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What the Devil won't tell you

Rex Scott's bold $10M move puts early childhood education front & center in Pima County

Strong Start Tucson doesn’t know how to meet its end with acquiescence.

Forgive the anthropomorphizing of early childhood education but it just keeps coming back to life. It’s one part shuffling zombie and one part rising phoenix.

City voters rejected in 2017 what I call an ill-conceived $50 million plan to provide preschool to every kid in Tucson. The ballot initiative was more of a napkin-sketch plan of how to spend the money that would be firmly committed, rather than a detailed project. Voters agreed with me and killed the measure.

Then Strong Start kept clawing and scratching at its own grave. Backers of the idea took it to Pima County with a proposed $4.8 million price tag. The business community’s idea – and it was a good one – was for the county to establish “proof of concept” with a small program that could be “scaled up.”

Hey, might as well think outside the box to establish certain synergies and give the people a real win-win, right?

Wrong. The county didn’t go for it. Board members Ramon Valadez and Sharon Bronson were not on board with another programmatic mouth to feed.

The 2020 elections brought a new and more progressive slate to Pima County. Democrat Matt Heinz beat Valadez with an I’m-more-progressive primary challenge. Adelita Grijalva replaced the late, great Richard Elias, taking her father’s screaming-lefty place on the board. Rex Scott, just by being a moderate Democrat, moved the board way to the Left as he filled the seat formerly occupied by MAGA-loving Ally Miller.

And this is what you get: Old progressive ideas thought to be dead suddenly wake up, grab soy-based breakfast product and begin restating their necessity.

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Except in this case, they have a new and suddenly powerful ally in the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce. For those of you following local politics, yes, that Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Scott asked that a $10 million early education proposal be placed on the agenda for next week’s Board of Supervisors meeting for consideration and/or enactment.

I’m kind of interested to see how this works out. A new board and new alliances allow Rex Scott to just throw down his aces and see if he can establish a county early education policy in broad daylight instead of behind the scenes.

A game of three

Pima County politics has just one rule: Count to three. If three supes vote for something, it becomes policy. Three votes make laws.

Typically, there are two ways to get to three. There’s the outside game of gathering public pressure to insist on a change and the inside game of working various patches of political turf to build an internal consensus. Working both games simultaneously is how to best get results.

Scott is trying the out-front game. That’s really rare. An elected supervisor throwing something on the agenda and see if three votes show up. It’s policy-making in plain sight. This how civics classes suggest things should get done.

Reality bites

Well, we can’t have that. Now can we?

The thing is: No one wants to be the ass who says: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, kids, whatever. This isn’t the county’s job. Go flip those last two legislative seats and win the governor’s office in two years. The state is in a position to do this. The county is not.”

Instead, the instinct is to smile for the closed circuit camera and say “ixs-nay on the ids-kay. The ounty-cay has no ash-cay so ut-shay yer ap-yay.”

Perfectly legitimate point. Though Scott can point out that the county in fact has $1.4 billion to spend and can probably expect some form of COVID-19 relief money to help with shortfalls. The county can find $10 million somewhere.

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Of course, this gets into the general fund versus enterprise funds minus “restricted dollars” so the $1.4 billion shrinks pretty quick into an already-spoken-for series of line items.

But Scott is forcing the issue. The idea of the government offering early childhood education has support in the education, child-advocacy and business communities.

Chamber made

The chamber’s move here makes sense, even if it’s unexpected based on pattern and practice.

Someone doing something about early childhood education would help the business community out a lot, says Amber Smith, the president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce.

She lays it out better than I can. So I’m just going to let her roll:

"The largest challenge our businesses have, especially in Tucson, is finding the right talent to fill their positions. We have a large supply of low-level skills, but only a mid-size demand for those skills. We have high demand for mid-level skills, yet a low supply of that talent. It is all economics. For businesses to survive and thrive, they must have the talent needed to fill positions today and tomorrow."

Then came a little virus covered with crowns.

"COVID absolutely highlighted for employers the importance of a stable and active child care system. All of a sudden when that system shut down, so did their talent supply. While this impacted men as well, women are dominating in leaving the workforce in droves due to this issue further widening the gender gap.”

So times have changed since Jack Camper ran that joint.

Business groups have also pointed out that UA President Robert Robbins claims that teaching three and four year olds is the best investment a community could make in the entire education food chain.

So early education plugs an immediate need of helping workers get to work and may address long-term problems with Tucson's labor force.


Back to the books

The research is a little tricky, depending on if you prefer randomized control trials or longitudinal studies. It seems early childhood ed may not improve academic achievement in the early grades. However longer-term research suggests kids in early ed programs are more likely to graduate high school, go to college and live healthier lives than their peers who don’t.

Why? I’m not going to get an master’s in Education for this column, but it makes sense. Kids will do better if parents can earn more money and leave their kids somewhere safe and the kids can get used to a school setting.

Just intuitively, it’s hard to believe that if early ed is done right it would somehow have no effect on academic achievement. It’s like saying kindergarten has no effect on fifth grade. So why do it at all?

Smallish start, Tucson

Still the world is full of big ideas that may be good ideas and never happen because someone has to pay for it.

Pima County has to find the money and then figure out how to stand up a program it has never before tried to run. It’s almost impossible without a tax increase or some help from a government further up the pecking order. President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” has some promise here but gambling on program passing Congress isn’t the best way to make county policy.

The county running a state program with state money would be optimal. Unless there’s a Democratic takeover of the Arizona House, Senate and governor’s office, that ain’t gonna happen.

The school districts are in a position to do it better but for the money.

County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry may be confronting a reality akin to what I suggested back in 2018. He’s got to put it to a working group with a goal of starting something. Ease into it. Start small. Put together a coalition with schools and other local governments. Find funding sources and spread the cost around. Create a proof of concept and figure out how to expand the program over time.

Use that coalition to exert leverage the whole way.

A lot of folks are going to ask: “Why is this my job to use my tax dollars to pay for other people’s kids?” I agree. It shouldn’t be. Parents should be able to afford to get their own kids child care.

The Tucson area’s labor force just doesn’t have the skills to broadly support those kind of wages. The market for a higher-skillled wages is set by an economy that insists on paying investors first, second, 23rd, 804th and only in emergency do businesses break the glass and increase wages.

Tipping points

In 1998, people had been talking about real growth management for years but no one ever did anything about it. Then Supervisor Mike Boyd, a Republican, said “we should do something about growth management.” Just him flipping his stance lit the match.

The board went from having two, maybe three votes, to having five for stronger growth management.

Huckelberry had his marching orders. We’re still trying to buy land to complete the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

Scott’s bold move with the Metro Chamber on his side could be a tipping point on the imperative of early childhood education.

We’ll find out Tuesday morning when the board takes the matter up. Forget the back room. The policy will be debated live for the all to see as easy as 1-2-3.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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Pima County supes are going to (again) decide the fate of early education program. This time it's serious.


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