The Tempe City Council will vote this spring to spend $3 million annually to provide free preschool to 3- and 4-year-old children living in poverty.

The cost would cover 20 classrooms and help an estimated 360 children, Councilman David Schapira said.

The program, called Tempe Free PRE (Preschool Resource Expansion), would begin next school year as a two-year pilot.

The city would partner with the Tempe Elementary School District and other potential local and regional partners, city spokeswoman Nikki Ripley said.

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The aim is to better prepare children for kindergarten. A study found nearly two-thirds of Tempe children lagged in reading and language upon arrival to kindergarten.

Shapira championed the program as much-needed, while Mayor Mark Mitchell, Vice Mayor Robin Arrendondo-Savage and Joel Navarro opposed moving forward with the 20 classrooms, largely for financial reasons.

“This is obviously a need that needs to be met,” Arrendondo-Savage said. However, she said she wasn’t comfortable dedicating money toward the program until more options for implementation were presented. “I want to make sure it is sustainable.”

Why the city would fund preschool 

In 2015, the mayor and council created a working group to explore the expansion of the city’s Kid Zone program, which primarily provides before and after-school programs for elementary students. The program is tuition-based and offers four preschool classrooms.

The group worked with the South Carolina-based Institute for Child Success, which conducted a feasibility study to see if the city would benefit from preschool programs.

The institute found:

  • 1,230 of the 3,075 children ages 3 and 4 in Tempe live in poverty, or 200 percent above the national poverty line, which is $48,600 annually for a family of four. 
  • 278 of the 1,230 children receive assistance with preschool education from the state or federal government.

The preschool need

“The early years really do set up children for success or struggle,” Jill Stamm, director of prevention and consultation for the New Directions Institute for Early Childhood Brain Development in Phoenix.

Programs such as Tempe’s will attack the “heart of the problem” when it comes to many issues around early-childhood development, Stamm said.

Stamm said poverty often acts as a barrier to developing necessary skills early in a child’s life.

“Just talking to the child all day long helps with intellectual development,” Stamm said.

Research shows those early conversations help young children develop vocabulary, gain understanding of concepts and make connections that better prepare them for success.

Many parents in poverty do not have adequate time to talk to their children all day, or to provide deeper interactions, which is why free quality preschool can help break that barrier, Stamm said.

How Tempe will pay for it

Much of the council debate in a work study session this month centered around the funding and scope of the project.

The proposal is for Tempe to use revenue from developers who have purchased or leased land from the city. Some on the council raised concerns about using funds that were effectively one-time money, rather than an ongoing funding stream.

The council agreed to move forward and will formally vote on the expenditure as part of the larger budgeting process later this spring. Public hearings on the budget are May 25 and June 8.

Once the budget is approved, the city can move forward in getting the program off the ground, Raymond said.

How to apply

An application process has yet to be determined and it is possible that a lottery system could be used to determine which children could participate, Schapira said.

The city will post updates on the program at and a message phone line at 480-858-7735 has been set up to provide updates to residents as they are available.

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