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Ducey proposes funds to help deaf and blind children get head start on reading

Gov. Doug Ducey

Gov. Doug Ducey (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Gov. Doug Ducey is proposing new funds to help students with vision and hearing disabilities get a jump start on their reading skills.

In a speech Thursday, Ducey said everyone knows that the ability to read is “an invaluable skill.” He said that’s part of the reason he put money into this year’s budget to restore state funding for full-day kindergarten, albeit only for students at schools with the highest percentage of students in poverty.

This, the governor said, is a logical extension of that.

“We want to support early intervention for the hearing impaired and the visually impaired children so these kids can be prepared to read, to learn, and to be successful in school, just like every other child,” the governor said.

Gov. Doug Ducey

Gov. Doug Ducey

But Ducey, speaking to reporters after his speech, said restoration of state-funded full-day kindergarten for all, enacted in 2006 and killed five years later, is not in the cards. He said the money for that — estimated at $240 million — just isn’t there.

Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said he could not provide a dollar figure for the cost of what his boss is proposing for the students with vision and hearing issues. But he said it will be a “significant investment.”

And while the goal is the same — to get children ready to read — the focus is sharply different than full-day kindergarten. Instead, it is aimed at youngsters from birth to age 3.

Dawn Wallace, the governor’s education adviser, said children are tested at birth for hearing and vision acuity. If there are problems, she said, the state seeks to get help for the parents.

Most of that goes through the Arizona Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

But those schools in Phoenix and Tucson do not take children until age 3. In the interim, Wallace said they have 17 specialists who go out and work with families around the state several times a week to help them get what they need.

She said the average caseload for each of these 17 specialists is 24 children.

That, Wallace said, is too much to do what’s needed. More to the point, she said, is that the failure to intercede early dooms the children to lifetime failure.

“How can you go to preschool if you can’t communicate with your parents or with your teacher?” she said.

“If you don’t help them learn how to speak or use sign language, or you don’t help them with hearing aids, or you don’t help them with braille, by the time they go to school at 3, they’re not ready,” Wallace said. “And so, they fall behind.”

The governor’s plan is to hire 21 additional specialists. Wallace said the extra staffers are necessary to ensure these children get what they need.

“These kids are visited maybe twice a month,” she explained. And the specialists not only are teachers, they also ensure that the health issues and medical equipment needs of the children are met.

“So, what we’re trying to do is increased the number of visits per child,” Wallace said. “But we’re also trying decrease the number of kids every teacher goes to so that they can spend more time with those kids.”

Ducey said what he is proposing is an outgrowth of his belief that the ability to read by the third grade is crucial.

“We’re working to ensure that more children and families are empowered by the gift of reading,” he said.

“We know what the statistics say when a child can read when they come out of third grade,” the governor continued, saying that learning to read in the first three years allows children to “spend the rest of their life reading to learn.”

Ducey said this budget request fits in the same category as the $10 million he got lawmakers to put into full-day kindergarten programs this budget year “with a focus on our low-income schools and neighborhoods.”

“And we need to do more,” he said.

But Ducey said it’s just a matter of simple math of why Arizona doesn’t fund full-day kindergarten for all schools throughout the state but instead pays only for half-day programs. In fact, he suggested it was a mistake to offer it in the first place.

“What happened is that budget became so big and bloated in the early 2000 it was driven off a financial cliff,” he said.

In fact, though, there was so much extra money coming into the state treasury in 2005 that it allowed Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano to cut a deal with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The GOP lawmakers agreed to provide the $240 million needed to allow all schools to offer full-day kindergarten. Some districts already had such programs, either funded with local dollars or with tuition paid by parents.

In exchange, the legislators demanded — and Napolitano acceded to — a 10 percent cut in state personal income taxes, a move that reduced collections by about $330 million.

By 2010, with state revenues lagging because of the recession, the Legislature rescinded the kindergarten funding. But lawmakers kept the income tax cut.

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