Prop. 204: Planting Preschools in Daycare Deserts

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The term “food desert” was created in the 1990s to describe areas where residents don’t have access to healthy, affordable food. With no adequate markets within a reasonable distance, people living in food deserts are more likely to live on fast food and what they can buy in local mini-marts, most of which is unhealthy and overpriced, rather than what you find at most supermarkets. The general health and wellbeing of people living in food deserts would be improved significantly if the residents had access to healthy food they can afford.

It’s time to coin a new term: daycare desert. It describes places where parents have little access to any kind of affordable daycare, let alone high quality early childhood education, for their children. Daycare deserts are deeper and wider in the U.S. than elsewhere in the industrialized world, and Arizona is one of the most parched states in the country. To improve the educational health and wellbeing of children and adults living in daycare deserts, we need to bring affordable, high quality early childhood education within easy access.

Proposition 204 gives us the opportunity to turn Tucson's daycare deserts into oases of quality early childhood education for upwards to 8,000 three and four year olds at the cost to the community of a one-half percent increase in sales tax. So far as I know, Prop 204 is the country's boldest effort to correct the daycare crisis in recent years, and if it passes — I'm being serious here, I don't consider this an overstatement — it could be a national game changer, pointing the way for other communities to improve the lives of their young children.

Most people agree it's a good idea to make early childhood education available to more children, but detractors say Prop 204 leaves too much room for things to go wrong, both in what is included and left out of the proposal. Me personally, I think Prop 204 is not just a good idea, it's a great idea, and I agree with Weekly Editor Jim Nintzel when he wrote, "I think the accountability concerns are misguided at best." The concerns are legitimate, but vastly overstated.

Further down, you'll find links to a few pieces which do an excellent job of presenting the information you need to know about the Prop 204 and the reasons you should, or shouldn't, vote for it, which means I don't have to do it here. Instead, I'm going to give you a decision-making recommendation.

Pull the balance scale you use to weigh serious decisions down from the shelf where you store it. On one side of the scale, place the value of giving three and four year old children the kind of educational start in life which will give them the best chance of being successful in school and throughout their lives. On the other side, put the possibilities that things might go wrong if the people in charge of creating and implementing the program don't do a good job. See which way the scales tip. That's how you should vote.

I'll tell you what I see on my balance scale. On one side, I see a little golden nugget of potential and unexplored possibilities for each of the thousands of three and four year olds who will get an early childhood education. On the other side, I see a handful of stones with words like "Worst case scenario," "This could go wrong," "That could go wrong," written on them. My scales tip heavily in favor of the children whose lives will be enriched by Prop 204. But that's just me. You have your own scale. Use it.

Here are three pieces you can read if you want help weighing your decision. The first is a Weekly cover story by Danyelle Khmara with lots of information and background. It leans a bit toward the pro side of the argument, but not much. The second is an opinion piece by Blake Morlock where he says he supports the idea of early childhood education but believes Prop 204 is fatally flawed. The third is another opinion piece by Jimmy Zuma very much in favor of Prop 204, where he goes through the opposition's objections one by one and shows why he thinks they're weak arguments. (Hot off the presses: the Weekly's full-throated endorsement of Prop 204.)

Beyond that, there's one detail I want to discuss, and that's the one-half percent sales tax which is being screamed about on television ads and road signs without a mention of what the money will be used for.

I have nothing against taxes in general, though I don't like sales taxes because they're regressive. But let's see what a half cent sales tax means. It means if you spend a dollar, you'd better have a hack saw handy, because you'll have to cut a penny in half to cover the new tax. If you buy something for a hundred dollars, after you lay five twenty dollar bills on the counter, you'll have to pull out a couple of quarters as well, because that hundred dollar item is gonna cost you fifty cents extra. That's what it costs to provide as many as 8,000 children with a quality early childhood education. If you think that's too much to ask from you, or if you think it will be too large a burden on poor families, many of whom will benefit directly or indirectly from the program, well, that's your business. I respectfully disagree.

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