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Sarah Gassen: Want a stronger Pima County? Help send a child to quality pre-k
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Sarah Gassen: Want a stronger Pima County? Help send a child to quality pre-k

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The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

The thing about sharing, as any child can tell you, is someone has to go first.

On Tuesday, Pima County has that opportunity. The Board of Supervisors will consider a forward-thinking request from Rex Scott, one of three new board members:

Include $10 million in the fiscal 2021-22 county budget for scholarships to help low-income families who want to send their 3- and 4-year-olds to a high-quality early childhood program.

A “yes” sends a powerful signal that Pima County leaders understand the clear benefits of investing in early childhood education — aka preschool — and how the investment pays dividends for families, kids, businesses, public safety and neighborhoods.

You don’t need to have a young child — or any child — to benefit. Research shows that young children, particularly kids from lower-income households, who attend high-quality preschool do better in school and have fewer disciplinary issues, are more likely to graduate high school, and are less likely to be involved in the criminal-justice system as adults.

I’m hopeful.

I’ve been reporting on how other communities around the country have harnessed the power of using public funding for high-quality early childhood education and what we can learn from their vision and on-the-ground experience.

In Mecklenburg County — home to corporate center Charlotte — business leaders are all in on public preschool. North Carolina pioneered and funds a statewide pre-K program, but county leaders championed Meck Pre-K to provide free high-quality preschool to more children. It’s a point of community pride and a centerpiece of the county’s economic development strategy.

Philadelphia’s PHLpreK program offers free quality preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds, paid for by a beverage tax the mayor proposed and City Council passed in 2016. Taxes are never easy, politically, but elected officials stood firm, convinced by community need and the return on investment. Their leadership is demonstrated in each of the roughly 3,300 Philadelphia kids now enrolled in quality preschool.

Cincinnati voters approved a 2016 public school bond measure that included $15 million for preschool serving 3- and 4-year-olds. The levy was approved by more than 60%. Supporters built a wide and deep coalition from business, faith leaders, educators, neighborhood advocates and by recognizing a reality so obvious it’s easy to overlook: Preschool providers are small-business owners with employees — and many of these entrepreneurs are women of color.

San Antonio. St. Louis. Denver. Seattle. New York City. Multnomah County in Oregon (which includes Portland). Tempe. All communities investing in themselves and their people. We deserve to be on this growing list.

We know a scholarship program can work here, because we’ve seen it. Last fall, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and the City Council allocated ultimately $750,000 in federal COVID relief dollars to helping families pay for child care through scholarships paid directly to providers. The details would be different for a preschool program, but it’s doable.

Pima County has taken up preschool funding before, but the prior Board of Supervisors members were unwilling to consider the investment. County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry weighed in with a not exactly supportive memo.

Concerns ranged from political hot potato to the more advanced version of not-my-job, which is, “We don’t want to be the only ones pitching in just because we’re the county.”

High-quality preschool is a jobs program — parents with affordable, quality preschool can go back to work knowing their kids are safe. It’s an economic development program. It’s a small-business program. It’s an anti-poverty program. It’s a public safety program. It’s a community investment program. It involves education, yes, but it’s so much more.

Pima County shouldn’t be the only one making the investment, and it won’t be. A coalition of advocates, calling ourselves The Preschool Promise, has been busy for the past two years spreading the word and building support locally. (Disclosure: I’m part of The Preschool Promise group.)

This effort needs to be shared — business, nonprofits, governments, philanthropy, families, providers, schools, residents — because everyone will share the benefits.

But someone needs to go first.

Pima County, it’s time to make your move.

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


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