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What the Devil won't tell you

After a weak first try, Strong Start Tucson is back with a more reasonable preschool plan

God bless Penelope Jacks.

The long time advocate-slash-street fighter on behalf of social services for kids was part of a what I called a noble but ultimately doomed effort to bring all-day preschool to Tucson with a half-cent sales tax.

Voters nixed it in 2017 and for good reason. Prop. 204 provided too little up-front accountability for way too much money. The people who came up with the idea basically said, “give us $50 million a year and we’ll decide how to spend it later.”

Those running the proposition were pros and probably thought they knew exactly how to get it done. But voters shouldn’t have had to place that kind of trust in them without a clear plan laid out.

Then I saw Jacks after the election and she told me all-day kindergarten would be coming back. She was bloodied but unbowed.

Pima County's Board of Supervisors will consider this week a more digestible version of the plan during their upcoming budget hearing, because Jacks is back with the help of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council. 

No, it's not a "copy-replace" version of Prop. 204. That was my worry. too. I felt ya. My first response was to message the Sentinel crew "things that are stupid for $1,000, Alex."

A doable plan

Turns out, the new effort is pared down, reasonable and relatively affordable to launch.

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Voters should still have issues with the idea of establishing early ed as a county program, but the people pushing this latest proposal have gotten smarter and are presenting a sleeker, simpler start to it.

The idea now is to start up all-day preschool for 400 kids from low- and middle-income families for a price tag of $4.8 million under the banner of the Pima County Preschool Investment Program.

Strong Start Tucson’s first iteration was to establish after the election a whole new program to watch over how the money was spent. That was bad planning. The new idea is to have things overseen by First Things First, a statewide support network for programs that help kids and already keeps tabs on $66 million in spending on early education.

Proponents of the PIP say no tax increase is necessary but that’s a bit of a word game. As old county debts are retired, the secondary property taxes that pay them are scheduled to decrease over the next few years. However, if the PIP is run out of the County Library District, those taxes would stay where they are to pay for the start-up of preschools.

Property tax bills wouldn’t rise, but they may not come down like they would otherwise.

Fully funded, the program as imagined would provide up to 12,000 kids here with early education, so it needs to get 300 times bigger than the pilot — but even a strong start has to start somewhere.

SALC's welcome influence

Providing free early education to me didn’t seem like the sort of thing the Southern Arizona Leadership Council would get involved in. I’ve had mixed feelings about SALC for years.

If you are like me, you too think they’re a bit too cool-kids-table: recruiting pledge classes from Tucson’s best, brightest and perhaps the snappiest dressers among the business-friendly class to chart a course for the community from whatever passes for an ivory tower in this sprawling pueblo we call home.

On the other hand, nothing SALC does is shifty or nefarious. It’s just not exactly a bottom-up organization so the unyielding subversive in me habitually wants to know what’s in it for them. It’s a perception the organization should battle.

In this case, SALC’s involvement seems to have added a bit of of measured realism to the push for early childhood education.

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SALC Vice President Shelly Watson said it fits nicely into the group’s mission of fighting for education.

"We’re basically walking our talk. We are concerned about P20 education. There was just this one proposal we didn’t care for," Watson said.

Yes, Watkins uses the term “K20 continuum,” along with wonderfully boring terms like “scalability,” “ROI,” “incrementalism” and “proof of concept.”

Dull business buzzwords to be sure, but that doesn’t make them frivolous to the idea at hand. In fact, it sounds rapturous because those catch phrases add up to other words Watson drops like “credibility,” “building faith,” and "fighting poverty."

And then there’s her too-good-to-true haymaker: Every dollar invested in early childhood education returns up to $16 in economic creation. Maybe that’s optimistic but we are clearly not talking about wasteful spending if it’s even just 1/15th of that.

There’s no big pot of money available for all day preschool so use that as an opportunity to start small, build a program that works well for some, and then try to expand it so it provides services to more.

All it would take is one or two bad news stories about kids being warehoused or God forbid abused, and the whole program turn into an uncontrollable trash fire.

Walk first. Then sprint.

Credit Jacks and company for reaching out to the broader community to get the kind of partners in crime this caper needs.

What counties do and don't do

Now, the plan is by no means a slam dunk. Watson concedes its prospects before the supervisors are … cloudy. Huckelberry has told them it can be done and he's willing to do it but he's not going out on a limb for it.

There’s a reason for that.

Counties were never envisioned to provide these kinds of social services. They were originally established in Arizona to provide spartan government to rural areas.

“There are people who say education isn’t a county issue,” Watson says. “There are plenty of things that the county gets into that aren’t 'county issues.'”

Very true.

The Tucson region didn’t check with Arizona framers before the community grew. Pima County is alone among the 14 other Arizona counties in that it has to serve a very urban population.

What’s more, the county runs the library district because the city asked to be let out of its role in that endeavor. It pays for long-term care for the elderly because the state insists. Movement is afoot for the county to spearhead a Regional Transit Authority that could take over Sun Tran services.

The county has its own vocational charter high school for God's sake.

There’s also a boring bureaucratic reason to go to the county. The county is funded with property taxes and Tucson’s sales tax rate is reaching a shattering point for local families. The 8.7 percent sales tax is among the highest in the country for a regressive kind of revenue source that hits this low-income community where it lives.

If you want a government service but don’t want a sales tax, then the county is the first and last stop.

State of denial

Now it's time to talk about what we're really talking about but haven't mentioned yet: If this is a good idea, the state should be doing it.

The state has the reach, resources and access to more creative funding sources to pay for something like free all-day preschool. They have statewide agencies that are better able to scale up a program like this.

However, it doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea because the Arizona Legislature won’t lift a pinky to provide more help to people living in a state where poverty rates, unemployment rates and median income fall short of national averages.

When more people are poor, they have enormous problems being rugged individualists capable of getting by on their own. Hell, even when they aren’t poor, they struggle to provide for themselves things like early education for their kids. And it is a statewide concern because today’s preschoolers are tomorrow’s work force.

People who recognize these fact of life are left again to stew under a Legislature that recognizes nothing unless right-wing media says it first.

So local communities like Tucson are left to fend for themselves if they want

This coming election cycle, the reactionary control of the Legislature is as narrow as it has ever been. Flip two state House seats and the Republicans would lose control for the first time in 50 years. Three very gettable state Senate seats would flip that body too.

No party should be in control of anything for that long. I can name four knuckle-dragging Republicans who would do well running the City Council for a few years just to remind Democrats that the voters are in charge.

So flipping the Legislature – or just one house of it – should be the focus of all who want to see broader investment back into our state as opposed to tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. And after that? Tax cuts.

This isn’t the 1970s. Businesses looking to relocate aren’t obsessed with tax rates these days anywhere near as much as they are looking for a skilled work force.

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Early childhood education would be a long-term investment in providing a home grown crop of workers to fill the jobs of the future. We have to stop relying on importing those workers from other states to ride on the backs of the investment other governors and legislatures spend on their people.

Blessed incrementalism

It's always the money. I get that, but supervisors dubious on this idea may just be feeling bushwacked by it as it has just been shopped in the last couple months. So maybe give the idea some money for a planning study, feasibility inquiry or something to see if more meat can be put on the bone.

I get that our county supervisors may be wary of jumping into a whole new service when they have problems fixing potholes. But low-wage towns create high-need people, in addition to big Wall Street profits.

Spending $4.8 million on early ed is worth considering as a startup. Then maybe see if there’s a way to bring in other jurisdictions so the program can be regionally expanded with other governing bodies picking up part of the bill.

No one waves flags or writes folk songs on behalf of incrementalism. It’s neither sexy nor inspiring.

Abigail Adams harassed her husband John about giving women the vote in the 1700s, in 1920 they got universal suffrage and in 2016 the first woman ran for and nearly won the White House. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and in 1965 Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act a year after signing the Civil Rights Act. Ronald Reagan sought a conservative revolution that took nearly 40 years to achieve.

Steve Jobs didn’t tell Steve Wozniak, “Build me an iPhone.” They started trying to build a personal computer 30 years before that.

The trick is to keep coming back … like Penelope Jacks.

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

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Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News

Students at a full-day kindergarten class in Phoenix, 2016.


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