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Strong Start Tucson's flawed conception undermines noble effort

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What the Devil won't tell you

Strong Start Tucson's flawed conception undermines noble effort

Too many of Prop. 204's details are left to be decided later, in Rio Nuevo flashback

  • dacotahsgirl/Flickr

Early childhood education? Sign me up. Just tell me how much you need and what you are going to use it for, because I'm in.

Arizona schools are without state support and the state has the gall to then limit the amount of local money that can go to schools. The economies doing best right now are the ones that value education. Arizona's leaders do not. So, we gotta ante up.

Strong Start Tucson, Proposition 204, does just that, raising sales taxes a half-cent to send 8,500 Tucson kids to preschool. So let's go. A sales tax hike to help kids get an early go of it? That's an investment worth making and ballots will soon be on their way to voters.

I mean, it's not like they are asking for a blank check on vague promises of future good behavior. Unless ... uh-oh.

I call this column “What the Devil won't tell you” to remind myself to say something original but sometimes it's my job to say “the Devil's not always wrong.”

Regarding Prop. 204, the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce isn't just decrying something bad-for-business because it's good for the rest of us. The Pima Association of Taxpayers aren't just being sticks in the mud about a new tax. The Pima County GOP isn't being rambunctiously anti-liberal standing against this proposition.

And there's a reason so many traditional allies of kids and schools are silently fidget-spinning while the ballots go out for this program.

The devil is in the details see, and Strong Start Tucson's proposition punts on all of the details until after the election. The initiative's authors farm out to a future appointed commission important stuff like the size of scholarships, who qualifies, how the money will be dispersed and how will the money be subject to transparency and accountability.

Strong Start Tucson's authors seem to be offering a tone-deaf promise that they'll answer questions after voters hand them $50 million per year. That's not a winning strategy.

Investigative journalists should be salivating over the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars collected and dispersed through a process to be decided later. Reporting awards are won and careers are made by such programs.

In fact, the more I read it, the more I think Prop. 204 is Rio Nuevo without the forethought. At least Rio Nuevo's original incarnation included a never-to-be-realized sea aquarium. It was a completely unworkable sea aquarium but the parents who birthed Tucson's downtown redevelopment plan were thinking about how the money might be spent.

It's not enough to identify a problem and toss $50 million in its general direction. Backers of this proposition would have been better served defining the need, crafting a proposal to meet that specific need, establish trust with the community by running the program well and then expand it as necessary.

They don't. So the proposition's proponents could give Tucson a new white elephant just about the time we are done cleaning up after the last ill-conceived albino pachyderm still looking for a Sky Bridge.

The sum of its parts

Proposition 204's language can be boiled down to the following parts:

1. The city will impose a half-cent sales tax.

2. The city will establish a Strong Start Tucson commission, appointed by the City Council.

3. The Council shall turn over the whole of the $50 million raised by the tax hike to the commission and shut up about it.

4. The commission will hire an outside nonprofit organization to operate the program, putting the flow of tax money outside the oversight provided by open meeting and public records laws. Private, for-profit early education providers will cash the checks — in more ways than one.

I don't think early ed folks think they want a slush fund, but stacks of cash not slotted for a specific purpose invite suspicion.The measure just doesn't include enough safeguards to satisfy any of us that it won't be used for things vaguely associated with early childhood education

Here's what I mean:

The language of the proposition says the money will be collected for the purposes laid out in the package. But the initiative doesn't demand city money pay for scholarships (which a number of liberal opponents of the measure are decrying as "vouchers"). It requires the initiative ponies up money for "a scholarship program." Here's the difference in hyperbole. It's not legal to take scholarship cash and go on a fact-finding mission to Tahiti. It may well be legal to take city money for "a scholarship program" and buy umbrella drinks at the edge of the surf in the South Pacific.

I can absolutely hear some future city attorney decide the trip to Tahiti fell within the scope of Prop. 204 because “the money is there to fund the program and not scholarships, per se.”

The Strong Start Tucson measure would leave 8 percent for administration but another 10 percent could be set aside to improve early childhood opportunities in Tucson. So, seeing as my K-12 experience wasn't in Arizona, I can put 10 and 8 together and come up with 18 percent, or $9 million per year available for things other than the scholarships. We can rest easy though, because it's still the scholarship program.

Assuming each scholarship includes an administrative component (say 10 percent) paid to the preschool cashing the check, on top of the admin money flowing to the nonprofit that gets the contract to run the entire program, we're now talking somewhere north of $13 million per year available for the early education community. That's $60 million over five years funneled into the pre-school industry.

When tens of millions of dollars start floating around, the best of us can get “ethically crafty.”

(Pssst … Hey Dylan, how does independent nonprofit media get in on the action?)

Not a question of good guys

And at this point, the pre-school crowd reading what I just wrote is horrified. How could I even suggest they are corrupt. Don't I know they're the good guys?

Ta-da! Say hello to the other trap advocates of good works always run into: White-hat hubris. They're fighting for children and education. So voters can trust them because they're the good guys. Everyone likes them.

That's not the ever-loving point and it never is the point. Voters don't sanctify nobility. They answer a question. Do you want to spend X on Y? So it behooves initiative backers to ask the right question.

I get what's going on here. Strong Start Tucson leaders don't want to micromanage the program for the outset, so they are leaving it up to the eventual steering commission to figure out the details. It's smart private decision-making but bad public policy.

What transparent was

Some details are always left for after the election. When voters approved the ban on smoking in the work place, the state had to hold public hearings to divine the true definition of the word “patio,” but the state didn't have to figure out the particulars of exceptions.

Take a look at the last time city voters approved a half-cent sales tax to go for police and fire department capital purchases, along with road repair. They had it laid out plain. New tax dollars would buy 257 new patrol vehicles during the next five years and 262 laptops in year two. The city would buy 47 new fire trucks and 62 new cardiac monitors at $2,003,000. The road work included a map of projects they planned to complete.

That kind of transparency builds trust. Strong Start Tucson is asking voters to trust them with $50 million each year forever, but they haven't yet worked out the complexities. If the scholarship program is simple, they can spell out now how it would work. If it's complicated, they should have given us a better idea of what they were looking at.

Arizona has a real need for investment in education. Early childhood education investment can be a force multiplier for schools. The Legislature refuses to provide the needed money but initiatives leave the voters with a recourse to make their own law.

There's a reason U.S. Sen. John McCain espouses the virtue of “regular order,” in the Senate and there's a reason why the laws the Legislature approves at 4:23 a.m., the day of adjournment are generally stupid. Good laws require good vetting through a public process. Sunlight has a way of illuminating weaknesses or vagaries some lawyer tapping at his office keyboard misses or tries to sneak into law.

A matter of composition

I have another nitpicky issue with Strong Start Tucson. For all it's vagueness, the proposition's language gets very specific about the composition of its commission.

There are to be seven members appointed to the commission by the mayor and Council. Good enough. On the other hand, that board is to be made up of early childhood advocates, providers and experts. Can't one person be considered all three? Wouldn't a provider be an expert, an advocate and a business person? Or must they fit into three distinct categories? If so, what if a new Council member wants to appoint a business person but there are no “experts” as defined by the commission's bylaws.

On that seven-member body will be "early childhood education providers, education advocates and experts, parents of school-age children and members of the business and non-profit communities," according to the language of the initiative. Given that each category is set out in plural form, that means that — depending on how you parse the commas — the commission will have at least two representatives from four to six different interest groups.

How do you shoehorn eight to 12 people into a group of seven?

While they wrap their heads around that problem, the Council will have to divvy up who gets to appoint which stakeholder group and that assumes they are getting along well enough to pull off such a trick. And open meeting laws will require them to make such decisions in public, trading this parent representative off for that nonprofit community member. Looking at history, I wouldn't bet on that working.

If Ward 2 is miffed at Ward 5 and Ward 5 is tweaked at Ward 4, and Ward 4 is in a rolling knife-fight with Ward 3 so none of them can agree on who gets to appoint whom, we could field a commission with an illegal composition. Then what?

The final problem gets to a lot of the other problems.

The language specifically requires two experts and  no more than two providers serve on the board. That's likely a simple majority, guaranteeing those with a potential financial interest in the program control the commission overseeing who gets millions.

This whole exercise seems be the work of good people doing good things wanting good money to give kids a good education. If it means the backers can drive a better car and move into a bigger house, then God bless the children. I don't really have a problem with that reality but try not to make it look so much like nest-feathering, is all I'm saying.

Problems abound with Prop. 204. I didn't want to believe it. God knows the state won't do it. I wanted to saddle up and quote Henry V: “Once more into the breach!” Instead I'm channeling Admiral Ackbar: "It's a trap!"

It's curious how the backers of the initiative spelled out such details as how some commission members will serve two-year initial terms and some four years, but the money-spending part wasn't really worth getting into.

Early childhood programs would pay a price for decades if this program were to run into Rio Nuevo-type problems because Tucson once again free to widely interpreted the mandate of the ballot measure. The program needs guard rails that aren't there.

Say this program goes down in flames, which it might. The organizers of Prop. 204 and other education supporters should come back with a better, stronger plan – perhaps a bit less ambitious – to help the most vulnerable population and then expand the program after proving it works.

We don't craft rules so we will trust fine people with $50 million per year. We craft reasonable and effective rules so we can trust fine people with $50 million. The organizers of Strong Start Tucson seem to miss that distinction.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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