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Free pre-K in Pima County still in need of long-term funding source
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Free pre-K in Pima County still in need of long-term funding source

PEEPS costing millions, relying on federal COVID relief grants for now

The free pre-K program in Pima County that has enrolled more than 700 kids in its first year is still in need of a long-term funding source to replace the COVID-19 relief that will support it for the next two years.

Pima Early Education Program Scholarships pays early education providers to enroll low-income students at no cost to families. Program Manager Nicole Scott said it’s been “very successful” since starting in 2021, even with the pandemic and a teacher shortage holding them back.

The program will receive $30 million until 2024 from the remaining $102 million in leftover 2021 American Rescue Plan funds granted to the county, along with contributions from Tucson, Marana and others. Since early April, the Board of Supervisors has been amending school contracts to switch the program’s funding source away from the county general fund.

PEEPS, stymied by a staff shortage, fell shy of its first year goal of enrolling 1,200 students by about 500 children, but the county is still expecting to enroll as many students for the second and third years, according to county documents.

The question that's top of mind for the next fiscal year, Scott said, is “what do we do after 2024,” when the $30 million in federal COVID money runs out.

“Right now, we’re in a good spot,” Scott said. “But I think we need to start thinking about what happens after 2024 and how can we keep this program sustained so that our youngest learners are not just left out in the cold…I think that’s going to be where we tend to focus this next fiscal year. Let’s take some time to find that funding to secure this program for years to come.”

A little less than half of the $30 million is going towards opening new preschool programs in school districts such as TUSD, Sunnyside, Amphitheater, Marana, Baboquivari, Sahuarita and Flowing Wells. Those districts are expected to enroll in 1,180 preschool students each of the next two academic years.

TUSD expects to double their number of pre-K classes from four to eight while Amphitheater will go from one classroom to 10. PEEPS should help open more pre-K classes in districts across the county, Scott said, but it's limited by the "capacity" that schools have to bring in staff and enroll students.

The county has a spending cap of $172,828 on classrooms with 20 children over 10 months, which is about $8,641 per child. School districts give in-kind support, however, of about $1,750 per child, reducing the County’s cost burden.

More expensive are the scholarships that Pima County awards to more than 150 early education providers across the county, including to privately operated centers, family home-based providers and existing school district preschools.

The county is looking at setting the amount given with each scholarship at no more than $12,600 per child for 12 months. As much as $17.4 million is expected to go towards the scholarships over the next three years.

More than half of the $30 million goes to those individual scholarships administered through First Things First, Arizona's early childhood education agency.

First Things First gives those scholarships to “high-quality” early education providers to enroll children from low-income families. The “high-quality” rating is determined by First Things First.

Families qualify as low-income 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.

The Board of Supervisors may expand that qualification though. At their June 7 meeting, they’ll consider a TUSD contract amendment that would include families with incomes up to 300 percent of the FPL but with families between 200 and 300 percent paying for a portion of the tuition.

The maximum for expenses that the county has drawn up for PEEPS is $29.8 million over the next three years, with an expected $2 million left behind in unspent scholarship money.

The Arizona Department of Economic Security, which is the parent agency to First Things First, is also expected to cover the cost of pre-K for families that receive child care subsidies.

The number of kids covered by DES will be unknown until enrollment for the next school year begins, but the county expects that the state’s help will provide some relief from the cost of PEEPS.

DES and statewide funding for low-income pre-K programs is one of the avenues Pima County is exploring to keep PEEPS afloat, Scott said. Part of trying to get long-term state support, however, is showing them that there’s support across the region for PEEPS, Scott said.

“There’s still a need for those other local governments to provide support and collaboration in this effort so that it shows not only a joint effort in combating the high expenses,” she said. “But also shows to our state what we can do together and the buy-in that we expect them to put into early education.”

Board Chair Sharon Bronson and Supervisor Steve Christy have also voiced concerns about the lack of contributions coming from other jurisdictions such as the city of Tucson and town of Marana.

For the next three years, Tucson has put forward $2 million — pending approval from the City Council — towards PEEPS. Marana will pitch in $274,345, and the town of Oro Valley $100,000. Tucson’s funding has helped 73 kids enroll so far, while Marana’s helped 17, according to an April 28 quarterly report. The report doesn’t include how many Oro Valley has helped enroll.

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said during a May City Council meeting that she would like to put another $1 million towards PEEPS “to return the favor” of the county forgiving $5 million owed by the city for animal care services.

PEEPS staff have also been in contact with similar programs in Flagstaff and Tempe, Scott said, to work together to show the state that there’s a need across Arizona for free pre-K. The other option is getting county funding for the program through the library district, Scott said.

The program was born into a rocky start but has done well halfway through its pilot years. Scott said that even if they fall short of their goals, it’s very impactful to help kids at an early age.

“Overall, it was very successful for the year that it was coming in and the workforce that it was coming into,” she said. “It’s difficult navigating through the dollars, setting up the contracts and setting up the classrooms and scholarships, but it’s all worth it in the end. Even if we only help 100 kids, I think this program was successful.”

The county reports that “studies by well-respected economists have found the return on investment for high quality early childhood education is substantially higher than other formsof government spending on social services,” according to a May 26 county memo.

“At the low end, these studies show a $4 to $6 return for each $1 invested, and at the high end $12 to $16 for each $1 invested,” the memo reads. “Many of these returns accrue to local governments and taxpayers through lower spending on remedial education, health and the criminal justice system, as well as higher earnings for today’s workforce and for the workforce of the future.”

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

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