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'06 Ariz. initiative will provide $91 mil this year for child health, education

by Chelsea Schneider
The Arizona Republic

More children with access to health care. Quality ratings for child-care centers. "Childhood-development kits" sent home with newborns.

Those and other plans to benefit Arizona children are being unveiled by an organization created to funnel tobacco taxes into programs to improve child development and early education in the state.

Voters in 2006 passed the First Things First initiative, or Proposition 203, adding an 80-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes and raising taxes on other tobacco products. The law set up 31 regional councils to establish goals. Beginning in July, those councils will put their goals into action.

The Arizona Republic obtained the councils' goals this week in interviews and documents.

Because the law sets aside the tax specifically for childhood programs, those programs aren't directly affected by the funding shortfalls facing the state, which have caused deep budget cuts elsewhere.

First Things First ended fiscal 2008 with $236.6 million: $82.7 million in its administrative account and $153.9 million for programs to benefit Arizona's children. The organization plans to spend $91 million in its first full year on strategies set up by the regional councils, plus additional money on statewide initiatives.

The state Legislature did take $7 million in interest earned on First Things First's coffers to close this year's budget deficit. That loss won't affect the initiative's plans in the next few years but could hurt the organization's long-term progress, especially if the Legislature decides to take more interest earnings to balance future budgets.

Supporting youths

First Things First relies on goals created by the councils that address concerns specific to Arizona's regions and tribes. Each region's funding is based on need and the number of children 4 and younger in the area.

The Southeast Maricopa Regional Partnership Council will use its more than $8 million in part to provide more children with access to quality health care.

The Central Phoenix Council plans to use part of its more than $11 million to help literacy development so children come to kindergarten ready to read.

Health screenings in various regions will also be done because many children start school with health issues that can impede their ability to learn. Dental care is considered especially important.

The Southeast Maricopa Council, along with other councils, plans to collaborate with existing Arizona early-childhood health-care systems to improve access to health care. Outreach and enrollment assistance will be available to help connect families to public-health programs.

First Things First would also like to increase the number of child-development specialists in rural Arizona. Slight speech problems can worsen, for example, if children don't receive therapy before they start school, said Karen Woodhouse, deputy director of the First Things First board.

"We were down in Yuma last week and heard a story about a parent who had a child diagnosed as having a predisposition for autism, and the only services she could get for that child was either in Scottsdale or 15 minutes a week of speech therapy at a local school district," Woodhouse said. "That's what they could provide for the family. Imagine being in a place where you couldn't get service."

While organizers work to meet regional goals, there are statewide initiatives, as well. Parents of newborns will be sent home from the hospital with kits that provide information and resources on childhood development and how to create a home that's a good learning environment.

"Far too many children don't come to school ready to learn," said J. Elliott Hibbs, executive director of First Things First. "The whole idea of First Things First is to get kids ready to learn, so when they start school they are ready to be productive."

Quality child care

One of the larger initiatives will bring quality ratings and improvement to child-care centers and help parents such as Julie French of Mesa find day-care centers they feel comfortable using. When French goes to work, her 7-month-old daughter, Lindsay, goes with her.

French looked for day care when she was pregnant, checking a home facility, church groups and day-care centers before her mother, who is also her boss, decided that Lindsay should come to work.

French was glad to learn that the First Things First initiative will rank day-care quality on a scale of three to five stars and push centers for improvement.

The program's first year beginning in July will be voluntary, but in two years, all such centers in Arizona will be ranked. Also, First Things First will make scholarships available to child-care center workers who want to go back to school for early-childhood education.

"We haven't dumped centers into a rating program," said Nadine Mathis Basha, chairwoman of the First Things First board. "We are helping to support and make the facilities better."

What's next

Money the initiative makes off the tobacco tax is expected to decrease over time, as Arizona's population growth levels off and more people never start or quit smoking. Because that decrease is anticipated, there is a need to save funds now. Hibbs said he was disappointed by the legislative decision to appropriate money from the fund's interest, even though that's not likely to have a short-term effect.

"This is a time . . . when we should be looking at the long-term needs of the state," he said. "If you want a better education system, a highly productive workforce . . . it starts with childhood development."

For now, the regional councils are gearing up to pursue their initiatives for the next three years.

Supporting families with young children is a goal for all the regional councils.

The equivalent of a full kindergarten class is born every day at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa.

"There are a lot of kids. We know that, but not a lot are in regulated day care. Some are at home with Mom and Nana," said Terri Duhart, the Southeast Maricopa Council's coordinator.

"If we support the families, it's the feeling of the regional council that the child will, in turn, receive support. . . . The early-childhood community is ready to take it to the next level and really step up and support families."

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