More Is Required to Ready All Kids

Nov. 17, 2013

There’s good news and bad news for young kids and for the state.

First, the good news.

The people of Arizona got out ahead of most of the nation in 2006 by creating a rather sizable fund entirely for the purpose of making children more ready for school. What’s more, voters showed they really meant what they voted when four years later they soundly defeated an attempt to scuttle the plan.

The potential payoff is huge. Better-prepared young people should do better in school, should do better in life. It certainly makes sense intuitively; its value going without saying to those who are making it happen. Perhaps nothing other than the education system itself could matter more for children or for the future of the state.

Many other places only dream of doing what Arizona has done. Liberal commentators, buttressed by national opinion surveys, have been crying out of late for something similar nationwide. For instance, one wrote recently: “What’s missing in the current debate over economic inequality is enough serious discussion about investing in effective early childhood development from birth to age 5.”

The author of the article missed an opportunity to give credit where credit is due. Maybe he couldn’t quite believe that an investment so progressive – one that goes so far as to link preparation for school not just to the minds of young children but to their overall well-being – could actually exist in conservative ol’ Arizona.

But there it is. Organizers of the effort – now called First Things First – have been toiling away since 2006, building a statewide infrastructure of decision-makers and service providers, constructing a strategic framework, setting up a bureaucratic grant-making process, commissioning an array of studies, and developing a wide assortment of programs they are convinced will raise children to the promised threshold.

Proud of What They Are Doing  . . .

They point with particular pride to several programs that they believe are already making a big difference, including an ambitious effort – called Quality First – to improve the many early-care facilities around the state. Even more good should come as those programs begin to mature.

Those involved have begun producing tallies of families and children who have been helped in some way: The number who received parent kits, the number of families visited at home, the number who accessed information through family resource centers, the number of caregivers who attended various classes, the number of children who received oral health screenings, and so on.

With all this in mind, the understandable tendency among the many of us who are not directly involved would be to check off this box as done, taken care of, bring on the next problem please.

But before we get too carried away, here now is the bad news. At the end of the day, the giant undertaking has to show results. And at the moment:

 The effort is reaching only a fraction of the kids in the state with the types of assistance they probably need.

 The $132 million in annual funding – all provided by cigarette smokers – won’t remedy that. The amount, substantial as it might be, is much more than a Band-Aid but less than a cure-all.

 The whole effort lost ground as the Legislature cut many of the programs that the new effort was intended to supplement. Sadly First Things First frequently found itself in the position of replacing existing programs rather than augmenting them.

 Making up the shortfall is fraught with difficulty. Backers either need to gin up a groundswell of popular support or conjure up economic justification that is persuasive enough to turn the legislative tide.  The creation of an airtight economic case isn’t likely without lots of rigorous data-gathering.

No one is more acutely aware of these realities than those who are most directly involved. The concern runs deep enough in certain circles that the subject was the topic of a just-completed Arizona Town Hall.

. . . But Can’t Do It All

Steven W. Lynn, chairman of the Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health Board that oversees First Things First, contends no one should be surprised that the effort isn’t all things to all children.

“It was never sold on that basis,” he says. “The money was never there.”

He cites a “back of the envelope” calculation once made by a predecessor organization, the State Board on School Readiness. That group felt a decade ago that the task would require $750 million per year.

In an interview, Lynn variously described First Things First’s role as building a system for effective delivery of services, demonstrating gaps in existing services, and providing proofs of concept for innovative programs that someone else can bring up to scale.

In one important manisfestation of the latter point, Lynn is also on the board of another effort known as Build Arizona. That group – underwritten by three of Arizona’s more prominent education-oriented foundations – is seeking to build a coalition of business leaders, non-profit executives, educators and others to take Arizona’s investment in early childhood development to the next level.

But all this still leaves open the question of what the public has a right to expect for the $132 million now being collected each year. Without a satisfactory answer, one has to wonder whether more money will be forthcoming.

First Things First must somehow spread its pot of gold – the $132 million is for the moment being augmented by another $20+ million as the organization spends the carry forward from previous years – among the state’s 550,000 youngsters aged 0 to 5. That’s a rate of $280 per child across the state, not that the money is to be distributed evenly. Some need the help much more than others.

The movement is predicated on research showing that a young mind does not develop properly unless someone is simultaneously tending to the child’s physical health and emotional security. A lot needs to go right in a young child’s life; a lot can go poorly.

Decision-makers have to make hard choices. How much should they endeavor to help all children, even the ones who would have been ready for school anyway? How much should they focus on children who in the past didn’t adequately exercise their minds because they were warehoused all day in custodial care? How much should they zero in on the kids who are most at risk due to poverty and other issues?

Complicated by How Decisions Are Made

These questions of where to focus are exacerbated by the structure of the governing organization.

First Things First does not have a statewide decision-making process that enumerates one, two or three forms of assistance that will be made available to all youngsters and their families.

Rather, as required by the language of the initiative passed by voters, the state is Balkanized into 31 regional councils. Each has its own governing council and staff.

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. In short:

  • Almost all regions are participants in the Quality First program to improve the programming and professionalism of 800 of the privately run early-care centers around the state. About half of First Things First’s money goes for this purpose, although the centers serve less than 10 percent of children.
  • Most regions provide some form of support and guidance for families, although the percentage of the budget devoted to this purpose varies widely. Many of those regions are putting major resources into home visitation, which provides intensive support for the neediest cases. A few regions support family resource centers, which are less intensive but available to all.
  • After that, there is a bewildering array of programs, the mix of which varies greatly from one region to the next.  A total of 47 strategies are funded by one or more of the regional councils.  One region chooses to support 20 of those strategies. Others support as few as three.

In fairness, First Things First is still in its own early childhood. Like any young child, it is discovering, developing skills, learning as it goes. This exploration is made more difficult because Arizona is something of a pioneer without a lot of models to follow. Other locales have various aspects in place but only North Carolina has attempted anything as comprehensive.

One observer who is involved in the process ventured to say, “The regional councils are learning. First Things First is learning. They’re narrowing strategies, focusing more, people are getting more strategic in thinking about what they need to accomplish.”

In the meantime, there are two rather severe consequences of the effort’s regionalization.

One is a wide variation in availability of programs and services. A program might be available in one county, or even in just one part of one county, but not exist over in the next county.

The other consequence comes in evaluating the overall impact of the effort. Which of the many programs, both by themselves or in combination with other programs, work best? And how much good do they do?   See full story.

All This Deserves Public Attention

With its relative independence, First Things First is something of a strange cat. It is set up in such a way so as not to be answerable to anyone but itself – and the public.

Perhaps it is all to the good that its extensive labors have been slowly methodical, devoid of public controversy and largely immune to the meddling of the Legislature. But that doesn’t mean this gigantic undertaking doesn’t deserve lots of attention. The initiative may fly under the radar, but there is plenty to monitor.

More rigorous inquiry surely lays somewhere ahead. The essential test is in determining what percentage of kids in the state are more ready for school and by what degree. To get maximum bang for the buck, someone needs to know which programs contributed most to the success.

Only when these questions are answered will we have a true sense of whether the good news just feels good or actually is good.

First Things First does not provide all things to all kids, nor should it be expected to with current funding. But even setting one’s sights well short of that, it provides neither all things to some kids nor some things to all kids.

First Things First provides some things to some kids. That’s a big, big step forward in the past few years but is this the best we can do? The most we can do? Going beyond where we are today either will take more money or modifications in approach or some combination of the two.

– Richard Gilman

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