Small children hauled four red wagons full of signed petitions into the City of Tucson Election Services office Thursday morning.
The 25,000 signatures were gathered during the past several months by volunteers and parents for Strong Start Tucson, an organization campaigning to create preschool scholarships through a half-cent city sales tax increase.
The goal was to obtain 9,241 signatures by July 6 to get the initiative on the ballot for the Nov. 7 city election.
Penelope Jacks, Strong Start Tucson's chairwoman, says the fact that they were able to get so many signatures is a sign of what's to come.
"I think 25,000 signatures is a good sign," Jacks said. "I feel very optimistic. We feel Tucson understands the need for early education, so it shouldn't be a hard sell."
Of the estimated 14,000 3- and 4-year-old children in Tucson, only 16 percent attend a high quality early-education program.
Preschool programs in Pima County cost an average of $7,200 a year, making it out of reach for many families in a city where the median household income is about $37,000 a year.
Strong Start Tucson says if the sales-tax increase is approved by voters, it will help up to 8,000 more children have access to such programs and will cost the average household $36 per year.
The morning started with remarks from Jacks, a law professor, an early-childhood educator and grandmother of three young children.
"By paying one penny on an ice cream cone, we can give up to 8,000 3- and 4- year-olds scholarships to go to a high quality preschool," Jacks said to an audience of about 30. "Whether from a rich family or a poor family, they will each have the chance for a bright strong future."
Jamie Ratner, a law professor at the University of Arizona says he's a living example of the positive impact early education can have.
"I still remember that preschool and it's the only entirely positive experience I've had in education and that set me up," Ratner said. "It let me go where I wished to go. In fact, that school and experience not only inspired me, and not only my brother, but it inspired my mother to be a preschool teacher and ultimately a director of a preschool. It's just a good example of what early childhood education can do for kids and their families."
Ratner said early-childhood education is a positive investment for the community and the fact that only one in five Tucson children receive it is "not ok."
"High quality early childhood education has been repeatedly demonstrated to promote later academic success, reduces poverty, increases improved careers for those who get it, reduces crime and reduces welfare," Ratner said.
Magda Morales, a grandmother to three young children, says she was excited when she heard about Strong Start Tucson.
"My kids are young parents," Morales said. "They worry about the future of their children. Where they're gonna go, if they're gonna go to childcare, if they can afford it. They worry constantly about it. I worry too...I'm happy that everybody cares enough for our children to get this going."
Although they've met their first goal, Strong Start Tucson has a lot of work to do before the city-wide general election.
"We've just made it to the start line," said Kelly Griffith, Strong Start Tucson's campaign manager. "This is where the hard work starts. It's about making sure Tucson voters understand why it's important."