Tony Penn: A thriving Tucson starts with funding for quality preschools

Tony Penn: A thriving Tucson starts with funding for quality preschools

There is no question that businesses today need an educated and stable workforce, and their future prosperity is contingent on our investing in it now.

The United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona has a proud tradition of working to advance issues related to early childhood education in our region through our sponsorship of the First Focus on Kids Coalition, our Cradle to Career Partnership and other programs.

Each year at our Business Leaders for Early Education Breakfast, the message has been clear: For our community to thrive, every child must have a firm grounding and be ready for school and life beyond. Science has shown that the vast proportion of a child’s brain develops before they enter kindergarten. Those who have attended a high-quality preschool excel and those who do not lag behind, in many cases, for life.

Our United Way regularly brings together many sectors of our community to address this issue and we all reach the same conclusion — the importance of increasing access to high-quality early education simply can’t be overstated.

The proposed Pima County Preschool Investment Program (PCPIP) would do just that. PCPIP has something of value for every sector of the community.

Parents can go to work with confidence that their kids are preparing for school and life success. Teachers know that students who have received high-quality early education are ready to learn and won’t need costly remedial care in the future. Law enforcement recognizes that early education is the best preventive tool for crime.

The value of high-quality preschool is greatest for at-risk children. Study after study has demonstrated that the rate of return for each dollar spent can be as high as $16 over the course of their lifetimes.

Sadly, in Pima County, 50 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds live in families who earn below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $50,000 for a family of four) and who struggle with day-to-day expenses. Of these, nearly 70 percent are children of color. And yet, fewer than 20 percent of them attend high-quality preschool.

Pima County has the opportunity to change this statistic through supporting the Pima County Preschool Investment Program. In partnership with First Things First, Arizona’s flagship agency for young children, and numerous private funders, we can change the trajectory for our most vulnerable children, interrupt the cycle of poverty and work toward the county’s prosperity.

The Arizona Daily Star is chronicling other communities that have stepped up, and in each, leaders have adopted a vision that includes intervening in poverty, raising literacy, supporting working families, and providing the educated workforce we need for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

This is good work, and these are our children. They are the kids next door, down the street and across town. Their success is our success. We are the leaders who we have been looking for. We must begin locally, and PCPIP is the right local opportunity.

Tony Penn is the president and CEO of the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona. Reach him at

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