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Pima County OKs plan for free pre-K education for low-income families

'PEEPS' available to about 1,200 preschoolers this year

The Pima County Board of Supervisors approved a plan to support free pre-K education for low-income Pima County families Tuesday, adopting a budget that funds most of the $13 million two-year pilot project.

The county board voted 3-2 in favor of the plan, which will cover about 1,200 kids in its first year.

Low-income families in Pima County can get financial assistance from the county to send their children to "high-quality" preschools with Pima Early Education Program Scholarships — dubbed "PEEPS" by those behind the move.

The supervisors in May voted to allocate $10 million in partnership with cities and towns that will put in about $3 million to finance the program. Tuesday's vote was the final approval of the budget for the next fiscal year, which commits that funding.

The county program will provide scholarships to families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level and money to develop pre-K program. The chair of the Board of Supervisors, Sharon Bronson, voted against the resolution along with District 4 Supervisor Steve Christy, the board's only Republican, who said that that education should be a state responsibility, rather than supported by county funding.

Bronson said that she voted against the starting the program this year because because of what she called an issue of "equity." The county, she said, is providing funding without any guaranteed support from other actors, especially the city of Tucson. She said she "would have felt better" if county funding was contingent on other local governments playing a larger role.

"It's fiscally irresponsible. I don't know if my Democratic colleagues have taken Economics 1010 or financial literacy in high school," she said. "Where's the private sector? We need to have the partnerships with businesses and the city to make this sustainable."

The District 3 Democrat also said PEEPS was put together without any "transparency, accountability or participation" by other partners.

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"It's not that I don't support the concept; I don't support the method," she said. 

Supervisor Rex Scott, whose District 1 covers the towns of Marana and Oro Valley and the Catalina Foothills, said that Pima County needs to take the initiative before other partners step in.

"I respect Supervisor Bronson's opinion," Scott said. "She is in support of quality early childhood education. She just feels that there should have been more commitments from the city of Tucson, the other municipalities and the private sector. I am hopeful that as this program develops over the years that we'll see more of those commitments from the other jurisdictions and also from the private sector, but somebody has to take the first step, and all these kids are Pima County citizens, so I think it's appropriate that we make the bigger commitment."

District 5 Supervisor Adelita Grijalva, who is also on Governing Board for the Tucson Unified School District, said that providing decent pre-K education was a part of the responsibility of the county and that she's confident in the partnerships they do have. 

"The vast majority (of school districts) are (involved), we're partnering with Families First, the United Way is involved, the Tucson Metro Chamber is very supportive of it," she said. "We've had all of these organizations come out in support of the investment and quite frankly if we lived in another state — or two years from now, if the Biden administration provides free preschool — this wouldn't be a responsibility of ours, but the state has failed to provide adequate funding for our schools K-12, so we can't wait for somebody else to provide the service our families need."

She also said that this is an investment in a cycle where "every $1 invested will reap 10, 15 times the rewards" and that the the county has the responsibility to help Pima County by educating residents at a young age so they can contribute more as adults.

"One of the arguments I heard is that this isn't a function of the county," she said. "I completely disagree with that. The function of the county is to promote well-being in our community. As I see it,  it's one of the main responsibilities that is clearly under the umbrella. Of county responsibilities there are public health, corrections, homelessness, food insecurity — all of those things are squarely under our umbrella, and if we have young people that have a stronger start in school and graduate from high school that would be a huge benefit for Pima County."

Similarly, Scott said "education can be the greatest change agent in a child's life" and that "the greatest barrier to access to quality early childhood education is family income, and that shouldn't be case." He said the program will be "a game-changer to the entire (Pima County) community."

Scott, who worked in Arizona schools for close to 30 years including as the principal of Tortolita Middle School, said that he hasn't "seen the state do everything that it needs to do fully support K-12 education, so I high doubt that they're going to start to take a leadership role in supporting pre-K quality early childhood education when they haven't done enough over the course of those decades."

Scott also pointed out that this is one of the few ways the county can directly affect the education of Pima County citizens as the state, schools districts and their boards manage K-12 education and higher education in the area is the concern of Pima Community College and the University of Arizona.

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"In every area around the country where access to preschool has been increased, it has been because local governments have taken a leadership role," he said. "It's appropriate for the county to take a leadership role here, and we certainly have the money to do it. It''s a pretty small investment when you consider $10 million in a $2.2 billion budget."

Democratic Supervisor Matt Heinz also backed the plan.

To put the program together, the board approved intergovernmental agreements with the city of Tucson and the towns of Oro Valley and Marana to fund the program each fiscal year starting in fiscal year 2022. The executive assistant to the county administrator, Nicole Fyffe, said Pima County will have to decide how much to put into the program during their budget process each year. 

With these agreements, Pima County and its municipal partners have agreed to support the program with different contracts. Pima County will contribute the most toward the program: $10 million for fiscal year 2022. The vity of Tucson agreed to contribute $1 million, the Marana will provide $132,000 and Oro Valley will fund $100,000 over three years - or about $33,000 each year until fiscal year 2025. Oro Valley was the only party to spread out their contribution over three years, which, Fyffe said, was because they didn't want to immediately spend the money they had available.

Fyffe also said that $11 million is going directly to scholarships while about $2 million will go towards improving pre-K programs that are not rated as "high-quality" by the system used by the Arizona Department of Economic Security though First Things First, a state early childhood education agency.

Pima County will making the payments to the schools and child-care centers that are part of the program based on enrollment in their programs while private and public partners like First Things First, the United Way of Tucson and the Department of Economic Security will focus on indirect support by helping schools develop their pre-K programs, Fyffe said.

"Parents won't see any money directly though. They'll just be able to enroll their children in free preschool," Fyffe said. She also said that Pima County hopes to increase the number of partners working with them in the future.

PEEPS is meant to help disadvantaged families in Pima County, including the families of 1,245 children, with preschool costs. Children between the ages of three and five and who are not in kindergarten yet are eligible for the PEEPS as long as they are also in families at or below the 200 percent of the federal poverty level threshold.  That number is different for families of varying sizes; families of two with household incomes of $34,840 are eligible, but the income threshhold increases for larger families.

Fyffe said that the target population that Pima County is trying to serve with this program consists of 5,000 kids who are not attending high-quality preschool programs. PEEPS is supposed to help 1,200 of those kids in the first year, she said, adding that that county expects to help more each year.

Preschool classes begin as early as this month, and enrollment has already started at 170 locations across Pima County. Families are only eligible for assistance if they are seeking to enroll children in “high-quality” pre-K programs.

“High-quality” means schools that DES recommends to the county because they receive three to five stars on an assessment by First Things First, but Pima County will assist children enrolled in two-star programs for this first fiscal year because of the pandemic, Fyffe said.

Parents can start the process to getting assistance from PEEPS and finding a high-quality pre-K program for their child or children by going to the Child Care Resource and Referral’s website and clicking on “search for child care” then filling out the survey and finding the child care provider in their area. Alternatively, parents can call 1-800-308-9000. Both resources are available in Spanish as well.

The supervisors also approved two new administrative positions in the Department of Community and Workforce Development to oversee PEEPS in their Tuesday vote. For now, Fyffe is in charge of the program and running it out of the Pima County county administrators office, but the county is currently accepting applications for those positions through July 2.

According to research cited by Pima County officials, children who attend high-quality programs bring long-term benefits into the community as they are more likely to graduate high school, have better incomes and be in better health.

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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Arlington, Va., Public Schools

Low-income families can now receive assistance from the county to enroll their children in pre-K schools.

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