Without a City Council member or school district superintendent present, Mayor Sly James kicked off a campaign Tuesday for a sales tax increase to expand access to pre-kindergarten for the city's 4- and 5-year-olds.
The "Pre-K for KC" ballot measure will ask voters in November for a 3/8-cent hike in the city sales tax to generate $30 million a year for tuition assistance and additional spots in pre-K programs. The money would also go toward lifting the quality of pre-K programs run by public, charter and private schools and eligible private providers.
About 35 percent of Kansas City's 4-year-olds attend pre-K programs, according to city officials. Research has shown that children coming from quality pre-K are better prepared for kindergarten and to be reading proficiently by third-grade — a key predictor of future educational success. Proficient third-grade readers are less likely to get into trouble with the law.
"Rarely do you see a master's degree candidate shooting at a Ph.D.," James said. "Because those people have options that have been given to them by a quality education and a quality education starts a lot earlier than high school."
The campaign will spend the next several weeks gathering the approximately 1,700 valid signatures required for a spot on the November ballot. The City Council has until late August to certify the petitions in time for the fall election. The mayor and other supporters will raise funds for mailers and other campaign materials through the Progress for KC political committee.
James, speaking at the St. Mark Child and Family Development Center on East 12th Street, leaves office next August after two terms. He has long been interested in education, but limited in his reach because the city does not control the public schools. Early in his first term he established a "Turn the Page" program aimed at lifting third-grade reading levels by mobilizing a corps of adult adult volunteers to read to children.
James said Tuesday he considered the pre-K initiative a critical piece of unfinished business.
"I really can't stand the thought of leaving office without trying address this issue," he said. "Pre-k is absolutely essential to what we have to do as a city."
How the initiative would work if approved remains fuzzy at best. The only material available at the announcement was a piece of campaign literature with a photo of James and a list of pre-k's benefits. It makes no mention of a tax increase.
All children ages 4 and 5 who live in the city would be eligible for one year in the program before entering kindergarten.
James said the Mid-America Regional Council, which coordinates early childhood programs and philanthropic foundations, would employ a sliding scale to distribute the money to schools and other eligible service providers. The scale would be based on household income and size, and the quality of the pre-k program.
According to an example provided on the campaign's website, a family of four making $75,000 and seeking space in a high-quality program would receive a 50 percent discount. A family of four with a household $50,000 would pay no tuition at a high-quality program. Programs would be evaluated for their quality by independent experts.
Pre-k programs unwilling to be evaluated would not be eligible for funding.
James was flanked Tuesday by a group of petitioners he assembled to oversee the gathering of signatures and signal the proposal's breadth of support. They included former City Councilman Alvin Brooks, a member of the Hickman Mills School Board; George Lopez, executive vice president for James B. Nutter & Company; and Leslie Fields, a hospitalist and pediatrician at St. Luke's Hospital.
The launch was a sparsely attended event, with attendance no doubt depressed by the Fourth of July holiday. But conspicuous by their absence were any of the 12 members of the City Council or superintendents of the 14 school districts within the city limits.
Kansas City Public School officials said they weren't invited to the campaign kick-off.
"We were not involved with the launch, and at this time we don't have a comment," said Natalie Allen, district spokeswoman.
James and Brooks said they are not sure which districts support the tax for the pre-K proposal.
James said it doesn't matter.
"It would be great if they did," he said. "But it is not something that is absolutely critical.
"They are concerned about who will control the money," James said of the districts.
James does not enjoy a close working relationship with most of the council. When he launched the campaign for the KCI single terminal ballot measure last year, he pointedly expressed uncertainty and indifference over whether most would be active.
He set took the same tone Tuesday. James said he invited all 12 members and didn't know why they were absent.
"I don't know what to expect from the council," he said. Five of the 12 are candidates for his job.
Councilwoman Katheryn Shields said she stayed away because of uncertainty about the details and qualms about using the city's sales tax.
"Given that a sales tax is so regressive and harms the poorest people in our community, I just question the idea of using it to essentially fund pre-K for those who are more well off," Shields said.
The combined state and city sales tax rate is 7.225 percent. But depending on the location, a long menu of county and "special district" levies for transportation and economic development escalate that tax burden. Downtown Kansas City, for example, is at 10.6 percent. Approval of another 3/8 cent would essentially exhaust the city's capacity to raise sales taxes for economic development.
"If it's last authorization we have, I think it is shortsighted of the mayor to propose using it for something that is not a city function," she said.