Bold early-education proposal
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 19, 2003
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
A cost analysis may be jumping ahead, said Lisa Glow, Napolitano's senior policy
"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.
The business community kicks in about $40 million annually in donations or
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.