Voters set to decide sales tax for early childhood education – Inside Tucson Business

Coyote classroom is full of sensory wonders. Two little girls paint on an easel while children’s classical music plays quietly. A curly-haired three-year-old runs up to Bill Berk, the director of Outer Limits School, and hugs him around the legs.

A trough full of dry beans labeled “sensory station” is equipped with plenty of tools for legume exploration. Kids move from little tables and chairs to tiny soft couches to chalk boards and bins full of art supplies.

High-quality preschools benefit families and communities in numerous ways. This year, a political committee called Strong Start Tucson is pushing an initiative, Prop 204, to make quality preschools more accessible for families of all income levels, through a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax that voters can establish on Nov. 7.

Out of almost 14,000 three- and four-year-olds in Tucson, only 2,500 attend high quality preschool, according to data compiled by Strong Start Tucson, with the help of the University of Arizona School of Geography and Development using Census Bureau data, and data from First Things First and United Way.

Prop. 204 has passionate supporters, many who’ve spent their lives advocating for Tucson children. While the value of early-childhood education is something everyone agrees on, the proposition also has staunch opponents who have a track record of supporting access to education. They say Strong Start is not the proper way to spend taxpayer money and expand access to preschool.

Berk, who’s been running Outer Limits with his wife for 14 years, helped plan the Strong Start initiative, which he calls an “anti-poverty program.” Outer Limits is a five-star school, and sending a child there is not cheap.

Depending on a child’s age, Outer Limits charges $750 to $850 a month, which Berks said is slightly higher than the average tuition around town. About 20 percent of families at Outer Limits pay out-of-pocket; 12 percent receive scholarships from First Things First, a state agency that funds early childhood education; and the remaining 68 percent receive funding through DES’ Child Care Assistance.

Every dollar invested in high quality preschool has a return of $16, according to James Heckman, who won a Nobel Memorial Prize for economics and conducted groundbreaking research on the benefits of investing in early childhood development.

Strong Start works through a half-cent sales tax, which aims to raise an estimated $50 million annually to help between 6,500 and 8,000 three- and four-year-olds go to high-quality preschools. Every year, as the four-year-olds age into public school, another round of kids would become eligible.

Preschool would be paid for on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the amount families receive would be determined on a sliding scale, based on income and family size. A wealthy family might only be eligible to receive a dollar, while a low-income family may be eligible for a full ride, said Strong Start Chair Penelope Jacks.

One of the criticisms of the proposition is that the way the sliding scale would work is not written into the initiative. It dictates that the city council and mayor would appoint a seven-member commission to work out those details. Two members of the commission would be early-childhood education providers.

Ted Maxwell, the president of Southern Arizona Leadership Council, said having those early education providers on the commission is a conflict of interest. He’s concerned that a desire to see it succeed would set up a method to spend the money even if it’s not reaching the people who need it most.

“If you need to spend to prove success, you’re going to do it inefficiently and wastefully,” he said.

The Tucson Metro Chamber, Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and prominent local businessmen such as Jim Click have joined SALC in opposition to Strong Start. Outside of the business community, the proposition faces opposition from Democrats.

Only one member of the all-Democratic Tucson City Council has come out in support of the initiative: outgoing councilmember Karin Uhlich. Vice mayor Regina Romero declined to return phone calls to talk about the proposition. 

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild’s response came from communications director Lisa Markkula: “While it’s a laudable goal, $50 million a year is a lot of money, and there’s little specificity in the initiative as to how the money will be spent.”

The lack of details in the initiative is a major narrative being pushed by opponents. Jacks said that’s normal for an amendment to the city charter: It sets up guidelines for the commission formed by the city council to work out the details. Locking detailed regulations into the charter—which is essentially the city’s constitution—would mean that if changes needed to be made after the program is underway, the council would have to send them back to the ballot.

“You don’t put details in a constitution,” Jacks said. “You put details into regulation. And that’s the commission’s job, to act as the regulator and articulate the high-quality standards, to establish the sliding scale and to decide which of the nonprofits to contract with.”

Councilmember Steve Kozachik said that unless you’re a “troglodyte,” you agree that early childhood education has a great value. But he was concerned that funding it with city sales-tax dollars lets the state, which slashed funding for early childhood education from $82 million to zero annually during the Brewer administration, off the hook to provide funding.

“Don’t come to taxpayers for $50 million,” Kozachik said. “Work on the legislature. We can’t take on every responsibility that the state abdicates.”

Kozachik is also concerned putting this new burden on taxpayers could undermine support for overrides and other funding efforts for the K-12 system—an argument also mentioned by SALC and the Metropolitan Education Commission.

These groups backed “No on Prop 204,” which went public the first week in October. The Political Action Committee has disclosed about $186,700 in contributions, including $25,000 from SALC and $30,000 from Jim Click.

Strong Start received about $317,800 in contributions. Groups and local leaders who supported it include Child and Family Resources, the Children’s Action Alliance, the YWCA, Congressman Raúl Grijalva and Pima County School Superintendent Dustin Williams.

As a former kindergarten teacher, Jacks saw firsthand an “incomprehensible” difference in the kids who went to a good preschool. Many of the kids who hadn’t attended preschool didn’t know how to use scissors or turn the pages in a book.

While she wishes the state would act, she said Tucson’s kids can’t wait any longer and the city sales tax is the only funding stream available.

“It would allow three- and four-year-olds to start kindergarten on an even playing field,” Jacks added. “And in the long term, it will allow them to succeed in life and be equal contributors to this community.”

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