Investing in quality early childhood education not only helps disadvantaged young children, it also is one of the best ways to fuel economic growth. Renowned economists have demonstrated through numerous comprehensive, longitudinal studies that the rate of return for investing in quality early childhood education (QECE) for disadvantaged children is between eight and 16 times the amount invested. The return on investment is achieved through better educational outcomes, improved health, greater economic productivity and reduced crime.

Pima County has a relatively high rate of preschool-aged children: As of 2017, there were approximately 27,000 3- and 4-year-olds in the county. Nearly 25 percent of these children are at-risk for succeeding in school, largely due to poverty. While at-risk children benefit the most from quality early education, it will surprise no one that these children have the least access to QECE.

Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC) works to promote economic vibrancy and a high quality of life in the region. Our members are leaders of companies and organizations who view public policy issues through a business lens. They understand the importance of an effective P-20 education system, not only for the well-being of children and families, but for the future workforce of the region. SALC continuously partners with our state’s legislative and civic leaders to advocate for more funding for P-20 education.

The beginning of the P-20 pipeline is QECE, which is the foundation for subsequent educational development and attainment. As any builder will tell you, a strong foundation is necessary to ensure the stability and resilience of a structure. In the same way, a strong educational foundation is required for young children, especially at-risk children, to help them excel in school.

SALC was not supportive of Prop. 204, an initiative on the ballot in 2017 that would have permanently raised the city of Tucson’s sales tax by a half-cent to fund QECE for children within the city limits. While well-intentioned, the initiative was flawed in fundamental ways. But we didn’t stop there. SALC members have spent the past 18 months collaborating with the backers of Prop. 204 along with additional partners and, together, have forged a broader coalition and developed a viable plan that includes a countywide, scalable approach.

Pima County faces greater challenges than our neighbor to the north. Maricopa County is booming economically, while Pima County’s growth has been more modest and slower to emerge from the Great Recession. Economic trends here are improving and there is reason to be cautiously optimistic, but our region’s increasing poverty rate has a direct and deleterious impact on both educational attainment and economic growth. SALC believes that a targeted investment in QECE will pay far-reaching dividends that go beyond economic expansion.

Dozens of counties across the country have launched and funded successful QECE programs that are tailored to address the specific challenges of their regions. Counties in states like California, Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, Minnesota, Florida and North Carolina have supported QECE in different ways through various means. Our QECE working group has been meeting with Pima County officials to identify ways our region can make a strategic investment in quality early childhood education. We appreciate that the leaders of our county are committed to reducing poverty, and we look forward to working together to ensure that more young children in Pima County, especially at-risk youth, receive high quality early childhood education.

The future economy and quality of life for residents of Pima County depend on the investments we make today.

Rosey Koberlein is CEO of Long Cos. and is SALC P-20 Education co-chair. Shelley Watson is vice president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council.