Melinda Gulick is chief executive officer of First Things First. As 2023 begins, she shares her hopes for continuing to advance First Things First’s mission to help all of Arizona’s young children learn, grow and succeed.
As our state moves into 2023 with hopeful anticipation, we recognize that some of the challenges of the past year remain with us. As Arizona’s early childhood agency, one positive outcome that we hope will continue is the wider recognition of quality child care as an essential need. If it was not understood before, the current child care crisis has made it clear to more Arizonans that our state’s economic development is closely tied to the availability of quality child care to help support families in the workforce.
While this immediate need is a priority, we should not overlook that early education is also key to building our future citizens and workforce. Today’s babies, toddlers and preschoolers are our state’s generation next. We know that the first five years of life are the most critical developmental years. The pandemic revealed both the fragility of our early care and education system and its importance. We still have a lot of work to do to help more people understand that.
This year, FTF is committed to broadening the community that understands and works to support the healthy development of young children and ensure that their families have the tools they need to support their young kids.
In July, FTF will launch implementation of a new strategic plan that emphasizes coordinated, collaborative systems-change work. Involving new partners in these efforts – including the business community and local leaders – is key to successful outcomes. FTF and current early childhood partners cannot do this work alone.
Challenging times are also times of great opportunity. Let’s use the momentum that has been built to push for meaningful and long-lasting change for early childhood. Federal pandemic relief funding totaling $1.3B in Arizona has been a lifeline to struggling child care providers and has prevented many of them from closing permanently. But those funds expire by September 2024, so our state must be prepared to come together to find commonsense, long-term solutions.
One place to start would be to restore our state’s general fund investment in childcare subsidies. During the last recession 14 years ago, the state eliminated $69M in state funding for childcare subsidies. Only a portion of that funding – about $7M – has returned. Restoring this state funding would be a critical step forward in creating stronger communities and families.
Thank you for being part of our FTF community and for all that you have done to help support our state’s youngest children and their families over the past year. I challenge each of us to resolve to do more; to find new and creative ways to work together to build on those successes and realize our shared vision where every child in our state arrives at kindergarten ready for school and set for life.
We look forward to our continued partnership!