More families eligible for free pre-K in Pima County after Supes increase income threshold
More Pima County parents can enroll their kids in free pre-K after the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to spend $13.6 million through mid-2024 on the Pima Early Education Program Scholarships to cover more students by raising income limits that determine who is eligible.
First Things First, Arizona's early education agency, increased the income threshold for a statewide scholarship program last Tuesday, and the Pima County board followed suit by increasing the local income threshold at a meeting Tuesday.
The new income limits will add 600 scholarships to the number of awards Pima County is ready to hand out over the next two school years.
Families making 300 percent of the federal poverty level or less in 2022 can enroll their children in “high-quality” pre-K with costs covered by Pima County. During the most recent school year, income eligibility was limited to parents making 200 percent of the federal poverty level in 2021. The county's commitment will run through the 2023-24 school year.
As a result, the income threshold for PEEPS will allow enrollment by families of three making $80,370 or less in 2022 — or $174,870 or less for families of eight. Eligible parents can enroll all their preschool-age children in early education programs rated as "high-quality' by First Things First, and the county will cover the cost of enrollment by paying pre-K providers directly.
The federal poverty level is based on household size and updated annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A family of three making $26,790 in 2022 is below the poverty level.
'The most important expenditure in our budget'
The supervisors voted 4-1 on Tuesday to approve a $13.6 million contract with First Things First to pay for the next two years of scholarships. The contract included the expanded income limits.
The board also finalized the county budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year at the meeting.
The opposing vote on PEEPS came from Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, who questioned County Administrator Jan Lesher about how much the county is spending on the program.
Supervisor Rex Scott, a Democrat and former school administrator who's a key advocate for the program, defended its importance, calling it “the most important expenditure in our budget in this coming year because we are investing in potential.”
The average cost of sending a child to preschool in Pima County is $800 a month, Scott said. The scholarships from PEEPS cover between $6,000 to $12,600, depending on the program, for a year of preschool for one student.
“Absent these scholarships, who would be expected to pay these costs?” Scott said at the meeting. “It would be the parents, and these are parents who are grappling with the costs of healthcare, housing, gasoline, food.”
Parents who can’t pay pre-K tuition will miss out on early education “that children with families of means do get,” Scott said. Free pre-k can also attract businesses by offering a better quality of life for their employees, Scott said, trying to challenge Christy to think about the economic benefits of PEEPS.
“We should look at this as more than just an investment in these children and their families,” he said. “We should look at it as an investment in our entire community.”
Income eligibility has also recently been expanded at for similar for pre-K programs in Tempe; San Antonio, Texas; Cleveland, Ohio, and Mecklenburg County, N.C.
Growth for PEEPS
In April, the board committed $30 million in federal COVID relief from the American Rescue Plan to fund the program for the next two academic years. The contract approved Tuesday takes money from those ARPA funds to pay for the upcoming scholarships.
None of the funding for PEEPS is coming from Pima County taxpayers nor from the county general fund, which would have covered the cost of PEEPS had the board not switched to relying on federal COVID relief.
When Pima County started the PEEPS program last summer, it was paid for with $10 million of county revenue. Board Chair Sharon Bronson joined Christy in voting against the program due to the lack of city of Tucson and private investment.
More than 700 children enrolled in the program in its first year, which ended in May. The goal had been to enroll more than 1,200 in its first year, but the program was stymied by staff shortages that prevented providers from opening more classrooms.
Officials plan to fund PEEPS for another 1,200 students in each of the next two school years, according to county documents.
First Things First also works with private pre-K providers to bring them up to the “high-quality” rating. Included in the $30 million growth plan for PEEPS is contracts with public school districts like Tucson Unified and Amphitheater to add more classrooms as well as money for First Things First to continue helping lower rated pre-K programs.
The county has a spending cap of $172,828 for 10 months on classrooms with 20 children, which is about $8,641 per child. School districts give in-kind support to pay for children attending pre-K at their schools worth about $1,750 per child, reducing the county’s cost burden.
Pima County awards scholarships 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 expects an average return of $4 to $6 for each $1 invested in free pre-K, and, at the high end, $12 to $16 for each $1 invested, according to a county memo.
According to the memo, “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.