Long strips of butcher paper swirling with vibrant blues, oranges and purples line the walls along the hallways leading to the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education Preschool at Arizona State University. Inside the door, the scene is as lively as the finger paintings, with children bustling from one activity to the next.
The kids, ages 3 to 5, decide what they will do based on plans they make in the morning.
As they play, moving among three distinctive rooms and guided by teachers and ASU students in this nationally accredited program, they develop independence, learn social skills and gather the academic skills they’ll need to start kindergarten.
“We believe children learn like a tree. It’s very organic,” said preschool director Chari Woodward. “You have to make available to them the materials, the environment and the teachers.”
While this recipe may sound simple, it’s difficult for child-care facilities and preschools to manage, and for most families to afford.
Proposition 203, the First Things First initiative, aims to help young children start kindergarten ready to learn, dedicating at least $150 million a year in new tobacco taxes to early health and education programs.
Launched by Chandler educator Nadine Mathis Basha, with her husband, grocery chain owner Eddie Basha, the initiative is patterned after North Carolina’s Smart Start and based in large part on early brain development research showing that children’s earliest experiences lay the foundation for learning as they grow.
But just as babies’ brains develop best with love and attention from a consistent caregiver, the research shows, that brain growth is inhibited when babies and young children are denied that same face, deprived of health care and proper nutrition, or exposed to trauma, stress or violence.
Today, most children don’t have just one caregiver. Six out of 10 children under 5 spend all or part of their day in the care of someone other than their parents, so the child-care worker or preschool teacher becomes an integral part of the child’s early growth and development.
“We need to get real. We have over 50 percent of kids in this state in someone else’s care,” said Jill Stamm, director of the New Directions Institute for Infant Brain Development and an associate clinical professor at ASU. “We can’t ignore that.”
Studies that tracked children at risk of failure who were enrolled in quality infant, toddler and preschool programs showed that, over the years, they scored higher than their peers on tests, were less likely to be held back in school, more likely to graduate and less likely to get in trouble with the law.
“The whole idea behind First Things First is to improve quality,” said Susan Wilkins, director of the Tempe-based Arizona Association for Supportive Child Care.
The association offers quality improvement programs for center, home-based and relative child care, which all have waiting lists. The agency would be a likely candidate for Proposition 203 money, as are individual child-care centers that seek to improve teacher training, education and parent support programs.
Child-care centers also hope to get funding for a nurse, dedicated to answering health care questions and offering technical support. The position had been funded by the county in recent years. And hospitals could get help expanding early intervention and new parent training programs.
If approved by voters, the cigarette tax would go up 80 cents, for a total of $1.98 per pack.
A nine -member board would distribute the money to regional partnerships based on their community needs. As many as four such partnerships would be created in Maricopa County alone, with funding based on the population of low-income children in each area.
Local groups of parents, educators, clergy, health care and child-care workers decide what their community needs most to get their kids ready for school, develop or augment programs to meet those needs and then prove those programs are working. Solutions could range from transportation to dental care to improving preschool quality.
“It empowers communities to figure out their priorities and get organized,” said Joseph Tobin, a professor of early childhood education at ASU and member of the state School Readiness Board, of which Mathis Basha is chairwoman. “We’re not just imposing preschool on a community.”
Tobin is helping develop a laboratory preschool at the new Arizona Children’s Museum, set to open downtown in the spring. If Proposition 203 passes — and polls show it’s heavily favored by likely voters — preschools and child-care centers would need more certified teachers, training and continuing education.
The museum school will integrate health care and social work into the program, and serve as a model for new and emerging centers. Mixing babies with preschoolers, Tobin said, gives older children opportunities to learn empathy.
Though there is no organized opposition to the ballot measure, the Goldwater Institute is against it and some conservative lawmakers have long argued that preschool and other early childhood programs are at best unnecessary and at worst an unwelcome government interference in the lives of families.
“I don’t think it’s an issue government should get involved in if middle-class families are having trouble paying their child-care bills,” said Tom Patterson, chairman of the Goldwater Institute and a former state senator.
“They keep talking about how the brain is 90 percent developed by 3 (years),” Patterson said, “as if that’s an argument for taking the child out of the home and putting them in a preschool.”
He also questioned why smokers should be forced to pay for children’s programs, and said the regional councils will have too much freedom to spend money without proof that it will help children.
“They’re just out there with a bag of coins trying to do some good. And that’s frankly a recipe for disaster,” he said. “It sounds like a taxpayerfunded bureaucracy to me.”
Under the ballot measure, 90 percent of the money must go toward programs. The board and the regional councils also are required to show how money will be spent, why it will meet the community’s needs, and how to measure success. Each program will be evaluated using those measurements, including how many children and families were served.
Proposition 203 has won the backing of a long list of prominent Republicans and East Valley developers, including the ASU preschool’s namesake and her husband, East Valley developer Ira Fulton, who have contributed $251,000 to the campaign.
Other supporters include Ross Farnsworth ($105,000), Marty DeRito ($100,000) Vanderbilt Farms, the development arm of the Wolfswinkel family ($100,000) and Robson Communities ($50,000). The ballot measure also is endorsed by the East Valley Partnership, Valley of the Sun United Way, Phoenix Children’s Hospital and five former governors.
Key parts of Proposition 203
Proposition 203, the Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health initiative, would:
• Raise at least $150 million a year from an 80-cent cigarette tax to fund programs and services to help children up to age 5 prepare for kindergarten.
• Create a nine-member board, appointed by the governor and subject to Senate confirmation, to serve six-year staggered terms.
• Create 11-member “community partnerships” throughout the state — including parents, teachers, child-care operators and church leaders — to determine what programs are most needed locally and how to show results.
• Expand or develop programs to improve child-care quality; provide parent and family support, education and training; offer preventive health and dental programs; and enhance training for child-care workers.
More information: www.firstthingsfirstaz.com or call (602) 266-5118.