Sly James, Chamber want sales tax hike to expand pre-K in KCMO, but questions remain

Mayor Sly James talks about the importance of early childhood education

While addressing Operation Rescue, Kansas City Mayor Sly James addressed the importance of early childhood education. James and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce are proposing a ⅜-cent sales tax increase to expand programs.
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While addressing Operation Rescue, Kansas City Mayor Sly James addressed the importance of early childhood education. James and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce are proposing a ⅜-cent sales tax increase to expand programs.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James and top officials with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, along with others, are pursuing a plan to increase sales taxes in order to fund the expansion of early childhood education, or "Pre-K," in Kansas City.

Plans are in the early stages, but broad outlines of the idea would have Kansas City voters in November deciding whether to increase sales taxes by ⅜-ths of a cent, enough to generate $30 million a year. A portion of that $30 million would expand the availability of early childhood education in public schools, charter schools, private schools and private child care providers that meet education and curriculum standards.

The idea is meant to make affordable early childhood education more accessible for eligible 4-year-olds in Kansas City, where demand far outpaces the supply. It's also a continuation of James' pursuit of improving educational opportunities in Kansas City, which his predecessors left largely up to school districts.

"It's no secret he's been working on education issues in the city for the seven years he's been in office," said James spokeswoman Laura Swinford. "One of those initiatives is how to close that access gap to give more kids access to pre-K. Not enough kids in Kansas City have access to that education. It's important to close that gap."

Details and key questions of the sales tax plan — how the money is distributed, who oversees and manages the program, how outcomes are measured — remain a work in progress.

Kansas City Council members reached by The Star, including those allied with James, have not been briefed on the plan and knew few details about it. The sales tax question might sidestep the council, which usually votes to put citywide tax measures on the ballot. Supporters of the sales tax plan say that a petition initiative is being considered as a way to place the question before voters in November.

School districts have expressed reservations, citing outstanding questions about how the tax would be implemented.

"We are eager to expand preschool seats," said Natalie Allen, spokeswoman for Kansas City Public Schools. "But we can't say one way or the other that we support something that is not fully planned out. But we have supported pre-K for years."

August is the deadline for placing measures on the November ballot, offering a short time line for proponents of the tax to make their case.

The idea has some precedent in Kansas City: Kansas City Public Schools in 2015 contemplated a tax levy increase to fund universal pre-kindergarten, but turnover in administration and the school board put that proposal on hold.

Now a citywide effort is in the works.

Jovannah Rohs, director of the Mid-America Regional Council's early learning and Missouri Head Start program, said initially about half of the sales tax proceeds would go to offset tuition costs for pre-K providers.

For Kansas City families, the program would work like this: Families would enroll their 4-year-old child in an approved pre-K program, and that provider would receive money from the tax increase to offset all or a portion of the cost for the child to attend. The family doesn't get the money directly, but families in effect end up paying less for child care than without the tax.

How much less depends on a funding scale that offers more tuition assistance to both lower income residents and those who put their kids in higher-quality child care providers. The lower a household's income, the higher the tuition credit; the higher quality the provider, the higher the tuition credit.

Families would be given the choice of where to send their children and eligible providers would receive payment for the tuition credit. Or, in the case of a public school provider offering "free" preschool, the payment would cover a portion of the costs of offering early childhood education.

After half the sales tax proceeds go to tuition assistance, about 20 percent would go to capital improvements — bricks and mortar — for child care providers. Another 20 percent would go to "quality improvement supports" — training, coaching and curriculum for child care providers. The remaining 10 percent would fund administration of the tax, evaluation and marketing.

A statutory agency would oversee the spending of the pre-K sales tax proceeds, with the Kansas City Council having a final say in the program's direction. An additional nonprofit may manage the day-to-day operations of the tax.

Rohs said a sunset for the tax, possible 10 years, would be part of the proposal.

Rohs said other cities with similar programs end up serving up to 65 percent of eligible preschoolers.

"With the exception of Denver," Rohs said. "I think they've gotten a little bit higher."

Kansas City's early childhood proposal is modeled after the Denver Preschool Program, the product of a sales tax increase that first passed in 2006 and was re-authorized by Denver voters in 2014.

Ellen Braun, deputy director of the Denver Preschool Program, said her organization has been in contact with Kansas City officials.

"We have been working with Kansas City and supporting them and giving them lessons learned," Braun said.

Like the Kansas City proposal, Denver Preschool Program allows families to pick their child care providers, and tuition credits are based on income and quality of the provider.

"We are not mandating curriculum, we are not mandating which school, we are not mandating location, we are wanting families to choose...the school that best fits their family needs," Braun said.

Since the Denver Preschool Program started, it has served about 50,000 children and provided $106 million in tuition support.

Evaluations of the Denver Preschool Program indicate that participants showed improvements in vocabulary, literacy and social development during the year in which they attended the program.

"We feel proud of what we've been able to do and the improvements we've made with the funds that we have," Braun said. "As always, we feel there's growth that could be made if we had more funds."

A group of 18 Kansas City leaders got a firsthand look at the Denver Preschool Program in 2015. At the time, Kansas City was exploring the idea of funding an expansion to early childhood education through the Early Learning Commission.

Denver in 2000 and 2001 tried to pass a tax for early childhood learning, among other programs, but was twice shot down by voters who thought the initial plans lacked focus. The idea was revived during then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's administration and passed in 2006.

The Denver Preschool Program receives about $20 million a year from sales taxes in Denver.

That's $10 million less than the Kansas City sales tax is expected to fetch in a city that has 14 school districts within its boundaries.

KCPS already has early childhood education classrooms in 14 of its elementary schools serving 1,200 3- and 4-year-old students. Among the schools are the Holliday Montessori, Border Star Elementary and two comprehensive early learning centers at Richardson and Woodland elementary schools.

Students are enrolled in the free, all-day programs on a first-come, first-served basis. KCPS pre-K is funded through Head Start, a federal income-based grant program; the Missouri Preschool Project, and the district.

Rohs said tuition credits from the Kansas City sales tax program could be used in conjunction with funding from Head Start and the Missouri Preschool Project.

KCPS officials are concerned this year that the district will have to cut deeper into its budget to fund preschool next year, considering the current state budget proposes cutting $5.6 million statewide from the preschool project. That would cost KCPS five pre-K classrooms, affecting about 100 children.

Every year the district has a long waiting list of students whose parents want to enroll them in public preschool.

The district has been working to expand its preschool for years in an effort to eliminate preschool deserts throughout the city.

KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell made preschool expansion a priority when he arrived in the district two years ago. A large population of the students entering kindergarten in the Kansas City school district come academically behind. Creating more preschool seats in the schools is an effort to get more students kindergarten ready when they start school, district officials said.