Penelope Jacks is the campaign chair for Proposition 204.

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

In a basement meeting room at the downtown library last week, the leaders of Strong Start Tucson — an initiative to increase Tucson’s sales tax by a half-cent to provide Tucsonans scholarships for preschool — made their pitch to about 50 education supporters.

The message was simple enough: High-quality early childhood education is the most strategic investment Tucson can make to help students succeed throughout life, and to support low-income families struggling to balance work and family responsibilities.

Research shows that access to high-quality early childhood education increases third-grade reading scores and high school graduation rates. Students who start in high-quality preschool are more likely to get good jobs and be satisfied in their marriages later in life, and are less likely to abuse drugs, end up in jail or receive welfare, according to experts.

The average high-quality preschool costs about $800 per month, which is out of reach for most Tucson families, and currently only 1 in 5 children in Tucson are attending a high-quality preschool.

“It’s really nice to be in a room of education advocates, because I feel like we’re all in the same boat together,” Eric Schindler, president and CEO of Child & Family Resources Inc. told the crowd.

But the longer Schindler and Penelope Jacks, the campaign chair for Proposition 204, spoke to the crowd at the meeting hosted by the Metropolitan Education Commission, the more hands shot into the air with questions about details of the initiative.

How would the children be chosen, and how much financial aid would they receive? How would the initiative help bilingual or Spanish-speaking students? Would the initiative start new preschools to take in all the new students? Which preschools will receive funding? Is there a cap on the scholarship amount? If there aren’t enough preschools in a particular region, will students be bused across town to other schools? How would the initiative be held financially accountable and how would Tucsonans measure its success?

The two-page initiative leaves a lot unsaid — and that’s one of the chief reasons opponents, including many in the education community, are pushing back.

Arlene Benavides, executive director of the Metropolitan Education Commission, said she wasn’t surprised that the room full of education supporters had a lot of pointed questions about the initiative.

“Fifty million dollars per year indefinitely is something to question,” she said.

The measure has many supporters in the community, including from Democratic state and federal politicians, the Pima County School Superintendent’s Office, and organizations like Mi Familia Vota, Casa De Los Niños, Catholic Community Services and other child-care associations and groups.

But many traditionally allies of additional education funding are quietly not supporting Strong Start Tucson.

The Pima County Democratic Party, for example, declined to endorse the initiative. And only one member of the Tucson City Council, Karin Uhlich, publicly supports the measure, and she is retiring at the end of this year.

A majority of the TUSD Governing Board has not publicly endorsed the measure, nor have any major business or economic-development associations.

Prop. 204 specifically states that an appointed Strong Start Tucson Commission will establish standards for what qualifies as high-quality preschool; develop eligibility requirements for the scholarships and a sliding scale for the scholarship amounts based on family income; determine the financial aid reimbursement rates for preschools; and hire a nonprofit to administer, oversee and distribute the funds and scholarships.

But the details of how all of that would be done will be left up to the seven-person commission appointed by the City Council.

NO END IN SIGHT

Besides the lack of concrete details on how the estimated $50 million-per-year tax increase would be spent, opponents of the measure note that a half-cent increase in Tucson’s already high sales tax would put the largest burden on the low-income families the initiative seeks to help.

On top of that, the initiative has no sunset date, and the half-cent tax will live on in perpetuity unless citizens specifically vote to repeal it.

But Jacks noted that people aren’t going to stop having children. And if the need for subsidized high-quality education isn’t going away, neither should the means to pay for it.

“Reauthorization makes sense when there’s changing circumstances. There’s not changing circumstances here — the state is not coming in to take this responsibility. They’ve made it very clear they have no interest in that. You think the feds are going to come in to provide child care in Tucson? No,” she said.

Ted Maxwell, president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, one of the few organizations publicly opposing the initiative, noted that other major cities that started similar programs included a sunset date to ensure that if the program doesn’t work out as expected, citizens have the chance to re-evaluate.

And no other city has approved such a high tax.

Voters in Denver and San Antonio approved an eighth-of-a-cent tax to pay for early childhood education, as opposed to Strong Start Tucson’s half-cent proposal.

Maxwell said the leadership council supports public education and the concept behind Strong Start, but ultimately had to oppose the initiative because it is “poorly written and ill-defined.”

“Every detail in Prop. 204 is going to be left up to the Strong Start Commission,” he said.

And that’s perhaps the most troubling aspect of the initiative, according to Luke Knipe, a former City Council staff member and longtime Democratic political operative who is spearheading the campaign against Strong Start Tucson.

Knipe noted that up to two members of the seven-member commission will be early childhood education providers, which sets up a scenario where people are voting on policies that will benefit their businesses.

“That’s an unambiguous conflict of interest,” he said.

Jacks said there is oversight built into the initiative, including the fact that a nonprofit will be designated to oversee the fund, and nonprofits already have intense audit and reporting requirements.

But Knipe noted that nonprofits aren’t subject to the same public records laws that government entities are, and the initiative contains no assurances that the public will be able to evaluate their return on investment.

Jacks agreed the initiative isn’t perfect — in her mind it doesn’t go far enough — but noted that it’s modeled after successful programs in cities like Denver and San Antonio. And, she said, the alternative is to continue to do nothing.

“What I find very troubling is everyone stands up and says how important high-quality early education is to Tucson. I’ve heard the mayor say it, I’ve heard the Southern Arizona Leadership Council say it, even the Chamber of Commerce. ... Those people send their children to high-quality preschool. They can afford it,” she said.

“What I don’t understand is why they don’t think 8,000 kids who belong to other families should have the same opportunity.”

EDUCATION COMMUNITY split

Daniel Hernandez, a state lawmaker from Tucson and a member of the Sunnyside Unified School District Governing Board who has a long-held interest in early education, said he was “disappointed” the Strong Start Tucson campaign never approached him for support or thoughts.

And that’s emblematic of the initiative backers’ approach, he said.

“I’ve talked to staff at Sunnyside who are experts in early childhood education, and they weren’t consulted, either. So I’m not quite sure who the people who are coming up with this initiative are talking to,” he said.

Jacks said she had a team of people who helped draft and review the initiative, including Schindler of Child & Family Resources; Suzie Huhn, CEO of Casa de Los Niños; LaVonne Douville, of United Way Tucson and Southern Arizona; and James Ratner, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona law college.

Douville clarified that United Way did not endorse Strong Start Tucson, but their partners at First Focus on Kids, a coalition of groups and organizations focused on early childhood education, did endorse the initiative.

benefits only city residents

Hernandez criticized the program for applying only to students who live within Tucson city limits, which would exclude many of his constituents, including those in South Tucson and 30 percent of Sunnyside students who live outside city boundaries.

He worries the initiative would create “haves and have-nots” between neighbors on opposite sides of the street.

On top of that, Hernandez argued that the initiative could put at risk the four school district bonds and overrides that will be on the same ballot.

Voters will only support raising their own taxes so much, he said, and asking them to raise property taxes for the bonds, while also raising sales tax for the initiative, could be too much to ask.

Hernandez noted that the initiative would only help 8,000 kids, while Sunnyside, which is asking for a budget override, has 15,000 kids and the Tucson Unified School District, which is asking for more bonding capacity, has roughly 45,000 students.

“Quite frankly, those (bonds and overrides) are much more important to the local districts and the students we’re servicing than the Strong Start initiative,” he said.

Like many in the education community, Benavides of the Metropolitan Education Commission said funding preschool is a worthy and noble cause.

But she argued that giving preschools a $50 million-per-year dedicated revenue stream at a time when K-12 school districts are hurting for funding just doesn’t sit well with many education advocates, who would love to see school districts get a new revenue stream.

“When school districts are in such great need, if we’re going to ask citizens to raise a tax indefinitely, we should all come together for a plan,” she said.

Contact reporter Hank Stephenson at hstephenson@tucson.com or 573-4279. On Twitter: @hankdeanlight