Rugrat Referendum

Strong Start Tucson aims to provide early childhood education to 8,000 preschoolers a year. Why are local Democrats so opposed to it?

Coyote classroom is full of sensory wonders. Two little girls paint on an easel while children's classical music plays quietly. A curly-haired 3-year-old runs up to Bill Berk, the director of Outer Limits School, and hugs him around the legs.

"Thanks for the the hug," he says, patting her on the head. She leans against his legs and studies paintings hanging on a clothesline.

A trough full of dry beans labeled "sensory station" is equipped with plenty of tools for legume exploration. Kids move from little tables and chairs to tiny soft couches to chalk boaards and bins full of art supplies. There's even a moon-dust station.

Outside, three hens strut about in a chicken coop next to a vegetable garden. Children run around the playground, weaving their way through tunnels and slides.

High-quality preschools benefit families and communities in numerous ways. But out of almost 14,000 3- and 4-year-olds in Tucson, only 2,500 attend high quality preschool, according to data compiled by Strong Start with the help of the University of Arizona School of Geography and Development using Census Bureau data, and data from First Things First and United Way.

Prop 204—aka Strong Start Tucson—aims to make quality preschools more accessible for families of all income levels, through a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax that voters can establish on Nov. 7.

The initiative has passionate supporters, many who've spent their lives advocating for Tucson children. While the value of early-childhood education is something everyone agrees on, the proposition also has staunch opponents who have a track record of supporting access to education. They say Strong Start is not the proper way to spend taxpayer money and expand access to preschool.

The Problem

Berk, who's been running Outer Limits with his wife for 14 years, helped plan the Strong Start initiative, which he calls an "anti-poverty program." Outer Limits is a five-star school, and sending your child there is not cheap.

Jackie Freed was 2-year-old Jillian's foster mom. Born drug-addicted, Jillian had some developmental issues. The little girl works with a therapist, who recommended preschool to help her socially and academically. She also fostered Jack, a 1-year-old with similar challenges. Freed enrolled them both in Outer Limits.

"Ever since they've been going, they're completely different children," Freed said. "They need that structure and that routine."

As a foster parent, Freed received assistance from the Department of Economic Security to send both kids to the preschool. But the day she adopted them, the assistance stopped, and she could no longer afford it.

Depending on a child's age, Outer Limits charges $750 to $850 a month, which Berks says is slightly higher than the average tuition around town. About 20 percent of families at Outer Limits pay out-of-pocket; 12 percent receive scholarships from First Things First, a state agency that funds early childhood education; and the remaining 68 percent receive funding through DES' Child Care Assistance.

Freed is a school health assistant, but the children were able to stay home with her husband who wasn't working because of a back injury. Several months later, Berk received some new scholarships from First Things First, and the children were able to return.

"It makes me sad that every child can't go to a quality preschool because they don't have money," Freed said. "But $175 a week—why would you even work?"

For someone making minimum wage, the cost of quality child care is easily more than half their paycheck. Many times, this leaves people in a situation where they can't work at all or are forced to leave their children in subpar situations.

Of the 547,000 Arizona kids under 6 years old, 29 percent live in poverty, 38 percent live with a single parent, 51 percent receive food stamps and 64 percent don't go to preschool.

Kids who go to high-quality preschool are more likely to go to college, earn a higher wage and be in a committed relationship. They are far less likely to need public assistance, get arrested or suffer from chronic disease.

Every dollar invested in high quality preschool has a return of $16, according to James Heckman, who won a Nobel Memorial Prize for economics and conducted groundbreaking research on the benefits of investing in early childhood development.

The devil's in the details—or lack thereof

Strong Start works through a half-cent sales tax, which aims to raise an estimated $50 million annually to help between 6,500 and 8,000 3- and 4-year-olds go to high-quality preschools. Every year, as the 4-year-olds age into public school, another round of kids would become eligible.

Preschool would be paid for on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the amount families receive would be determined on a sliding scale, based on income and family size. A wealthy family might only be eligible to receive a dollar, while a low-income family may be eligible for a full ride, said Strong Start Chair Penelope Jacks.

One of the criticisms of the proposition is that the way the sliding scale would work is not written into the initiative. It dictates that the City Council and mayor would appoint a seven-member commission to work out those details. Two members of the commission would be early-childhood education providers.

Ted Maxwell, the president of Southern Arizona Leadership Council, says having those early education providers on the commission is a conflict of interest. He calls it "stacking the deck with people who want it to succeed."

He's concerned that a desire to see it succeed would set up a method to spend the money even if it's not reaching the people who need it most.

"If you need to spend to prove success, you're going to do it inefficiently and wastefully," he said.

Along with SALC, the Tucson Metro Chamber, Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and prominent local businessmen such as Jim Click have come out against Strong Start. While it's not surprising to see the business community opposed a tax increase, it's also facing opposition from Democrats.

Only one member of the all-Democratic Tucson City Council has come out in support of the initiative: outgoing Councilwoman Karin Uhlich. Vice Mayor Regina Romero declined to return phone calls to talk about the proposition. Mayor Jonathan Rothschild's one-sentence response came from communications director Lisa Markkula: "While it's a laudable goal, $50 million a year is a lot of money, and there's little specificity in the initiative as to how the money will be spent."

The lack of details in the initiative is a major narrative being pushed by opponents. Jacks says that's normal for an amendment to the city charter: It sets up guidelines for the commission formed by the City Council to work out the details. Locking detailed regulations into the charter—which is essentially the city's constitution—would mean that if changes needed to be made after the program is underway, the council would have to send them back to the ballot.

"You don't put details in a constitution," Jacks says. "You put details into regulation. And that's the commission's job, to act as the regulator and articulate the high-quality standards, to establish the sliding scale and to decide which of the nonprofits to contract with."

Uhlich said initiatives are often criticized for either not being specific enough or being too specific, but if voters approve the proposition, she'd confident the appointed commission will shape the details "to reflect what the community wants and create robust oversight."

"The most important thing is transparency and a mechanism for accountability, and that's in there," she said. "The public would have a very important role in assuring that accountability."

Uhlich says businesses could find that the program brings with it a bonus: reliable child care for their workers.

"The rewards would be phenomenal," she said. "It's gotta be one of the best dollars we pool together to promote Tucson."

The flawed system

Way back in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration and Congress put together a welfare reform package, part of the law addressed a basic conundrum: Many struggling families, especially those headed by single moms, couldn't afford safe and reliable child care—and without that, they couldn't hold down jobs. If families had to pay more than they were earning to put their kids in daycare, it didn't make a lot of economic sense to take a minimum-wage job. So in order to get welfare recipients back into the workforce and developing the skills to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the federal government agreed to sending matching funds to states that participated.

Arizona participated in the program until GOP state lawmakers and Gov. Jan Brewer passed a budget in 2010 that cut the childcare subsidies from $82 million a year to zero, according to First Things First.

The state did not lose all of its federal matching funds, however, because First Things First, an independent state agency funded through tobacco taxes, stepped up to provide some dollars to maintain the dollars from Washington. This year and last, Arizona received $125 million from the federal government, $37 million of which the state wouldn't get unless it shows it spent at least $30 million on child care quality improvement and access, which has been coming from First Things First.

In 2015, state lawmakers began contributing $5 million to $9 million a year to address the growing number of children in foster care that need child-care subsidies. While that provided a little more funding, there were still 4,815 kids on the waiting list for child care subsidies as of Sept. 15.

Here's where things stand here in Tucson: As of August, 407 children, from birth to 5 years old, are receiving early-learning scholarships about $8,000 a piece through First Things First. Roughly 1,200 Tucson kids go to preschool through the federally-funded preschool program Head Start. Plus, there's the children covered by DES.

But here's another problem with the DES program: The state agency only pays 75 percent of the market rate from the year 2000 (which means no adjustment for inflation in 17 years).

"There will be a new Market Rate Survey completed at the end of this fiscal year but due to budget constraints, we will not necessarily increase rates upon its completion," wrote DES official Cheryl Beahan in an email.

The rates are about $400 a month. Some schools require parents to pay the difference, but $350 to $450 a month is still out of reach for many families. And much of the DES funding go to children in foster care and to families receiving welfare first.

In 2009, Outer Limits had two schools. When the funding cuts came down Berk had to close one, as did four other early-learning programs within 5 miles, over the next two years.

For years, Outer Limits charged no co-fee to families receiving DES subsidies, bearing the extra cost to help more kids have access to child care. Nine months ago, with costs rising and the government contribution remaining static, they had to start charging a small co-pay.

"Regular moms and dads not making a lot of money would be put on a wait list, which we sometimes refer to as the 'denial list,'" Berk said.

It's important to note that the Strong Start program would focus dollars on high-quality preschools. The definition of high quality would be determined by the Council-appointed commission but might look like First Things First's three- to five-star Quality First rating system. Child-care programs currently funded through DES that don't rank as high-quality or haven't been assessed for quality wouldn't be eligible.

"Childcare means babysitting," Jacks said. "High quality preschool means cognitive and high academic skills to succeed in life."

Responsibility and reciprocity

City Councilman Steve Kozachik says that unless you're a troglodyte, you agree that early childhood education has a great value. But he's concerned that funding it with city sales-tax dollars lets the state off the hook to provide funding.

"Don't come to taxpayers for $50 million," Kozachik says. "Work on the legislature. We can't take on every responsibility that the state abdicates."

Kozachik is also concerned putting this new burden on taxpayers could undermine support for overrides and other funding efforts for the K-12 system—an argument also mentioned by SALC and the Metropolitan Education Commission.

All these groups have backed "No on Prop 204," which went public the first week in October. The Political Action Committee has already received over $105,000 in contributions, including $25,000 from SALC and more than $10,000 from Jim Click. (The campaign finance reports did not detail an exact amount and the chairman of the opposition campaign, Armando Rios, didn't reply to the Tucson Weekly's inquiry.)

Strong Start had received $221,777 in contributions as of Aug. 18. Groups and local leaders who have come out in support of it include Child and Family Resources, the Children's Action Alliance, the YWCA, Congressman Raúl Grijalva and Pima County School Superintendent Dustin Williams.

MEC Director Arlene Benavidez says she would have liked to see broader collaboration with the education community in writing the initiative. She's concerned it doesn't address the needs in Tucson's K-12 schools.

"This is not something that's easy to fix, but the needs of the entire community need to be looked at before we ask for a tax increase," she said. "We understand the need and support the need for quality preschool, but our K-12 is in dire need."

Michelle Crow, with the nonprofit Children's Action Alliance, says "it's not enough to criticize and not offer solutions. This issue is at crisis levels."

A lack of adequate childcare prevents people from escaping poverty, Crow says, and with the state doing nothing to make things better, "citizens take it upon themselves to say, 'Look, we can't ignore this anymore.'"

The lack and the lacking

Critics of the proposition also warn that there's not enough classroom space to start offering high-quality preschool to 8,000 kids if the proposition passes. There would also be a need for 580 early childhood education providers, according to SALC President Maxwell, and there's already a shortage of K-12 teachers.

Maxwell says that while it would take at least two years if not more to build the needed infrastructure, the $50 million, which could be going to making Tucson better, will sit unspent.

"In an environment where you have limited resources, to put money aside that you can't touch is not logical," Maxwell says. "Early childhood education is a good solution. It's just a bad law."

But Crow counters that the market will respond and education entrepreneurs will have a chance to launch new businesses.

"This is an economic development strategy," she said. "It's the turnkey in what enables an economy to grow."

There are currently about 1,600 openings for kids up to age 5 at high-quality Tucson preschools, according to First Things First stats. Jacks predicts that a number of those schools could expand with the additional funding.

No sunset

While many tax increases have an end date, Strong Start doesn't.

"I don't see people stopping having children," Jacks said. "There's an endless supply of 3- and 4-year-olds. When there isn't, that might be a good time to repeal it."

But similar laws have had sunset provisions in other states. For example, in 2006, Denver voters passed a proposition that raised sales tax by an eighth of a cent for early-childhood education. The bill had a sunset of 10 years. In 2014, voters approved a new measure, raising the tax to a little over one-sixth of a cent.

To undo Strong Start would take another initiative, which would take energy and money, says Maxwell. Prop 204 is a "huge leap of faith," he says.

As a former kindergarten teacher, Jacks saw firsthand an "incomprehensible" difference in the kids who went to a good preschool. Many of the kids who hadn't attended preschool didn't know how to use scissors or turn the pages in a book.

She said many of the parents of the children who didn't attend preschool were just too busy to teach their children the things a preschool could. Many were "working two, three jobs to put food on the table and pay the rent."

While she wishes the state would act, she says Tucson's kids can't wait any longer and the city sales tax is the only funding stream available.

"Where else do you raise $50 million?" Jacks says. "Charity is not a substitute for justice, and philanthropy is not a substitute for policy. Policy and justice remain on the books. Charity and philanthropy reflect individual values. Policy reflects the community's values."

"It would allow 3- and 4-year-olds to start kindergarten on an even playing field," Jacks adds. "And in the long term, it will allow them to succeed in life and be equal contributors to this community."

Editor's Note: This article has been edited since initial publication.

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