Strong Start Tucson

Penelope Jacks is the campaign chair for Proposition 204.

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

Proposition 204, known as Strong Start Tucson, would increase the Tucson city sales tax by a half-cent and generate an estimated $50 million a year to help pay for as many as 8,000 young children to attend a high-quality early childhood education programs.

We would like to be able to endorse Proposition 204 and there are reasons to do so, especially because Strong Start Tucson, as far as we can tell, is the only group with early childhood as its focus and with a broad plan.

But, in light of serious concerns and questions about its parameters and governance structure, we find ourselves unable to recommend it.

We do not quibble with the need. It is real and it is worthy. To get the most bang for your education buck, investing in early childhood is the way to go. The benefits are great to the individual student, and, as we’ve said before, education is a shared benefit to the community.

Every family should have affordable, high-quality child-care available, particularly from birth to 5 years old, when the brain is receptive and rapidly developing.

Strong Start Tucson has logical and satisfactory answers for many concerns about its initiative plan. For example:

  • All of the sales tax money generated — an anticipated $50 million per year — could be spent only on early childhood education. Most of it would be spent on tuition scholarships for children to attend high-quality programs.

Yes, that’s true and it’s for a good reason: so the money can’t be swept and used for another priority. It’s meant for kids, and it will be used for kids.

  • Increasing the Tucson sales tax – by a half-cent — is a lot to ask. Organizers should have sought less, and see how it went before asking for more.

Campaigns are expensive and difficult, so go big or go home. The need is urgent and widespread.

  • Doesn’t First Things First already cover high quality child care?

Its focus is on improving the quality of programs, not on providing scholarships to families.

  • The tax money would only go to students who live within Tucson city limits. Proposition 204 leaves too many kids out.

Strong Start Tucson organizers say they knew Proposition 204 would lose in Pima County, so better to start in Tucson and expand if possible. We shouldn’t refuse to help some kids because we can’t help all kids.

Strong Start Tucson makes a solid case. They have reasons — good reasons — for their decisions in crafting the initiative language and scope.

The case begins to waver, however, under the weight of unanswered questions and red flags. Specifically, our concerns:

  • Proposition 204 would have the Tucson Mayor and City Council create a seven-member commission that would decide what “high quality” preschool entails. The commission would create the criteria, eligibility, scholarship amounts and distribution and hire a nonprofit organization to operate the program.

Mayor and Council appoints many commissions, but not with the power this commission would hold. There isn’t a clear and direct way to hold the members accountable, other than through electing or lobbying mayor and council members.

Additionally, Tucson is bound by state-determined expenditure limits, which means it’s possible that even if there was money from the Proposition 204 sales tax in the bank, Tucson might not be able to spend it.

  • Proposition 204 does not give benchmarks or a framework for how the commission would decide what “high quality” means.

First Things First already has a clear definition of what “high quality” means in a preschool. We shouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel, or leave it open to possible wide interpretation that would set the bar low.

  • Proposition 204 does not have a sunset, or ending, date.

Strong Start Tucson organizers explained that they did not include a sunset because campaigns are expensive and difficult, and they believe it should be up to opponents to mount an effort to end the program rather than on supporters to keep it going.

We disagree, and this was the fatal flaw to our minds. Every use of tax dollars should require a periodic review and renewal process. Yes, a renewal campaign can be a hassle and yes, it can be expensive. But it is not reasonable or prudent to approve a half-cent sales tax for perpetuity, even for such a worthy cause.

So, while we support Strong Start Tucson’s mission and goal, we are not convinced this is the best, or only, way to improve early childhood education opportunities in the Tucson area.

‘YES’ ON PROPOSITIONS 202 and 203

These propositions, known as the Future of Your Zoo initiative, would raise between $8 million and $10 million annually by increasing the Tucson sales tax by one-tenth of one percent for a decade. The revenue would be spent on infrastructure upgrades, expanding exiting animal habitats (including a larger space for tigers), a new hippo habitat and new shade structures for visitors. The funding would also pay for school field trips to the Reid Park Zoo.

We support the propositions because while the zoo is in the city, it serves the whole community. The sales tax would be levied in the city, but it’s reasonable (one estimate puts it at under $1 a month for an average resident) and it sunsets after 10 years.