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The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve a $10 million plan to fund early education scholarships for low-income families at Tuesday's meeting.

On Feb. 16, the county approved a measure to allocate $10 million for the upcoming fiscal year budget to fund full or partial scholarships to parents who wish to enroll their 3- to 4-year-old children (or 5-year-olds not eligible for kindergarten) in high-quality early education programs.

The scholarship program works to help low-income families find reliable and affordable childcare. It's also designed to address the decline and loss of early childhood programs during the pandemic.

“Successful communities support the education of their children, and I’m proud to be part of a community that is giving our children the best possible chance for success through this program,” said District 1 Supervisor Rex Scott. “The data is undeniable—early education works. Children who benefit from early education on average do better in school throughout their careers, are more likely to graduate from high school and earn higher wages after graduation.”

The proposed multi-year Pima Early Education program, administered by Pima County Community and Workforce Development, would provide funding for 1,245 children and begin July 1. The plan includes:

  • Partnerships with eight school districts and Pima Community College to offer free, high-quality preschool to an estimated 480 children.
  • A partnership with First Things First, a state agency focused on early childhood development, to offer 560 additional scholarships to high-quality preschools within their "quality first" system, which includes school districts, daycare centers and home care.
  • A partnership with Child-Parent Centers to offer extended-day Head Start preschool programs at 11 locations for 205 children.

It also includes a solicitation of proposals to contract with an experienced organization to develop a three-year implementation plan to develop a scholarship program.

There is a possibility of about $3 million in additional funding for the program from other local jurisdictions and partners, such as the City of Tucson’s $1 million contribution for scholarships for schools within the city and Oro Valley proposing to provide $100,000 for the upcoming fiscal year to support a three-year commitment.

Supervisors will still have to approve the $10 million in funding during this year's budget process.

While the plan was approved, Supervisors Sharon Bronson, Adelita Grijalva and Steve Christy voiced concerns over various aspects of the plan.

Grijalva, a Democrat who serves on the TUSD board, and Christy, a Republican who provided the sole vote against the program, had the same concern over the planning for more than one year with possibilities of federal funding that could be allocated to the program without the need for county dollars.

“I would hope that there will be some kind of thought to maybe holding back the process, holding back the expenditures until we see what the current administration is going to provide in this area,” said Christy.

Nicole Fyffe, an assistant to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, said she did not expect the county to receive any of $39 billion in American Rescue Plan funds for early childhood programs.

“It's pretty certain that we're not going to see that money flowing to Pima County into our Pima County preschools in this next coming year,” said Fyffe.

However, “if by some miracle that did happen,” Fyffe said the agreements that the county has started to work with other school districts or partners have termination agreements in place and the plan requires that the county funding be the “last dollar in,” meaning other funds, like subsidies from Arizona Department of Economic Security or American Rescue Plan funds be used first before using dollars from the county's general fund.

“I think even in the second year, it's going to be very questionable that it would remove the need for the county's participation entirely, but if it did that would certainly be fantastic,” said Fyffe.

Bronson expressed concerns over the transparency of the process as much of the discussion and agreements were made privately without public input.

“We need transparency, we need accountability and we need public involvement. There was no public involvement in this instance,” said Bronson. “It has every aspect of earmarking, which concerns me. I mean that's what Congress does, their pet projects. That's not who we are. We need to include the entire region, and give everybody an opportunity to be able to comment, and express their views, and we did not do that today.”

She noted the internal discussions between school districts and the county, requesting a more than one-year commitment in order to create more classes.

Fyffe said because of the uncertainty of the pandemic, school districts would “like to start off with a lot more new classes, preschool classes, but are reluctant to do that straight off the bat.”

Further, Christy and Bronson said they would have liked to see more private sector commitment.

Fyffe said that since Feb. 16, the county had conducted “extensive outreach” with school districts as well as with Preschool Promise, the initial advocates for funding early education programs. That coalition included representatives from the private and public sectors, as well as preschool providers, parents and other agencies. During the meeting, Fyffe said the Tucson Metro Chamber proposed a survey of businesses to identify employee child care needs and identify creative solutions for businesses to support their employees’ child care needs.

But she said the county faced a “chicken or the egg” issue, whereby partners wanted to first see the details of the first-year plan before committing to funding or support.

“Until the county decided to go forward and the partners could see exactly what the plan would look like," said Fyffe. "It's a little bit easier to fundraise for a plan when you have something to show.”