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Pima County's free pre-K program to grow with new classrooms, $30M in spending

Free preschool in Pima County will be more accessible to low-income families, with $30 million in spending to open more classrooms and pay more teachers. The program is entering the last year of a pilot phase with the upcoming 2022-2023 school year.

Last summer, Pima County started a two-year pilot of free preschool classes, called Pima Early Education Program Scholarships, or PEEPS. More than 600 children have been enrolled this school year, and county officials plan to award families with $11 million in scholarships by the end of next school year. Another $2 million will be spent on improving existing pre-K classes to a “high-quality” standard set by First Things First, Arizona's early childhood education agency.

Families qualify for PEEPS if their annual income is less than twice the federal poverty level, a marker set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For a family of four, that would be a yearly income at or below $53,000 in 2021, or $55,500 in 2022.

To keep the program running for an additional two years after the pilot, and open more classrooms, the Board of Supervisors has devoted $30 million to PEEPS over the next three years. That money was initially to come from the county's general fund, but last week the supervisors switched away from local taxpayer dollars to federal COVID-19 relief funds left over from the 2021 American Rescue Plan. The county has $102 million remaining in that pot of money, according to county documents.

The new funding isn’t a milestone, Supervisor Rex Scott, a former school principal who led the effort to start the program, said, but it also comes with amendments to the early education contracts the county has with schools, which are intended to help the program last and expand.

Among those changes is a requirement that money from the $30 million be used to increase teacher salaries. A shortage of pre-K teachers to staff classrooms has kept PEEPS from enrolling more students, county officials have said in the past, and set the program off to a slow start along with the pandemic. The hope is that a pay bump will recruit and retain more teachers.

A series of contracts will be coming before the Board of Supervisors in the next few months to create 29 new preschool classrooms over three years, which will serve 1,180 students in several school districts including TUSD, Sunnyside, Amphitheater, Marana, Baboquivari, Sahuarita and Flowing Wells. There are already more than 150 locations in Pima County where children can receive a high-quality early education.

More nonprofit early education providers are also bringing their classrooms up to the high-quality standards, Scott said.

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Flowing Wells had their contract, worth up to $900,000, approved by the Board of Supervisors last week to initiate the American Rescue Plan funding. The contracts give a maximum that the county will reimburse those schools, so the actual cost may be less. TUSD, Sunnyside and Amphitheater school districts are also getting funding from the city of Tucson for pre-K classes.

Schools are required to devote $1,750 worth of in-kind funding for each preschooler enrolled in the PEEPS program, but families will also be required to seek out child care subsidies from the Arizona Department of Economic Security. The PEEPS rewards scholarships through reimbursements to school districts rather than giving the money directly to families.

The PEEPS program is here to stay, Scott said, and in the long term it will be funded by the county general fund again after the three years the federal COVID relief will cover. Last year, a new state law also allowed counties to use property taxes that fund library districts to pay for early childhood programs, and “down the road that will be a source of ongoing revenue for the (PEEPS) program,” Scott said.

Pima County’s free pre-K program is “still being challenged by the conditions associated with the pandemic and also with staffing challenges,” Scott said, but added “we’ve consistently, each quarter, been able to serve more kids than we did the previous quarter.”

“We’re getting to a point where we’re going to be able to serve all the kids that we want to,” he said, though PEEPS aimed at enrolling 1,200 students in its first year and is still several hundred short of that goal. “Obviously, starting the program during the pandemic presented us with some challenges, but this is also a boon to families who not only want their kids to get the benefits of early childhood education but who also have child care needs as they are looking to get back to work.”

Despite the slow start, Scott said the progress is a benefit to Pima County families and the community as a whole.

“Let’s bear in mind, for each and every one of these kids, were it not for the county’s program, they would not be getting the benefits of preschool,” he said. “That is significant not only for those kids and their families, but for the entire county.”

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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