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Guest opinion

PCPIP: Our community comes together for early childhood education

Investing in quality early childhood education helps disadvantaged young children, and it is among the best ways to fuel economic growth. Study after study has demonstrated that the rate of return is between eight and 16 times the amount invested, through better educational outcomes, improved health, greater economic productivity and reduced crime.

These benefits last a lifetime. Many communities across the nation, and in our region, are already making this investment. Pima County is in now a position to make such an investment: Pima County Preschool Investment Program.

As of 2017, there were approximately 27,000 three- and four-year-olds in Pima County. Half these children live in families who earn less than $49,000 annually for a family of 4 (200 percent of the federal poverty level) and are at risk for failing in school, largely due to poverty. These are the children who can most benefit from high-quality early childhood education, but who have the least access to it. Cost is the barrier.

While nearly everyone in Pima County agrees on the value of high-QECE, Prop. 204, a 2017 ballot initiative that would have funded QECE for children within the city limits, was defeated. Since then, proponents and past opponents of Prop. 204 have together forged a broad coalition and developed a plan that includes a countywide, scalable approach that we can all support. The coalition includes Strong Start Tucson, Southern Arizona Leadership Council, school superintendents, Children’s Action Alliance, the University of Arizona, First Things First, Metropolitan Education Commission, Center for Economic Integrity, and others.

Fully funded, PCPIP would provide scholarships for 12,000 high-quality preschool placements for three- and four-year-old children in Pima County, including every child from a family under 200 percent of the poverty level who wishes to attend. These scholarships would provide access to full-day, full-year high-QECE, so as to yield the greatest educational benefit for children, a stable and productive current workforce, and a future workforce ready to take on tomorrow’s challenges.

PCPIP has many strengths. It will be administered by First Things First, Arizona’s respected state agency that focuses on young children and has extensive experience in distributing these kinds of scholarships. No new bureaucracy will be created. All high-quality preschools will be eligible to receive children with scholarships. Fortunately, Arizona has well-articulated statutory standards regarding quality. PCPIP will be a public/private partnership, funded by the county and by a variety of other public and private funding sources.

The state of Arizona has for decades underfunded or failed to fund even basic custodial child-care for children living in poverty; Pima County children don’t have to settle for that.

Recent research at the University of Arizona confirms that Pima County has, or will easily create, plenty of high-QECE seats to meet the demand, including in public schools, nonprofit, for profit, faith-based, and private schools. Settings that are not high quality or that discriminate will not be permitted to participate in the program.

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In 2015, the United Way and Lecroy & Milligan estimated that almost 10 percent of Pima County’s youth aged 16-19 (almost 2,300 of them) were at risk of becoming ‘Opportunity Youths’, disconnected from school or work. Such youngsters are likely to be a lifetime burden on taxpayers. Each will require almost $14,000 of annual support (more than $258,000 lifetime) in areas like public and private health expenditures, welfare support, crime interdiction, criminal justice interactions, and lost tax revenue contributions. In addition to these costs, the social burden (loss of income/adult work productivity) attributed to this population is estimated to be $37,450 annually ($759,900 lifetime).

Providing high-QECE to this critical population can return the investment many times over and avoid the taxpayer burden outlined above. It’s time for all of Pima County to take the lead on this highly effective and well-documented program so that our most vulnerable children have the best opportunities to succeed in school, and in life.

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Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News

Students at a full-day kindergarten class in Phoenix, 2016.