November 16, 2013
Mohave County must have a monopoly on the state’s growing number of foster children.
Either that or the ones who live there are more fortunate than most. The multi-discipline court team that was created to coordinate the handling of Mohave’s foster children swallows up 10 percent of First Things First funding for that region. By comparison, only two of the 30 other regional councils allotted any money whatsoever for that purpose.
Gila County has an entirely different concern. It’s zeroed in on that area’s high percentage of teenage mothers.
The regional council there spends 15 percent of its budget on a contract with Teen Outreach Pregnancy Services to assist teenage mothers before and after birth, in the hope of achieving healthier outcomes for their babies.
Helpful for those infants, but not necessarily for babies born to teenage mothers elsewhere. While Arizona overall has the sixth highest teen birth rate in the nation, only one or two other regional councils give the issue anything close to the funding that Gila does. Nearly half of them bypass it entirely.
Such are the vagaries brought on by putting most First Things First spending decisions – exactly as we the voters spelled it out in the enabling legislation – in the hands of 31 regional councils. Phoenix by itself has three of them, and the rest of Maricopa County five more. Pima County has three. Ten are spread among the remaining counties and 10 Indian communities, including the Cocopah and the Hualapai, choose to have their own.
The idea is that local control will be most responsive to local needs. The downside – with 31 councils each picking and choosing how to spend a limited amount of money on a wide array of choices – is that there are as many approaches as there are councils.
This is not to suggest that the spending decisions are capricious. The volunteer councils take their work seriously, sometimes passionately, and rely to a degree on comprehensive “needs and assets” reports done by each region every two years.
They are responsible for making 90 percent of First Things First disbursements, although their budgets are subject to review by the state board that oversees the entire effort. The board, according to chairman Steven W. Lynn, periodically asks for revisions into the six figures. The councils don’t always take it kindly when the board tries to steer some spending toward statewide initiatives.
The widely varying patterns of spending give the impression that one regional council implicitly says to another: “We’ll try this, you try that, we’ll find out which one gets the best result.” That might be a worthwhile way of vetting alternatives, except that First Things First doesn’t have a methodology for comparing the outcome of one versus the other.
The result is inconsistency in the programs available from one county to the next. First Things First is far, far from settling on one agreed-upon approach of how to best prepare children for school with the money available, much less arrange to uniformly provide one, two or three services to all children or to all children with certain needs.
The closest thing to that is the large bet that First Things First is making on a series of programs – called Quality First – that are intended to improve the quality of early-care centers around the state.
Something in the neighborhood of half of First Things First’s annual expenditures are going to Quality First and related programs.
More than 800 participating centers are evaluated and graded, coached on how to improve, and provided with dollar incentives to help make those improvements. To improve professionalism, their staffs are helped and rewarded for adding to their own educations. The centers are rewarded further with scholarships they can offer to lower-income families to offset the high cost of tuition.
One has to believe that the centers are indeed making strides in quality as everyone – evaluators, coaches, staff, the centers themselves – continue to learn from each other and to refine and sharpen their methods. Some centers have advanced from the one- or two-star ratings they received initially to three stars and above.
Moreover, Lynn cites anecdotal evidence of kindergarten teachers who enthusiastically report they can tell which of their new students came out of early care centers that participate in Quality First and which ones didn’t.
This is terrific for the 43,500 youngsters – according to the figures provided recently at First Things First’s annual summit conference – who have a spot at one of the centers. Given that the state has 550,000 children between the ages of 0 and 5, the minority who attend Quality First centers are benefiting from a highly disproportionate share of First Things First dollars to the tune of about $1,700 per child.
That isn’t so terrific for everyone else who might benefit.
Even when it comes to a high-powered effort such as Quality First, there are wide variations in spending from region to region. The issue for many outlying areas is that early care centers of any kind, much less those that have chosen to participate in Quality First, are few and far between.
In Navajo and Apache counties, 18 percent of children with working parents had child care spaces available to them. In Gila County, the figure is even lower at 10 percent. Santa Cruz County has just two centers and four homes participating in Quality First.
Even if all those enrolled in the Quality First centers are among those who do not have a parent home during the day, that still means – according to First Things First numbers – there are another 250,000 kids in similar circumstances without access to some form of organized pre-school or, for younger kids, early care.
If one focuses instead on kids who live at or near poverty levels, the picture is similar. Even if all those enrolled in the centers are poverty cases – and this is most certainly not the case – there are another 220,000 underprivileged kids who do not benefit.
In other words, even spending half the money available still leaves lots without. To which Lynn responds, “You have to start someplace.”
The other type of program that gets fairly large amounts from First Things First provides support for families. Most regional councils fund some amount of this programming, but here again there is limited reach and wide variation.
Many regions put significant resources into home visitation, with the idea of providing more intensive support for the families who get those visits. But resources are available for providing service to only the neediest cases. One of the three councils in Pima County, for instance, targeted helping 855 families in its region.
And the amount varies. Home visitation represents just 6 percent of the First Things First funding in northwest Maricopa County but more than 25 percent in neighboring Yavapai and La Paz counties.
A few regions take an entirely different tack by instead emphasizing a different mechanism for family support. These are family resource centers, which provide less intensive assistance than home visitation but are available to all.
Santa Cruz County is an extreme example. The council there expends more on these centers – 39 percent of its budget – than it spends for any other purpose. But don’t go looking for the same service just over the county line. The council for the southern portion of Pima County doesn’t spend a dime on family resource centers.
The advocates of early childhood development aren’t much troubled by this. They contend that all the programs being utilized are “evidence-based” – meaning each has been shown to be at least somewhat effective by one research study or another. Organizers therefore take it as an article of faith that each and any of these activities has to ex post facto have a beneficial effect. In their minds, they can’t go wrong. Doing something . . . doing anything . . . for the benefit of young children is better than doing nothing.
One is left to wonder though which activity or combination of activities brings the maximum bang for the buck. From the wide range of spending patterns, it will be hard to know.
– Richard Gilman
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