Recently, a plan to provide high-quality preschool to all children in Pima County has been the subject of a great deal of debate and discussion. Interestingly, the issue of whether preschool is important and critical to the success of our community’s children, especially those in poverty, is not where the debate is.

The data is clear and anyone who has been paying attention understands that. So, I will not repeat the data or the emotional pleadings by educators, business leaders and dedicated citizens who created the Pima County Preschool Investment Program that the plan will work and should be funded.

My concern is about where this effort stands and how the political process in Pima County has become a reflection of a far greater problem in the way we approach difficult issues that are placed in the hands of elected officials and policymakers.

The concern begins with the question of what we believe the role of government should be in our lives and why we elect people to represent us.

If we take the position that the less government the better, we have to assume that, except for the most essential functions, other demands will be addressed in some other way, either through individual actions or not at all because they become non-essential by a sort of “natural selection” philosophy.

If we take the opposite stance, that government should provide most things that we need as a society because it is our right as individuals to live well, we must be willing to submit some of our personal control for the greater good. Both positions have positive and negative consequences.

Most of us agree with some of both positions, and that is where the dilemma resides. If policymakers subscribe to one position or another, or even a hybrid of both, to resolve complex and difficult social challenges requires a thoughtful and contemplative approach to solving problems. That means that the first order of decision-making must be to agree that the problem is real and should be addressed.

There must be a consensus that the goal is to solve the problem, not win the argument about which philosophy is better. Anything else creates polarization and results in the tribal mentality that has permeated all contemporary political environments.

If politicians operate from the position that their role is to represent a philosophy or a constituency that supports one philosophy or another, their approach is more about holding firm to a position rather than a commitment to solving the problem. If a politician states that they know a particular position is right, but their re-election depends on voting another way, they have failed in their duty. They are complicit in the failure of our democracy to do what it was designed to do.

Whether the problem is preschool education in Pima County, education funding in Arizona, health care on a national level, or any critical social challenge that reasonable and fair-minded people agree should be addressed, politicians must operate with a sense of mission, the courage to do what is right and the belief that they are elected to make the hard decisions that solve problems, regardless of their own self-interests.

Leadership demands doing the right thing, even when the leader is vulnerable. Winning the ideological battle might play well in the short term with people who want to see the other side fail, but our democracy was built on a very different philosophy of strong values, self-sacrifice for the greater good and resolve to make things happen.

We have an obligation to make our voices heard. Standing on the sidelines makes us complicit. We must demand that those we elect to office focus on meeting challenges with a plan to solve the critical problems that confront our community, not make excuses for why they cannot.

We must demand that they have the courage to demonstrate their regard for the long-term welfare of the citizens they are entrusted to represent. Anything less is unacceptable.

John Pedicone is a long-time Tucson K-12 educator and was superintendent of the Flowing Wells and Tucson Unified school districts. He is a member of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council and part of the Pima County Preschool Investment Plan working group.