Guest Column: Borrelli's bluster hides the truth about a bad bill

I was disappointed to see Mr. Borrelli misrepresenting information about First Things First as a means of getting support for his latest bill to sweep the early childhood education funds, allegedly to help K-12 schools remediate kids not reading well in first and second grade.

I wondered why Mr. Borrelli didn't just argue the educational merits of the bill, then I answered my own question: this bill has little educational merit.

Our schools would have much less of a problem with third grade reading scores if children arrived at school prepared to be successful. Here's why: Children begin developing language and pre-literacy skills starting at birth. Gaps in vocabulary start to appear in kids as young as 9-18 months. And, vocabulary, general knowledge and attention at 3 and 4 years old are good indicators of third-grade reading comprehension.

Mr. Borrelli says he consulted with early childhood stakeholders in drafting his bill. He did not consult with his local La Paz/Mohave regional council - his district's experts - on the needs of young children who include three educators and school leaders. In fact, I have volunteered (along with all of the other council members in the state) on the regional council for eight years and have never seen Representative Borrelli at any of our meetings, which are frequently held in Lake Havasu City.

If he had visited our meetings or inquired of us in any way, he would know that being prepared for school is more than just knowing your A,B,Cs or how to count to 10. It's about knowing how to share, how to pay attention, and how to work well with others. It's about having learning problems detected early on and being healthy enough so you don't miss a lot of school days. It's also about having families who are actively engaged in support of their child's health and learning.

These are all issues that are addressed through the school readiness strategies funded by First Things First, including quality child care and preschool, preventative health and parenting education. In many areas of the state, FTF is the only dedicated funding for these programs. Without them, more children throughout Arizona will come to school unprepared, straining schools' limited resources.

Oddly enough, in Mr. Borrelli's bill - and he admits this in his recent op-ed - schools would not be required to actually spend these funds on literacy.

Arizona voters dedicated these resources specifically for programs that have been shown to promote school readiness. By law, funds for administration are capped at 10 percent (FTF's actual overhead rate is at about 8 percent). The voters also outlined the specific areas these monies must be spent on. FTF spends less than 1 percent on advertising (and even that is to build parents' awareness of the importance of the early years to kids' learning).

FTF has been fiscally conservative and responsible, dealing with a 24 percent drop in revenue - not by asking voters for more money - but by strategically planning to use reserves to sustain programs. FTF's "registered lobbyists" are primarily volunteer board members or staff - like the CEO and chief program officer - who may be called upon to answer questions from policymakers.

FTF submits an annual report to the governor and legislative leaders and has an independent audit every year (all nine past audits have been clean). Lastly, the FTF board, regional councils and staff have to follow the same state laws that state agencies (and public officials for that matter) must follow when it comes open meetings, public records, grant making and conflict of interest.

If policymakers have questions about FTF, they have only to call the agency and they will be happy to talk through all the answers. But don't let Mr. Borrelli's web of inaccuracies and innuendo persuade you to make bad education policy. The easiest problem to fix is the one you prevent in the first place.

Taking money from prevention to fund remediation is too little too late for many students. Help schools in your district by preserving the FTF funding in our communities that helps kids arrive at school prepared for success in kindergarten and beyond.

Riley Frei is superintendent of the Bullhead City Elementary School District and the Colorado River Union High School District and chairman of the FTF La Paz/Mohave Regional Council. His educational background includes experience as a teacher and principal.