Growing Pima County: The case for early childhood education

A scene keeps playing in my imagination:

A group of exuberant people, looking like they just won the jackpot, clasp hands and leap into a pool like it’s the most fun they’ve ever had. They’re at a great big party and they’re thrilled to be invited.

Pull the lens back a bit and we see they’re the elected and municipal officials from across Pima County, and educators and business people and parents and residents and kids.

It’s a bit like Dorothy when she wakes up at home in Kansas and is trying to explain Oz: And you were there, and you were there, and you were there!

What has them beaming?

Public preschool. In my mental mini-movie, they just came together to create and fund a way for more low-income kids to attend high-quality preschool.

Wouldn’t that be a heck of a reason to celebrate? It would be a fiesta for the whole community.

Hey, a Pima County taxpayer can dream, can’t she?

It became clear this week that the majority of the Pima County Board of Supervisors isn’t interested in providing funding to kick-start a plan, dubbed the Pima County Preschool Investment Program, or PCPIP, that would put more than 450 local 3- and 4-year-olds into classrooms at high-quality preschools beginning next school year — that figure is based on a $4.8 million funding request.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry issued a memo on Tuesday in which he acknowledged that research compiled by Nicole Fyffe in his office shows that “there is little doubt this investment will pay dividends in the long run, these programs have proven to be effective and beneficial, and there is significant need in Pima County.”

He continues, “However, the report also suggests that funding these programs has been a ‘hot potato’ quickly passed by all levels of government.”

Exactly.

And that’s one reason the group of community leaders — the Early Childhood Working Group — who put PCPIP together went to Pima County as a funding source.

The state isn’t going to do it for us. Individual municipalities can’t do anything beyond their own boundaries, nor can school districts.

The county is the most inclusive governmental entity with the ability to make a significant impact.

Huckelberry concludes his memo by recommending that the Board of Supervisors not fund the current preschool effort.

He’s spoken with the supervisors about preschool, and says that “at this stage there’s not consensus to do it.”

Without three supervisors who possess the fortitude to invest in the long term by understanding preschool as an economic development program, we need to dig in. Because make no mistake: If three of the five supervisors supported public preschool for low-income county kids then there would be the political motivation to find a way to make it happen.

And let’s remember what that “it” is, exactly.

Research and direct experience from communities across the country prove that investing in high-quality public preschool programs, especially for low-income families, is a successful economic development plan that pays off in long-term gains.

Is every program in the country equally effective? Of course not.

This is why building a preschool program on a solid foundation and tailored to our local needs is essential. And it’s urgent.

When I was reporting on early childhood education in Charlotte, North Carolina, late last year for this Star Opinion project, county officials there said it was essential that they frame their own preschool program as an economic development approach, not as an anti-poverty measure.

I understand that thinking — people tend to negatively judge others living in poverty — but I think we must think of preschool as an anti-poverty program, too.

We have to be honest about our needs. Nearly 10,000 low-income kids in Pima County can’t attend a high-quality preschool if their families can’t pay the roughly $10,000 yearly tuition.

From the memo, and from a conversation with Huckelberry Friday morning, it’s clear Pima County is feeling a bit put upon by PCPIP’s expectations.

“The problem is we appear to be the funder of last resort, and that’s not a good place to be simply because you tried four of five different things and they didn’t work out,” Huckelberry told me Friday.

“Why do we all of a sudden become a funder, why isn’t there a larger community effort, a more collaborative effort, more than just the county?

“If it’s that important, it should be a collaborative — every school district, every city in the area should be involved,” Huckelberry said.

OK. We can do that. Let’s keep talking.

Playing a game of political “You go first” won’t get the job done for our kids or our future.

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

Find more articles from Star Opinion’s Growing Pima County project at

tucson.com/opinion.