PHOENIX — Quality early learning is one of the best ways to get young kids ready for kindergarten and beyond, but only a small fraction in Arizona attend preschool and other programs like it.
The latest statewide data shows 17% of Arizona’s 3- and 4-year-olds were in preschool or other quality early learning settings in 2020. That’s down from 24% in 2017.
The statewide goal is to have 45% by 2030.
Cost is one of the main reasons why only a few kids are involved in early childhood education, according to Paul Perrault, senior vice president of community impact and learning at Helios Education Foundation.
He explained the state doesn’t provide funding for preschool and programs like it the same way it does for K-12 public schools.
“Really, what it’s going to take to get that number up is some opportunities to have a state funding plan around preschool for 3- to 4-year-olds,” he said.
Perrault also pointed to research that shows preschool helps a child develop foundational skills that “really give them an opportunity to be successful in school so that we can keep them on track to be proficient in 3rd grade reading, on track to graduate high school and hopefully carrying on to post-secondary education.”
The pandemic has also made accessing early childhood education even more difficult.
Janice Palmer, senior vice president and director of policy at Helios Education Foundation, said it has become harder to find child care providers and teachers to keep programs running.
“So if you don’t get those early years of that quality child care and you don’t have a state-funded preschool program, kids are entering the K-12 system very, very far behind, especially our low-income and vulnerable students that don’t have all of the wrap-around support necessary,” she said.
But Palmer said she’s hopeful lawmakers will this year pass a bill to provide funding for preschool programs.
She noted during the last legislative session, Democratic State Rep. Lorenzo Sierra introduced a bill to allocate $45 million state dollars for preschool programs over three years. The bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
Palmer said she expects that bill will be reintroduced.
“I think we have higher hopes this year that that will get into the budget,” she said.
She’s also hoping state lawmakers will pass a bill to increase wages for child care providers and provide more funding to support literacy programs for students in kindergarten through third grade.
In the absence of state funding for preschool, some entities have stepped in to help.
The city of Tempe offers free and half-tuition preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. Families who live in Tempe and exceed the income requirements can still participate but must pay tuition.
Perrault said programs like these are helpful but stressed statewide funding is needed.
“Cost is probably still the big factor that keeps many kids from accessing preschool since we don’t have that kind of funding completely built in,” he said.