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Getting to ‘yes’ on early childhood education

Getting to ‘yes’ on early childhood education
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Five months ago, voters said “no” to Proposition 204, an initiative that would have increased the city sales tax to make sure every 3- and 4-year-old in Tucson could attend a high-quality early childhood education program.

Many who didn’t support Prop. 204, known as Strong Start Tucson, said they agreed with the goal and the necessity of early childhood education, but they didn’t like the plan. The Star’s Editorial Board was in that camp.

After the election, we issued a challenge to all those “I support the goal, but …” voters and organizations:

“We must get to work. We must find a way to expand early childhood education opportunities so all families who want to send their young kids to a high-quality preschool can afford to do so.”

The seeds of “yes” are planted.

After the election, Strong Start organizers Penelope Jacks and Kelly Griffith never stopped advocating for early childhood education. They’ve been meeting with Prop. 204 opponents, working to rebuild momentum for high-quality early childhood education. They’re not giving up. And they’re not alone.

The Star’s Editorial department teamed up with Tucson Ward 6 City Councilman Steve Kozachik in late March to host a public forum on education.

Representatives from First Things First, the Metropolitan Education Commission, Strong Start and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council shared their perspectives with the audience. Facilitator Catherine Tornbom, from the Center for Community Dialogue, and her volunteers led small group discussions about how to improve public education in Tucson and Pima County.

More than 130 people participated.

One of the most common answers: vote in new lawmakers at the Arizona Legislature, and increase school funding. Amen.

But we cannot wait for the Republican majority to recognize the tremendous investment benefit of pre-K education. We’re going to have to do this ourselves.

Last Thursday the Star’s Editorial department hosted another working session, this time with invited leaders in education, business, nonprofits, local government and politics. We co-hosted with Brint Milward, the director of the School of Government and Public Policy in the University of Arizona’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

We invited opponents of Prop. 204, because this must be a broad community endeavor to succeed.

Tornbom and her volunteers worked with small groups, discussing if early childhood education should be a priority? Who should be eligible? How do we ensure access? Who should administer it? Should it sunset, and after how many years? How do we make sure there are enough high-quality programs and teachers to fill the need?

It was so encouraging to watch people who might otherwise not sit down together huddle around their tables, talking about problems and solutions.

The groups reported that yes, pre-K is a priority, and participation should be voluntary. Income was the most common eligibility qualifier, though the limits differed; scholarship money should follow the child, so a family could choose public, private or charter programs — as long as the provider doesn’t discriminate. There shouldn’t be a sunset, but it’s a political necessity.

And, the biggest question: How do we pay for it?

Nearly every group mentioned property taxes; funding from the private sector and maybe local governments or school districts.

It’s a fantastic first step.

The Star Editorial department will keep reporting, talking and searching for what can work here.

Our community must get to “yes” on early childhood education.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen is the Editorial Page editor of the Arizona Daily Star. Email her at sgassen@tucson.com

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