Gov. Janet Napolitano today plunges headlong into the roiling waters of parenthood, schools and the state’s economic future as she unveils an early childhood education plan that promises to be as expensive as it is contentious.
A body of respected research shows the inexorable link between high-quality early education for at-risk children and a better shot at life. Those children who start school behind their classmates have a far better chance of getting arrested, becoming a teenage parent and dropping out of school. Arizona kids quit school at a rate greater than almost anywhere else in the country.
Business leaders in the East Valley and across the state have recognized the connection between early education and a prepared, productive work force. The Mesa United Way made the issue the centerpiece of its 2002 campaign, the same year the Tribune dedicated a monthly series, Born to Learn, to the fundamental years from birth to age 5.
Still, Napolitano must bridge a broad philosophical divide with legislators who maintain that educating young children is the sole responsibility of parents. And she must persuade lawmakers to spend millions in the face of a projected $400 million budget deficit. Educators and advocates agree that highquality early education is costly, no matter how gradually it’s done.
Napolitano will reveal some details in her State of the State speech today, drawing on recommendations from the State School Readiness Board and visits to states with innovative early education programs, including North Carolina.
The governor is expected to propose phasing in voluntary full-day kindergarten, beginning in the state’s poorest schools, and encourage child care improvements with a rating system that offers more money to better facilities.
She also is expected to discuss a scholarship program to improve recruitment, retention and quality of child care workers and preschool teachers, who now earn an average $8 per hour, and propose doubling funding for a homevisiting program that targets at-risk newborns.
In addition, the governor has pledged to reduce a waiting list of children entitled to subsidized care, estimated to reach 14,400 by June 30. Funding child care for all eligible families would cost more than $10 million this year and an estimated $42 million next year.
The devil may be in the details, but the fact is that some kids are ready to succeed when they hit kindergarten and others are already too far behind to ever catch up. There is widespread agreement that the failure of these children not only threatens their futures but drains the school systems, saps the economy and jeopardizes the we ll-being of our communities.
"My goal is, I want kids starting the first grade healthy, safe and ready to learn. I want kids reading as early as possible, and I want our graduation rates to go up," Napolitano told the Tribune last week. Across the country, states have created early education programs that vary widely in size and scope. Only nine states offer nothing to preschoolers, beyond the federally funded Head Start program, which serves the lowest-income children and in Arizona reaches about 15 percent of eligible families.
Arizona taxpayers will spend about $9.9 million to send 4,162 low-income children to preschool this year through the Early Childhood Block Grant. The $19.4 million program also funds all-day kindergarten and academic programs in kindergarten through third grade. Children with developmental disabilities are entitled to preschool through a federal program, and an additional $1 million goes toward family literacy. All three programs are administered by the state Department of Education’s new early childhood division.
Former Gov. Jane Hull created the state School Readiness Board, chaired by Nadine Mathis Basha, to recommend the framework of an early education system in Arizona, and Napolitano’s proposals are based on the board’s suggestions. The board recommended building on the block grant program to phase in state-funded preschool, beginning with the poorest children, as well as all-day kindergarten and a child care quality rating system. It also
recommended expanding programs to support young families, like Healthy Families, a child abuse prevention program, and Family Literacy.
The School Readiness Board has recommended a mix of state, federal and private funding sources, including an early education fund to accept and administer business contributions and foundation grants.
"We hope she will be creative in how we can use existing resources," Basha said. "We need a strong system for 0 to 5."
Carol Peck used to be a kindergarten teacher, beginning in the Mesa public schools more than three decades ago. She believed kindergarten was the best time to get young children to begin learning, when they had a "fresh palate."
"What I realized is that for many, kindergarten is too late," said Peck, a board member and former superintendent of the Alhambra School District in Phoenix, now with the Scottsdale-based Rodel Foundation. "Their whole education becomes a catch-up game, and it is very costly and not very effective to play that game."
In the Alhambra district, where nearly 90 percent of the students qualify for the free lunch program and more than half speak English as a second language, Peck created the state’s most successful pre-kindergarten program. And it has paid off. In a recent study, third- and fifthgraders who had attended preschool scored up to 17 percentage points higher on standardized tests than children who did not.
Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officers and a member of the School Readiness Board, said the governor, educators and the business community want full-day kindergarten and early childhood programs.
"But I think everyone realizes it won’t happen this year or next year until the economy gets better," he said.
He pointed to school districts such as Tempe Elementary and Kyrene Elementary, which use local funds, such as budget overrides, to support full-day kindergarten, and said the governor could recommend that other districts follow suit.
Debra Duvall, superintendent of the Mesa Unified School District, said federal Title I dollars could be used to start full-day kindergarten at some schools if state dollars are not available. Title I dollars are used to educate lowincome children.
Jim Zaharis, vice president of education for Greater Phoenix Leadership, said the business community supports voluntary, phased-in full-day kindergarten and better coordination of early childhood programs. Zaharis said the group has been working with the governor on the issue.
"She has been a big believer in this," Zaharis said. "It is great news to us that the governor has great interest in this. . . . Hopefully, within the next 18 months to two years, we will begin a phase-in" of full-day kindergarten.