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Bold early-education proposal pitched
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 19, 2003
Monica Mendoza

A group of political and business leaders unveiled a plan Tuesday that would significantly increase spending for early-childhood care and education programs in the hope that Arizona can climb from the bottom of the education heap.

It recommends that the state pay for parent-education programs, finance full-day kindergarten, offer financial and educational incentives to child-care workers, and provide health checkups for Arizona's children.

The plan is to improve the quality of care for Arizona's youngest citizens, an estimated 500,000 children younger than 6. The sweeping proposal covers issues from parent literacy to hearing tests for toddlers. Group leaders say that if they can pull it off, the new programs will benefit poor and middle-class families.

The nine-point plan comes from the Arizona School Readiness Board, a powerful but little-known group whose recommendations now land in the governor's hands. Gov. Janet Napolitano, who has pledged that early childhood education is a top priority, will decide by January whether to champion the board's reforms and take on the tough task of convincing legislators that changing laws and coming up with the money to pay for them makes economic and social sense.

"Yea for little kids," said retired businessman John Whiteman, who has taken an interest in baby brain development and is a member of the group that developed the plan.

No price tags were posted with the recommendations, but count on costs being in the multimillion range. It could require a decadelong commitment, money from state, federal and business leaders, as well as a swath of social, financial and political changes.

New agency possible

Carrying out the details of the plan could mean the creation of a state agency, one that oversees all health and education programs for infants to 5-year-olds. The point, the board said, is to make sure all dollars are spent wisely. But some lawmakers may balk at creating another layer of bureaucracy.

Universities have the Board of Regents and K-12 schools have the State Board of Education looking after programs, said Nadine Basha, who heads the School Readiness Board. But no agency is solely dedicated to looking after the overall health and education of young children, she said.

Under the proposal, child-care centers would encounter closer scrutiny than they do now. That would mean rewarding lower teacher-child ratios and monitoring teachers' education levels. Center owners would get financial help for their efforts.

About 200,000 children younger than 6 spend their days in licensed child-care centers. The board wants those existing centers, even those in poor neighborhoods, to offer the same quality programs for which some parents in suburban areas pay top dollar each year.

Lawmakers would have to change school finance laws to accommodate the proposed reforms. For example, the state pays about $81 million for half-day kindergarten classes, which are optional for parents and children. School districts that offer full-day kindergarten either charge parents a fee or rely on voter-approved tax increases.

Monte Vista School in central Phoenix offers only two classes of full-day kindergarten for students who lag in English skills. Lack of money is why it isn't offered to all students, Principal Kathryn Frankel said.

"It is a wonderful program," Frankel said. "Kids go into first grade so much stronger."

Under the board's plan, full-day kindergarten classes would first be offered in poor neighborhoods and eventually reach every school district.

And if schools got the money to hire kindergarten teachers for a full day, they would need classroom space. Now, the state School Facilities Board does not include kindergarten classes in the formula on how schools are paid for school construction.

"The goal is for full-day kindergarten to be part of the K-12 funding system, which considers space and facilities," said Becky Hill, Napolitano's education adviser.

A cost analysis may be jumping ahead, said Lisa Glow, Napolitano's senior policy adviser.

"We know there will be budget constraints," Glow said. "But this is not a one-year plan. This is an 8, 9 or 10-year plan."

North Carolina, a state Napolitano recently visited, spends about $190 million a year on a statewide early-education program, which includes financial incentives to child care centers that help their workers with their college education.

Biggest challenges

The business community kicks in about $40 million annually in donations or in-kind service.

Money and agency cooperation will be the biggest challenges for any statewide approach to early education, Basha said. But, she added, the investment in making children ready for kindergarten will be worth it.

"No kid deserves to start behind," Basha said. "There is a lack of justice in that for me."

Reporters Sarah Anchors and Pat Kossan contributed to this article.