The Legislature faces another round of tough challenges as it convenes to grapple with a $500 million deficit and demands from every quarter. Its mission, as outlined by the governor, is to balance the budget without raising taxes, and at the same time expand educational opportunities.
Indeed, the Legislature needs to begin dealing with a pitiful lack of attention and resources for critically important early childhood programs, including all-day kindergarten, while continuing to improve public schools and easing the growing pains of higher education. These demands especially will require some creative thinking and solutions.
As Gov. Napolitano pointed out in her State of the State address on Monday, Arizona's policymakers must recognize the importance of early childhood education to children's future success in school. Certainly, parents have a responsibility in that regard, but many cannot afford quality preschool programs that prepare youngsters for kindergarten and beyond.
Too many children, particularly from low-income homes, miss out on this vital head start and never catch up with their peers. Many eventually drop out.
Napolitano has pointed to North Carolina's successful public-private partnership that provides quality preschool programs known as “Smart Start” as a model for Arizona. It started off modestly and has grown into a $200 million program that has made that state a leader in early childhood education.
Arizona may have to begin modestly as well, but surely we can do better than the paltry $9.9 million in block grants that now go toward preschool programs, as a waiting list of youngsters from needy families grows toward 10,000.
A gubernatorial task force of educators, business people and civic leaders has spent the past year mapping how Arizona can affordably expand quality early-childhood programs, especially for low-income households. Legislators should be willing to listen to the task force's findings and act upon its recommendations as part of the Arizona's ongoing efforts to improve the quality and availability of education.
Ways also must be found to expand kindergarten from half-day to full-day on a voluntary basis.
Making sure Arizona's youngsters get a solid start in school is essential not only to individual success but to our future prosperity as a state that is attractive to growth industries that depend upon an educated work force.