U.S. policy on the education of young children is at odds with both public opinion and our growing understanding of the best ways to help kids succeed in school. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the First Five Years Fund during the 2016 presidential campaign, 90% of voters agreed that Congress and the next president should work together to make quality early childhood education more accessible and affordable to low- and middle-income families. First Five Years And detailed, up-to-date research shows that properly run early childhood programs can have "significant and consequential effects into the middle school years." Other studies have found beneficial effects on school completion, involvement in the juvenile justice system, and other important measures of well-being. Yet despite both strong public support and a sound empirical foundation, policy makers have not acted to establish the needed programs. And, at the federal level, there is little hope that they will do so during the current administration.
At the state level, the picture is complex...
In 2015, Education Week reviewed programs across the country, observing that "early childhood education is an elaborate patchwork of laws, institutions, and programs spanning the public and private sectors and varying dramatically across states.". Nevertheless, in an attempt to characterize the nation's performance and that of each state, the Education Week Research Center developed a single measure that incorporated the most recent available information regarding levels of participation in early-education programs and services, as well as aspects of equity and enrollment trends from 2008 to 2013. Concluding that the nation's efforts to provide early childhood education were, as a whole, "lackluster," these researchers were nonetheless able to identify significant variations across the states.
So how did Arizona fare? Unfortunately, not well. In this comprehensive analysis, Arizona was ranked 46th in the overall quality of efforts to provide early childhood education. And there is little to suggest that things will get better soon. Currently, there are no efforts underway in the state legislature to fund preschool education.
For that reason, we have launched Strong Start Tucson, a citizen initiative that would pay for preschool scholarships using money generated by a proposed half-cent city sales tax. Pima County preschool programs charge an average of $7,200 a year, putting the early-learning experience that research has shown to be critical out of reach for many families in a city where the median household income is about $37,000 a year.
As we have worked to build support for Strong Start Tucson, we have, of course, encountered many questions. Many citizens have asked, for instance, whether the state's Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program, which provides funds for K-12 students to attend private school, could be used to provide scholarships for preschoolers. And others have asked whether Strong Start Tucson would draw funds away from the K-12 program.
The answer to both questions is a clear no. ESA funds cannot be used for preschool education, and the funds derived through the Strong Start Tucson initiative can be used only for preschool scholarships and only in Tucson. The two programs are completely separate. To make high-quality preschool programs available to all of Tucson's children, the funding that Strong Start Tucson would provide is needed.
We believe that Strong Start Tucson will be a terrific asset to our community. As Chairwoman Penelope Jacks has said, "Every child in Tucson should have access to high-quality preschool because it is the best predictor of future success in school and in life. When kids have a high quality preschool experience, their chances of succeeding all throughout their education go up dramatically — they’re much more likely to graduate high school, they’re much less likely to be incarcerated later in life. It’s just in every way a boon.”
We hope you will join us in supporting this initiative. If you have any questions about the structure of the initiative, eligibility, or any other topic, leave a note in the comments. And volunteer! As the fall election draws closer, we will need people to reach out to friends and neighbors, encouraging them to support Strong Support Tucson. You'll be glad you did. There's no better way to make the world a better place than to create richer opportunities for children to learn and grow.