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Prop. 204: A voucher by any other name

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Guest opinion

Prop. 204: A voucher by any other name

In March of this year the New York Times published a scathing article about Arizona State Senate President Steve Yarborough's personal profiteering from vouchers in our state. Yarbrough abused his position in local government to in 2014 to gain $125,000 directly from our public taxes, as well as a portion of an additional $704,000 through HY Processing, of which he is a partial owner. Three years later, Yarborough lead a push to expand vouchers in Arizona to unprecedented levels. Despite a clear conflict of interest, the bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Ducey.

Flash forward to early August of this year and a coalition of parents, teachers, education advocates and community leaders knocked on doors and spoke to voters, gathering 111,540 signatures from Arizonans who want to ensure voters get the final say on this massive voucher expansion program. The education community around the state came together to oppose the privatization of education and the blatant attempt at self-dealing that Sen. Yarborough and his friends attempted to force on all Arizonans.

Here in the city of Tucson we are being asked to vote on a new voucher program, but its supporters would prefer you don't use that word. Proposition 204, also known as Strong Start Tucson, is a troubled proposal with an admirable goal. Proponents claim that if passed, it will provide affordable Pre-K schooling for every 3- and 4-year-old child in the City of Tucson. If that were the reality I would be writing a very different letter today.

Prop. 204 claims that their program will work on a sliding scale to assist families in Tucson to attend "high quality" Pre-K programs. They do not provide a definition of what they mean by "high quality" just that there are a number of ways that term can apply and the decision on which schools make the cut will be decided by a small committee after voters approve the proposition. After many requests and a number of months, Strong Start Tucson finally made a map publicly available of which schools may qualify. The map is not very detailed and is not interactive, so parents can't get a realistic idea of if they live near such a school, but the map does show large swaths of our community without a qualifying school.

The South, East, and large portions of the West areas of Tucson seem to have no schools that are deemed "high quality" by those that wrote this proposal, yet for some reason schools in the Marana, Oro Valley, Green Valley and Catalina Foothills all made their way to this map. These areas are all outside the city of Tucson, so the proposal allows for COT money to be spent on schools in other Cities and unincorporated areas. Is this because the owners of private Pre-K schools that are pushing this proposal also own schools in the surrounding community?

The steering committee for Strong Start Tucson is made up of longtime education reform activists, nonprofit directors, and private school owners. If Prop. 204 passes, the committee that will be appointed to oversee choosing a nonprofit to administer the tax funds is mandates that "providers" and "early childhood education experts" make up four of the seven appointments. Prop. 204 expressly puts organizations and individuals that will financially profit from this law in charge of the regulating where funding is directed. This is a clear conflict of interest, much like Senator Yarborough's legal, yet highly questionable actions at the state level.

Also left to the decision of seven unelected committee members is the mechanism for which students qualify and how much assistance they receive. Prop. 204 does not give any suggestions or examples of who qualifies for assistance. They do claim that it will be based on economic need and family size, but have not given any guidelines for voters to consider if Pre-K education will now be affordable for their family or not. Members of the steering committee have stated publicly that they expect a "skin in the game" provision requiring low income families to provide some of the funding themselves. The example used was that a family would be required to pay $5 per week per child at minimum, which sounds low until you realize that for someone making $18,000 per year after taxes, coming up with an additional $260 per year for this program can be difficult. That does not calculate the expense of the sales tax itself, not the added costs of transportation for the children attending these schools, which may not be near the family's homes.

When asked why the program seems to be geared towards private and parochial schools instead of aimed at our public-school programs, one member of the committee stated, "that's the way it's always been" and claimed that public schools would not be ready to handle a program like for up to five years in his opinion. This committee member is a private school owner, and his views may not reflect all the backers of this proposal, but he was speaking on their behalf in a public setting.

If Prop. 204 passes in November there is a real chance it will help some children in our community. There is also a real chance that it will be a program built on self-dealing to private and parochial schools. That a committee made up of those who may benefit financially from this program will be making decisions that affect all our community.

If Prop. 204 passes, the regressive sales tax it implements and the program it creates cannot be adjusted without a new proposition by city voters, an effort of considerable expense. The nonprofit chosen to administer funds will only be required to report back whatever the committee decides they would like. A program of little transparency and questionable oversight.

Universal Pre-K education is a needed goal. Study after study show that students who receive quality Pre-K education are better prepared for kindergarten and perform at higher levels for years to come. We in Tucson owe it to our children to implement a program that will benefit all of our community. We must build a program that will help low income children close the learning gap, not a program that allows upper middle-class families a rebate on their tuition while working families are asked to pay "put some skin in the game."

If voters can see through the propaganda and buzz words to vote down Prop. 204 we have a real chance at building a program that works for every Tucson family. The City of Tempe recently implemented a pilot program, that while starting small, embraces the ideals of public education and community improvement. Many education advocates, teachers, and elected officials that live in the city of Tucson have been talking about the ability to start a program that actually addresses expanding public education opportunities to our community instead of profiting off the problem. Free early childhood public education for low income families, greater access to all children, improvements to public schools that encourage steady growth and a program that will ensure Tucson children are better prepared and ready to seize their potential.

I ask Tucson voters to seriously consider, do you want a program that pays lip service to a very real problem we face, or do you want to actually fix the problem and make Tucson an early education powerhouse? We deserve better than Prop. 204, please vote no and help build a better plan.

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