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Strong Start Tucson: Is one penny on a $2 ice cream cone too much?

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Strong Start Tucson: Is one penny on a $2 ice cream cone too much?

Before I went to law school and became a policy advocate for children I was a kindergarten teacher. It was clear from the first day of school—and every day after—which children had been to high quality preschool and which had not. The kids who had had the good fortune to attend a good preschool demonstrated cognitive skills and character skills such as attentiveness, impulse control, persistence and teamwork. They were ready to learn. And no surprise: research tells us that 90 percent of a child’s brain develops before age 5.

Children who go to high-quality preschool perform better in school, complete more years of education, and become productive members of a more educated workforce. According to Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, short-term costs for early childhood education are more than offset by the immediate and long-term benefits through reduction in the need for special education and remediation, better health outcomes, reduced need for social services, lower criminal justice costs and increased self-sufficiency and productivity among families.

In Tucson we have about 14,000 three- and four-year-olds. Of those, fewer than one in five attend high-quality preschool, mainly because high-quality preschool is too expensive for most working families. Children’s advocacy groups have worked for eight years to restore state-wide child care assistance for working families, which was virtually eliminated in 2009. Thousands of families are on the state’s “wait forever” list. The citizens’ initiative, Strong Start Tucson, will provide scholarships that will allow between 6,500 and 8,000 three- and four-year-olds in our city to attend high-quality preschool. Twenty-five thousand Tucson voters signed petitions to place the SST initiative on the November 2017 ballot.

SST scholarships will level the economic playing field. SST scholarships will allow families, rich or poor, to send their children to high-quality preschool. The scholarships will be awarded on a sliding scale, based on family size and income. Many low-income families will receive a scholarship covering the full cost for their child or children to attend high-quality preschool. All will receive enough assistance to make high-quality preschool affordable in their family circumstances.

Currently the high-quality sites — centers and family-home care — are distributed more or less equally throughout the city (information based on data from First Things First and United Way). If all the kids eligible for SST scholarships were to show up on the first day, there wouldn’t be enough places for them. But here’s the good news: all local school districts have the capacity, ability, and desire to run extensive high quality preschool programs, but they have no consistent funding stream to do so. SST will provide a new source of funding for public schools to offer high-quality preschool. This is why many public school board members, superintendents and teachers support SST. And child care centers that were driven out of business by the state’s cuts are eager to reopen when and in neighborhoods where there are kids who can afford to attend. With SST scholarships, that will be every neighborhood in Tucson.

Strong Start Tucson will ensure that money is spent only where it makes a lasting positive difference. Research shows that preschool makes a long-term impact only when it is high-quality. Arizona has done well in establishing research-based criteria for high-quality preschool. High quality is recognized in a variety of ways, such as national accreditation, a Quality First rating of 3, 4 or 5 stars, and Head Start. The SST Commission will establish the exact standards required for SST participation.

Unfortunately, in Tucson, a sales tax is the only option legally available to fund SST. Let’s let Tucson families decide for themselves which is more important to them: scholarships for their kids or paying one penny more for a $2 ice cream cone. The 0.5 cent sales tax will cost the average person $36 per year. Poorer families will pay less and richer ones will pay more. While sales taxes are indeed regressive, well-off families make more (and more expensive) taxable purchases, and will therefore pay for a much greater share of the fund. (Food, medicine, and rent are not subject to sales tax.) Struggling families with young children will be eligible for thousands of dollars in scholarships, many times more than their sales tax burden.

The SST initiative steers a path between the twin evils of over-specificity and over-generality. We want everyone to understand that SST is supported by a 0.5 cent sales tax. The amendment to the City Charter would create an exception permitting a tax increase solely for this purpose, and the amendment to the code would create and instruct the commission about the program it must administer, and identify that the commission's only task is to implement SST. We articulated the principles behind SST and left some specifics out. The commission (members selected by the city and commission activities supervised by the city) provides for experts to do the job of actually administering the fund distribution and establishing the criteria for high-quality early childhood education.

SST will raise nearly $50 million annually. At least 92 percent of the funds will be used for Strong Start Tucson to meet the cost of high quality early childhood education. Of that 92 percent, no more than 10 percent can be used to enhance existing early childhood programs. The remaining funds, a maximum of 8 percent of the total, will cover administrative costs:

  • Costs the city may incur in tax collection and finance office operations;
  • Fees charged by the state of Arizona associated with tax collection and return of funds to the city;
  • Costs associated with the operations of the city-appointed SST Commission;
  • Fees paid to the competitively selected nonprofit agency that will establish family eligibility and issue SST scholarships.

Our city has many competing needs. When we look down we should see smooth roads; when we walk we should feel safe on our streets; and when we look up we should see a bright future for our children. Why not spend our tax dollars where we will know our investment will be returned many times over? The city’s recently passed tax will sunset in five years, resetting the sales tax rate. SST is not designed to sunset. When Tucsonans stop having kids, it will be the right time to end the scholarships.

We could wait for the state or the federal government to provide our kids with high-quality preschool. We could wait for them to offer us what visionary cities, counties and even some states across the country offer their kids and their communities: a chance to promote every child’s success, reduce poverty and improve the economic climate of their communities. I’m afraid that if we wait, today’s three- and four-year-olds will have three- and four-year-olds of their own! I wish we could provide every kid in AZ the chance SST will offer Tucson’s kids. Until that day, let’s make progress for our children, close to home, here in Tucson. Tucsonans, vote YES on Strong Start Tucson in November, and let every child shine.

To learn more about SST and read the full text of the initiative, please visit our website:

Penelope Jacks chairs the Strong Start Tucson Campaign Committee. She consults on local, statewide, and national child advocacy issues, teaches at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona and is a docent at Kitt Peak National Observatory. She retired in 2013 from Children Action Alliance where she was the Director of the Southern Arizona office and director of Early Childhood Policy for 22 years. As a lawyer, she worked for Legal Aid in Georgia and Illinois and lobbied for the poor, elderly, children and the incarcerated.

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