Proposition would sweep funds from early childhood program
• History: Created in 2006 when Arizona voters approved Proposition 203.
• Purpose: Provides health and developmental services to families with children 5 and under, especially families living in poverty.
• System: Volunteers and coordinators on 31 regional councils analyze the needs of their areas and customize services to fit their populations.
• Funding: Proceeds from an 80-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes.
• Future: If approved in November, Proposition 302 would transfer First Things First's $325 million in funding to the state general fund and eliminate the program as of Dec. 1.
PHOENIX – When pediatric nurse Michelle Carstens found out she was expecting twins, she thought she was prepared.
Then the twins arrived two months early, leaving Carstens and her husband exhausted after spending weeks in neonatal intensive care and overwhelmed by warnings of impending developmental delays.
“When we brought them home, I panicked at first,” Carstens said. “I'd taken care of kids who were really sick before, but those were someone else's kids.”
Carstens turned to First Things First, a statewide early childhood health and development program that voters approved in 2006 out of concern about a gap in services addressing the needs of children 5 and under.
Through the program, Carstens and her husband arranged for home visits with a child-development professional. Every two weeks, the aide arrives with books for the twins, educational handouts for relatives and a willingness to answer whatever questions may be concerning the parents, Carstens said.
“Anything we've ever needed, she's had the info,” Carstens said. “Sometimes I don't want to wait to ask a question at the twins' scheduled doctor checkup, when it may be too late.”
But families could lose access to services offered by First Things First when voters decide in November whether to eliminate the program and funnel its $325 million to help address the state budget deficit.
If approved, Proposition 302 would effectively do away with First Things First as of Dec. 1. Along with Proposition 301, which would sweep $123.5 million from a voter-approved land-conservation fund, it's one of two measures in which voters will have a say on the Legislature's plan for balancing the budget.
First Things First draws its funding from an 80-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes. Its 31 regional councils receive a dollar amount based on the number of children in their respective regions and the number of those children living in poverty. Councils then conduct needs analyses to customize strategies to help their areas' families.
To date, the program has approved more than $208 million in grants for early education and health services throughout the state, including scholarships for aspiring educators.
“Obviously, we are well aware of the deepening budget crisis,” said Rhian Evans Allvin, executive director of First Things First. “But voters created this specific tax to care for a specific population, and that's what First Things First is all about.
“I doubt the state would address early childhood services in the same way we can,” Allvin said.
But Sen. Robert “Bob” Burns, R-Peoria, the outgoing Senate president, said First Things First is a bureaucracy the state cannot afford to maintain.
“We have to be very sensitive when prioritizing what services are provided,” Burns said. “In a budget crisis, it's 10 times more important you get the biggest bang for your buck.”
Burns, who isn't seeking re-election, brushed off suggestions from some lawmakers that the Legislature request a loan from First Things First, refusing to “put the problem out another year with nothing solved.”
Mary Warren, a professor in Arizona State University's School of Social and Family Dynamics, argued that funding early childhood services helps kids succeed in school and stay out of trouble.
“It's difficult to show immediate results, but we know from many studies the long-term effectiveness of quality early childhood education,” Warren said.
National studies cited by Warren and First Things First show that children exposed to quality early childhood education are 40 percent less likely to need special education or be held back a grade and 70 percent less likely to commit a violent crime by age 18.
“If a child has no nurturing relationship from age 0 to 5, they don't have the opportunity to really master their environment,” Warren said. “Family support programs … help adults understand how critical their role is in their child's success in school and life.”
An effort organized against Proposition 302, No on 302, had raised more than $121,000, according to a campaign finance report filed Aug. 23. The largest individual donation – $10,000 – came from Eddie Basha, chairman and CEO of Bashas' Supermarkets Inc.
To date, donations have covered the cost of consulting services, social media and e-mail outreach, direct mailings, videos and signs.
While leaders said it wasn't part of the campaign, First Things First recently paid for television commercials, radio spots and print and online ads touting the program's value.
Proposition 302 states that monies taken from First Things First would still “be appropriated for health and human services for children,” though the funding would replace money that has been swept for other purposes.
In light of recent cuts to educational programs, such as all-day kindergarten, representatives such as Rae Waters, D-Ahwatukee, say they doubt the Legislature would even comply with the stipulation to keep the money in childhood services.
“There is no guarantee,” Waters said. “Quite frankly, the Legislature has shown that they are more than willing to cut off educational services.”
Even if the funding did remain in childhood services, it wouldn't be distributed until the next budget is approved.
“To me, the future of Arizona depends on the quality of our education,” said Rep. Lynne Pancrazi, D-Yuma, who taught for 28 years. “If your priority isn't on the children, where is it? There are other ways to balance the budget.”
Carstens said she and her husband would “definitely be hurt” if services were eliminated.
“So many families depend on this,” Carstens said. “They provide that reassurance and support so you can feel like, ‘OK, I'm not alone.'”