The Ghosts of Prop. 204

The ghosts of Prop 204 4

“And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people, maybe more
people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening
people writing songs that voices never share, and no one dared
disturb the sound of silence.” – Paul Simon

Last November, Tucson voters were asked to consider Proposition 204. Also known as “Strong Start Tucson,” Prop. 204 would have increased the Tucson city sales tax by one half-cent, and generated an estimated $50 million a year to pay for 8,000 children to attend high-quality preschool. The proposal was roundly condemned by a large, bi-partisan group that included Jim Click, the Koch brothers-backed Americans For Prosperity, the Mayor and almost ever City Council person, and a large portion of our Democratic state legislative caucus. When voters and activists asked the Democrats who opposed Prop. 204 why they were so dead-set against a liberal no-brainer like expanded early childhood education, the most common arguments were that Prop. 204 was sloppily written and didn’t go far enough in advancing the goal of educating more of our children. During the run-up to the November 7 election, social media resounded with guarantees from Democratic opponents that, if we voted “no,” our judiciousness would be rewarded with a much better early education proposal. Well, it is going on six months since Prop. 204 was defeated by a margin of 33% to 66%, and our reward so far has been bupkis.

There are some good souls out there; brave and honest elected officials who have at least tried to get something done. This legislative session, a group of Democratic state legislators introduced HB 2363, which would establish an early literacy grant program to improve reading skills for prekindergarten, kindergarten, and elementary school students. LD 10 Democratic State Representative Kirsten Engel introduced HB 2355, which would impose a 0.02% sales tax on soda and sweetened beverages, the entirety of which would be spent on early childhood education programming. Representative Engel’s proposal appears to be a popular one; out of 600 likely, rural 2018 general election voters polled, 59% supported the measure. And…both bills died in committee, after receiving no hearing and almost no attention or interest. (To add insult to injury, the Legislature did pass HB 2484, which essentially prohibits cities and towns from passing soda taxes like the one Representative Engel proposed.)

When it comes to our city government, which took the lead on opposing Prop. 204 among local Democrats, no one has dared disturb the postmortem silence. Tucson City Council minutes from November 8, 2017, through March 20, 2018, (11 regular meetings plus 10 study sessions) reveal not one single mention of early education has yet to darken City Hall. Nor does the Council seem to have any interest in advocating for early childhood education at the state capitol. On November 21, 2017, a mere two weeks after the demise of Prop. 204, the Council discussed Tucson’s 2018 state legislative agenda. The four priorities the Council approved by unanimous a 7-0 vote were:

1.) Defend against any and all cuts to State-shared revenues and other State funds
dedicated to local governments.
2.) Protect and enhance local authority and decision making.
3.) Support the ability of cities to utilize strong economic development tools and increase infrastructure investment and public safety.
4.) Support strong and sustainable water management policies and practices.

Interestingly, the twelfth sub-section of priority #3 is, “Support sufficient State of Arizona funding of K-12, Community College, and University level education without threatening SSR or other funding streams currently designated to support local governments.” Even here, the silence of the Council on new early education programs is deafening.

Finally, during his annual State of the City speech on March 9, the Mayor of Tucson added a cherry of dismissal to the sundae of early education disinterest our city leaders are serving to voters who took their “we promise we will do better than Prop. 204” assurances to heart. The speech was chock full of civic boosterism, which we cannot blame the Mayor for, as that is what such speeches are all about. However, the Mayor did not even bother to pay lip service to supporting an early childhood education program. He didn’t propose to create a study group or recommend a task force – he studiously maintained the silence that has dominated the issue since last November.

Two weeks before the election, I wrote on this blog,

Come 2018, if Prop. 204 fails then all local Democrats should look forward to our City Council and state legislative caucus telling us precisely what the right answer is. If they do not, if the sound of education reform in city hall and the state capitol is the deafening sound of silence…Well, at least we know the value our elected officials place on telling us the truth, and bettering our children’s futures.

Sometimes it really sucks to be right.

– Joel Feinman