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Sarah Gassen: How Tucson will help families pay for childcare amid COVID-19
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Sarah Gassen: How Tucson will help families pay for childcare amid COVID-19

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The following is the opinion and analysis to share:

It feels good to have positive news to share, although maybe in the time of COVID, when being negative is positive news, I should rephrase that.

Here’s the happy news:

The Tucson mayor and council decided this week to spend $500,000 to directly help economically strapped families pay for child care.

This is a significant win for Tucson families, children, employers and workers. A hodgepodge of federal and state programs has offered some help during the pandemic, but one source of increased state financial assistance stopped abruptly, leaving child care providers and families scrambling.

The $500,000 comes from the city’s federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act) money and must be spent by the end of 2020 — which, given the widespread and urgent need for help, won’t be a problem. Half a million dollars is a lot of money, but it won’t cover all who require assistance.

Local government making local decisions to solve real and immediate problems that will help families get back to work, help child care provider businesses and employees and keep kids safe. That is good news.

Catholic Community Services, a nonprofit that has existing contracts with the city, will manage the program. The money will be used for tuition scholarships earmarked for specific families and paid directly to their licensed child care providers.

Before the pandemic, a month of child care from a licensed provider in Tucson could cost roughly $1,000 — a hefty amount in good times, an out-of-reach amount for many in our perilous times. I’m using the $1,000 figure as a generality, because, of course, tuition varies depending on the location, program size and child’s age.

Providers’ costs are increasing with the added virus-related restrictions, such as fewer children per room, extra cleaning and personal protective equipment. So far, most of these small businesses — because that’s what child care providers are — are eating those costs but that can’t last forever.

I’ve reported on and written before about the power of high-quality early childhood education, and the incredible return on investment that comes to the wise communities like North Carolina, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia that spend their money to help lower-income families send their children to good pre-K programs.

As much as I dislike turning everything into a financial equation — many endeavors, including education, have such enormous value beyond monetary return — the academic research and experience of communities that have already done this are convincing. Investing in high quality early childhood education pays dividends not only immediately for an individual child and family, but longer-range benefits such as higher college-going rates and lower incarceration rates. The good effects reach into other generations, too.

I’m part of The Preschool Promise coalition of Tucsonans advocating for increasing access to high quality pre-K for all 3- and 4-year old children, most likely via scholarships like the approach the City Council just approved. We’ve been meeting regularly since spring 2018.

I was also among the small group who recently met with Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, via Zoom, to offer advice on how the city can best help families with child care.

We recommended the course of action Romero put forward on Tuesday and the City Council adopted: Use the $500,000 in CARES money for scholarships that will help individual families and pay the child care providers directly.

Giving money to the families could create tax complications for them down the road; providing the scholarships directly to providers on behalf of the families eliminates that potential messiness and ensures the money will be used for child care.

Having safe, reliable care for their children helps parents get back to work and that helps everyone.

Romero has asked that our small group keeps meeting about high quality early childhood education. I’m willing to talk to anyone if I have useful information to share and can be of service.

I am heartened by this ongoing conversation, by exploring possibilities and working to make high quality pre-K a reality for Tucson-area children.

The seed is planted and beginning to grow.

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

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Figuring out what is possible, and what is probable in our political climate, is its own challenge. Making high-quality preschool a viable option for more Pima County families is a complicated endeavor, but we can learn from other communities’ experiences how to do it.

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