Better Prepare Children for School

Children who start out behind tend to stay behind. From the crib to the time they enter a classroom, too many are dragged down not just by lack of mental stimulation but by physical ailments that go unattended, poor nutrition, and/or emotional insecurity brought on by family circumstances.  We have begun as a state to address these concerns but there is much more to be done.

One of education’s biggest problems occurs before youngsters ever set foot in a classroom.  Many children aren’t ready for school, and likely will never catch up.

This handicap drags down their personal prospects, the education system, and ultimately the fortunes of the state.

Voters understand the importance.  They took matters into their own hands in 2006 by approving a progressive initiative designed to improve readiness for school.  With it came guaranteed funding of about $130 million per year – which at least sounds like a substantial amount.

First Things First . . .

The result is First Things First, which presides over a wide array of early childhood programs.

The most significant, known as Quality First, has upgraded the state’s day care centers and made them available through scholarships to some number of lower-income families.

However, the overall impact of the wide collection of programs is blunted by:

  • The breadth of the mandate.  School readiness entails more than cognitive development.  It’s the overall well-being of the child, including health, nutrition, behavior and emotional stability.  That’s a lot to cover from birth, or even pre-birth, to five years old.
  • The method of making allotments.  Program priorities are established by 31 regional councils, which means a program available in South Phoenix isn’t necessarily available in North Phoenix.
  • Capacity limitations.  Even the signature Quality First program serves only a small percentage of 4- and 5-year-olds, much less younger children.

The funding of $130 million is a lot of money but it only goes so far.

. . . Many Things Are Left

First Things First doesn’t come close to providing for all needs for all kids.  The way the program is structured at the moment, it doesn’t cover all needs for some kids nor some needs for all kids.  It only covers some needs for some kids.

There is intense disagreement – philosophical, political, and financial – of what we should expect of whom.  The most deeply held of these assumptions might not even be recognized by individuals or be voiced.

Conservatives see parents, particularly mothers, as being wholly responsible for raising children.  They believe neither government nor society in general should be expected to fill in.

Progressives say this ignores reality.  Too many children aren’t getting the attention they need.  Societal trends such as the increase in single-parent households and, in dual-parent households, both parents needing to work are only making matters worse.

Nest Egg or Piggy Bank?

Progressives see the First Things First funding as a nest egg that needs to be supplemented.  Conservatives see it as a piggy bank that is begging to be raided.  The governor and the Republican-dominated Legislature have gone about the latter in two ways:

  • Attempting to divert the fund to other purposes.  Voters flat out rejected this idea in 2010.  More recently State Rep. John Kavanagh proposed using the money to beef up Child Protective Services.
  • Using the fund as a pretext for eliminating or cutting back Department of Economic Security programs that benefited children.  First Things First has found itself partially restoring some of those programs rather than, as was originally intended, supplementing them.

On top of those cutbacks, the Legislature took a big nick out of children by reducing state-sponsored kindergarten from full-day to half-day.

That’s not what we the voters intended, but that’s what we’re getting.

We need to focus on outcomes.  We need to resolve that come what may, we will move the needle on educational outcomes.  This resolution puts the onus on both sides.

Like it or not, conservatives, we are not going to get there by cutting back or even maintaining the status quo.  Like it or not, progressives, we won’t get there just by throwing money around.

We need to:

1. Get the most out of existing resources

We need to insist that First Things First rigorously validate which of its many programs have the most beneficial impact.  We need to urge First Things First and other interested organizations to standardize the provision of those programs across the state, in part by eliminating less successful programs.

2. Make the financial case for further investment

This begins with restoring full-day kindergarten across the state.  Some involved in the early childhood movement dismissively claim they have demonstrated the return (financial and otherwise) on further investments, but their case is thin and disputed.  More work needs to be done.  Absent that, it will be very hard to move forward.

 

 

 

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"Nearly 100,000 children started their academic careers this summer when they walked into their first day of kindergarten... Some children began this much-anticipated day ready to meet the new rigor that awaited them; sadly, many did not." Early Education in Arizona, Report to Arizona Town Hall, Nov 2013