Growing Pima County: The case for early childhood education

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

A glimmer of hope is sometimes nestled in the most bureaucratic of procedures.

That’s how I’m viewing the Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting last Tuesday when members unanimously voted to go into closed session for legal advice about whether the county can use general fund or library district money “to pay all or part of the cost of providing early childhood education to children of low-income families in Pima County.”

The fact that the question was even on the board agenda is a sign — of something.

For months, supporters of making high-quality preschool available to low-income families have been urging the Supervisors and County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry to help make the Pima County Preschool Investment Plan a reality by allocating about $5 million toward tuition scholarships and increasing preschool providers’ quality.

I’m one of those supporters — a shout-it-from-the-rooftops kind of supporter.

In the research and firsthand reporting I’ve done on early childhood education across the country for the Star Opinion’s Growing Pima County project, the evidence is crystal clear: The more 3- and 4-year-olds who can attend high-quality preschool, the better, more stable and more prosperous their future and their communities’ futures will be.

This is particularly true for children from low-income families, and kids of color — and Pima County is home to thousands of kids who meet that description but can’t afford high-quality preschool.

Until now, all we’ve heard from the Supervisors (except for Chairman Richard Elias, who supports the idea) and Huckelberry is, essentially, that they don’t think preschool is a county responsibility — or, reading between the lines, they’re not confident enough voters think it’s a county responsibility to get behind public preschool.

It’s true that some voters don’t think education is a county issue, much less education for young children who “should” be home with family.

And there are taxpayers who don’t understand the very big difference between childcare and high-quality preschool.

Fair enough. Preschool isn’t a choice their family should, or would have to, make.

But, as a county, we should be thinking beyond our own families. Keep in mind that preschool providers are local businesses employing local workers.

Pima County’s situation brings to mind the experience — and success — of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Supporters in Cincinnati have been working on early childhood education for years, talking about benefits of preschool, advocating and building partnerships that brought together houses of worship, nonprofits, child care and preschool providers, labor groups, colleges, parents, businesses and philanthropy to create Cincinnati Preschool Promise.

Eventually, the business community brokered an agreement between Preschool Promise and Cincinnati Public Schools and in 2016, voters overwhelmingly approved a $48 million tax levy — with $15 million earmarked specifically for preschool needs serving 3- and 4-year-olds. The 5-year levy was approved by more than 60%.

Cincinnati is now a national model of public preschool. They’ve had their challenges, and I’ll write about those soon, but theirs is a story of tenacity and partnerships leading to success.

“So much of this is about buy in, coalition building and a clear vision of what you’re doing and have a clear end game,” said Emily Lewis, who helped make Cincinnati Preschool Promise a reality.

“The politics will pull you to one side if you let it,” she said.

So, in this context the Pima Supervisors even asking “Can we do this?” is progress.

Some Supervisors may hope the answer is no — a legal opinion that would likely be challenged but that they could point to as an excuse to do nothing.

We need the question to evolve into, ‘How can we not do this?”

Sarah Garrecht Gassen is the Star’s Opinion editor. Email her at sgassen@tucson.com