Expanding Access to Preschool is the Game Changer Arizona Needs
By: Erin Hart, Senior Vice President and Chief of Policy and Community Impact
Benjamin Franklin is purported to have said that “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” That applies in spades to early childhood educational experiences, when children are building key skills that will set the foundation for their future success.
These earliest years might be filled with blocks and paints rather than calculators and notebooks, but they are no less important to a child’s future. These are the years that solidify a child’s love of learning and also lay the groundwork for what they will learn in the coming years. It is also when kids learn to work together, how to follow directions and practice managing their own emotions.
Quality Early Learning Matters
When children have access to quality preschool, it not only prepares them to be ready to learn in kindergarten and more likely to read on grade level by 3rd grade but pays off in the long run too; children who participate in preschool are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. Parents and communities benefit as well. When a community has quality early learning opportunities available, parents and caregivers can work or pursue postsecondary education. And by giving children the best possible start to their education, they are more likely to succeed in school and in life.
Improving Access is Critical
Today in Arizona, fewer than one in five 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in quality early learning. While some are in the care of their families, the majority of Arizona’s children do not have the opportunity to participate in quality preschool.
Part of the reason that so few young children are enrolled in preschool is often because of the cost or because there may not be options available in their community. The onset of COVID made access worse, with some programs closing or limiting capacity.
Thankfully there is a new effort to increase access for families who are interested. There is a proposal in Congress that would make preschool free to attend for 3- and 4-year-olds — this would give the opportunity for any family who wants their child to be in preschool to attend at no cost.
“The idea of having preschool available to all Arizona 3- and 4-year-olds would be a game changer for children, families and the state as a whole,” said Rich Nickel, president and CEO of Education Forward Arizona. “Expanding access to preschool would give every child a great start to their education and a fair shot at success.”
This proposal would make quality preschool available to all children and would put money back into the pockets of families who are already paying for it. It would also expand access to low-income and underserved communities where access has often been limited the most.
While the plan is still being debated and could change, the idea is right: Arizona should make it possible for families who want it to access quality preschool for their 3- and 4-year-olds. We have some excellent examples where local governments are stepping up to fill gaps in their community, such as Pima County and the City of Tempe, and great programs supported by First Things First, but still have thousands of children who could benefit from quality preschool.
As a state, we have the Arizona Education Progress Meter goal of ensuring at least 45% of our state’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in quality early learning settings. Doing so will be beneficial not just to children and their families, but also to the state as a whole as we work to reach our goal of 60% attainment and prepare the workforce of the future.
Erin Hart is senior vice president and chief of policy and community impact at Education Forward Arizona. She leads Education Forward Arizona’s policy and convening efforts, working to bring communities together to advance agreed-upon policy goals. She brings two decades of experience in Arizona and national education policy, coalition building, strategic communications, strategy development and nonprofit leadership.