure limitation limits what the supervisors can do.
"It's mostly about the funding restrictions imposed by the state," Huckelberry said. "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 said 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."