Since November 2006 when Arizona voters approved the First Things First Early Childhood initiative on the general election ballot, young children in Yavapai County have benefited from more than $11 million of new health, education and family support resources. These dollars, which come from the voter-approved tobacco tax that funds First Things First, are being similarly invested in communities in all parts of the state, guided by volunteer boards of citizens at the local level.
As one of the volunteer members of the Yavapai Regional Partnership Board of First Things First, I can tell you of the thousands of hours we have devoted over the past three years to review hard data and make funding decisions so First Things First funds go where they will improve and expand quality child care programs, childhood health services, parent education resources, and many other strategies that have been shown to be effective in increasing school readiness of young children.
The Arizona Legislature put Proposition 302 on the ballot this November so they can dismantle First Things First and capture the money that supports it for their own priorities. A 'no' vote on Proposition 302 says "Arizona voters want First Things First so our communities can do right by young children and their parents!"
Recently I had occasion to look at the AIMS scores for third graders in many of our Yavapai County schools. I was shocked at the high percentage of 8 year olds who didn't pass the reading, math and writing. As any kindergarten teacher can tell you, the students who aren't doing well in the third grade were those children who arrived at school at age 5, were behind in the basic skills, immature for their age, and unable to follow simple directions.
When toddlers and preschool age children don't have the right kinds of learning opportunities in the early years of life, they don't gain the basic skills that prepare them for success in school.
This year in Yavapai County, there will be more than 2,000 babies born at Yavapai Regional Medical Center and Verde Valley Medical Center. Because of First Things First, the parents of these newborns will also take home the Arizona Parents Kit. This kit is full of information new parents need about all aspects of caring for infants and toddlers, as well as DVDs and books to read to newborns and toddlers.
New parents of these 2,000 babies will also be offered early childhood home visits from trained family support specialists, if they would like additional support and encouragement once they get home. Early childhood home visitation is the most effective approach to helping parents keep their young children safe, healthy and developing on track. Parents who participate in home visiting programs are also more likely to be employed or enrolled in school, according to a recent Arizona study.
Arizonans know that young children are not going to graduate from high school, be prepared for the workforce, and become taxpayers themselves if they grow up with a poor start in life.
When you cast your ballot for the Nov. 2 general election, I urge you to vote 'no' on Proposition 302. Keep First Things First funded in Yavapai County and throughout Arizona, so our young children are healthy and ready for school.
Becky Ruffner is a board member of the Yavapai First Things First Regional Partnership Council and also is executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Arizona. She is a long-time advocate for young children and families.