During the previous decade, state funding for early childhood programs has been steadily increasing. Supporters of these types of government programs succeeded in creating First Things First through a ballot initiative in 2006. Now, Arizona voters have to decide whether to shield that program’s unused funding from the economic crisis, or to support other services for children that have been targeted for elimination.
Proposition 302 would end First Things First and use its $325 million surplus to help plug holes in the state budget. If Prop. 302 fails, the state Legislature has said it will reduce or eliminate state funding for half-day kindergarten, immunization shots, child abuse prevention and caring for the developmentally disabled.
The fiscal year will be half over by the time the Legislature meets again, so those reductions probably wouldn’t be enough. Lawmakers would have to look at other programs not protected by voter mandates or federal requirements, such as state prisons, Department of Economic Security and Arizona’s system of sharing tax revenues with cities.
As voters decide where they want the budget axe to fall, it is worth noting the preschool programs that were supposed to be funded by First Things First are unlikely to produce any lasting learning gains in the first place. Multiple studies have shown any limited improvement from preschool fades out as children get a little older. Last year, the federal Department of Health and Human Services produced an evaluation of Head Start that found by the end of first grade, students who are selected for the program perform no better in school and behave no better in the classroom than students not selected.
Keeping First Things First intact won’t improve education in the long run, and it practically guarantees that to balance the budget the Legislature will have to shut down other programs that do benefit children.
Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute. Dr. Ladner will discuss Proposition 302 at an event sponsored by Project Vote Smart on Wednesday, Oct. 6, from 7 to 9 a.m. at the Arizona Inn in Tucson, Ariz., 2200 E. Elm Street. For more information, contact David Foster at firstname.lastname@example.org or (520) 626-8694.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start Impact Study and Follow-up, 2000–2010
Heritage Foundation: Head Start – A $150 Billion Failure