Mesa will give $60,000 for a pilot program for free pre-kindergarten.

After a touch of hesitation and a tidal wave of community support, the Mesa City Council agreed to allocate $60,000 for a pre-kindergarten pilot program. 

A task force assembled by Mesa Mayor John Giles in 2015 discovered Mesa children struggle when they enter kindergarten because the city lags behind the national average in school readiness.

Nationally, 48 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds attend pre-kindergarten or other early education programs. In Mesa, it’s only 36 percent. 

“This is a big black eye on our community,” Giles said. 

The council voted unanimously Monday, with council members Keven Thompson and Ryan Winkle absent, to set aside $60,000 from the city’s Housing and Community Development Department budget for the pilot program.

The money is made up of general funds and ABC funds, contributions that Mesa residents opt to give through their utility bills for social services. 

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The funding is just “a drop in the ocean” of what is needed for the program, according to Giles. But it was an important first step to show other potential donors that the city has “skin in the game.”

After the city assembles the necessary additional funds, the council will decide on a formal plan and timeline for the program

While the council agreed that early childhood education is important, some members had conflicting views about who is responsible for paying for it. 

“It’s not the core function of the city to prepare our citizens for school. It’s the parent’s job as well as the educational community’s job,” Councilman Kevin Thompson said at a council meeting last week.

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State pre-k funding? ‘Good luck with that’  

Michael Cowan, superintendent of Mesa Public Schools, said there’s a myth circulating about early childhood education funding.

“The myth is this: Well, Dr. Cowan, as the superintendent of Mesa Public Schools, you receive funding for education of children in our community. And the answer to that is, ‘yes.’ However, the answer to that is also limited to kindergarten-12th grade students,” he said.

Cowan said that he couldn’t spend his limited state education dollars on pre-kindergarten, even if he had the money to spare. 

The lack of school readiness is apparent and rampant in Mesa Public Schools due to an influx of poverty in the city, he said. Teachers struggle to even administer a school-readiness exam to some children because they rate below the lowest threshold on the scoring scale.

“We have a substantially growing population who are dramatically influenced by the power and influence of poverty in their lives and it manifests itself in our schools,” Cowan said.

Thompson, who was unable to attend Monday’s council meeting due to a family emergency, questioned whether the city should play a funding role in education during a meeting on the topic last week. 

“I just think it sets a very dangerous precedent to start utilizing taxpayer dollars to fund educational-type projects. I think if the community was in such an uproar they would be letting the Legislature know that they want this funded,” Thompson said.

But Giles and Vice Mayor David Luna said it’s unlikely that the state Legislature will begin funneling money to early education.

“If we don’t do anything about this, nobody will. If we think, well, if this is important, then the Arizona State Legislature will fund it: Good luck with that,” Giles said. 

At last week’s meeting, Councilman Chris Glover also voiced concern about spending city tax dollars on education. 

“I’m afraid that it will become not only seed money but an ongoing cost to the city in the future,” he said.

Giles said he agreed the city can’t take on funding the program in a large way.

“I’m not at all interested in creating a city of Mesa education department. But we do have a role to play in supporting our school district and supporting our families that want to have their kids get ready for school,” he said.

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‘Why not Mesa?’

Ten community leaders spoke in favor of the city’s “seed funding” at Monday’s  council meeting. 

Former state Sen. Jerry Lewis said he knows cities don’t typically get involved in education — “But why not Mesa? Why don’t we become the city that leads in education?”

Then and Now: AZ Schools

Former Mesa City Manager Mike Hutchinson said taking a lead on early education “is a little risky.”

But Mesa’s never been known to shy away from risk, he said. There were many people who rejected prior council’s decisions to annex William Field Air Force Base and even more who questioned the city’s spring training facilities.

“We didn’t know what the future was going to hold, but it’s turned out pretty good,” Hutchinson said.

One other East Valley city has already made an even more significant investment in preschool. 

The Tempe City Council allocated $6 million for 20 preschool classrooms earlier this summer. The program is expected to serve around 300 children from low-income families. Classes begin in August. 

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Economic and public safety 

While some tried to encourage the city to break into the education sphere, others argued that the city already plays a role in it.

Deanna Villanueva Saucedo, a community leader with roles at Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens, A New Leaf and Maricopa County Community Colleges, said cities are responsible for workforce development, which cannot be attained without education at an early level.

“It is the role of city government to foster economic development and sustainability for our community,” she said. “Education is key to that. If we don’t lay foundation for our earliest learners, we will as a community suffer from the lack of a quality educated work force.”

Retired Mesa Police Chief John Meza said education plays a role beyond economics as well. 

“Education is such a big piece of that puzzle of having a healthy and safe community.

“As a police officer for over 30 years, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is there a correlation between education and crime?’ There absolutely is,” Meza said. 

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What’s next?

Giles said he’s “anxious to go on the road” to entice other donors to contribute to the pilot program. 

Once enough money is collected — around $250,000 — the council will vote on a formal program, likely in conjunction with a non-profit that would do the educating. 

Giles said he’s optimistic that the city can take its existing resources and partnerships and use them to combat Mesa’s kindergarten-preparedness problem.

“I think there is an affordable way for the city to show support on this issue,” Giles said. 

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What is ‘kindergarten preparedness,’ exactly?

A child who is ready for kindergarten:

  • Knows his/her first and last name.
  • Can identify basic colors. 
  • Can identify basic shapes.
  • Can identify letters.
  • Can rhyme simple words.
  • Can count.
  • Can identify written numbers.
  • Can grasp a pencil, crayon, etc.
  • Can pay attention for short bursts of time.
  • Is familiar with books and how to turn the pages.
  • Understands the concept of a story.
  • Understands the concept of a fairy tale.
  • Knows, generally, how to get along with others.
  • Knows how to share.
  • Knows how to ask a question.
  • Knows how to vocalize simple emotions

Republic reporter Jerod Mac-Donald Evoy contributed to this article.


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