Pre-K in Kansas City may rise from the ashes of defeat. Here’s how

KC Superintendent Mark Bedell: What’s next for pre-K expansion

Mark Bedell, Kansas City Public Schools superintendent, talks about how the district and the community can work toward pre-K expansion.
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Mark Bedell, Kansas City Public Schools superintendent, talks about how the district and the community can work toward pre-K expansion.

Kansas City voters may have soundly rejected Mayor Sly James’ pre-K sales tax plan, but that doesn’t mean the basic idea is dead.

“I’m hopeful,” said Mark Bedell, superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools. “I know that it is an issue that is near and dear to many people in the community.” He’s already heard from community leaders who want to pick up the torch and ignite support for a new plan to expand early childhood education.

Quinton Lucas, one of two candidates to emerge victorious from Tuesday’s mayoral primary, said he envisions coordinating area school districts to shoot for a pre-K property tax levy. “That, frankly, is what I would have preferred to see happening from the start,” he said.

His opponent and fellow city council member, Jolie Justus, said she too is ready for the city to “sit back down, roll up our sleeves and come up with a different plan.”

She said the city and school districts need “to keep pushing to see what funding we can get at the state level because the return on investment is so great that we can’t let up. But we also need to continue this local conversation. The need has never been in doubt.”

Bedell said the school district had been prepared to work with the city if voters had approved James’ 3/8-cent sales tax, funding pre-K for all city 4-year-olds. “And if not, then we already have our own plan to move forward with expansion.”

Bedell and the superintendents of 13 other school districts with students living in Kansas City had opposed the mayor’s plan, saying it stripped districts of their control of the program and would give public money to private pre-K providers. They said a sales tax places an unfair burden on the city’s poor. About one in five Kansas Citians lives below the poverty line.

Last Tuesday, about 67 percent of voters said no to the proposal, many saying they didn’t want more taxes. But most people on both sides of the issue support the idea of pre-K.

Though his term ends Aug. 1, James told The Star he will continue to fight for universal early childhood education.

“Whatever challenges we have, they’re small compared to 4-year-olds who are denied the opportunity to receive the quality pre-K education they need,” he told The Star. “They’re the ones who have the real challenges because their lives could be adversely affected.

“We owe it to them to be true to what we’ve said all along — that we’re doing this to make sure every child in this city has an opportunity to receive high-quality pre-K, which leads to being ready for kindergarten, leads to being able to read proficiently by the third grade, which then opens up doors which are not currently open to a lot of kids in this city.

“It’s our job to keep knocking on those doors until we break them down, and all the kids in this city have an opportunity to walk through.”

Indeed, research has shown that children who attend quality pre-K are more likely to graduate high school and college, are less likely to commit crime and more likely to grow into contributing members of the community.

Last year, the mayor’s announcement of the pre-K sales tax set off an intense debate, with social justice and economic equity groups siding with superintendents, while some education advocacy groups and business leaders campaigned with the mayor.

That so many across Kansas City — for and against the plan — got involved with the pre-K message is a good thing, Bedell said, acknowledging that the campaign pumped up the volume on the conversation.

“Our ultimate goal when you talk about us wanting this to move to something that could potentially be universal is to continue to have dialogue here locally,” Bedell said.

The district has tried twice to seek pre-K funding through a levy. The effort failed both times when Kansas City charter schools declined to support it and the measures never made it out of the state General Assembly. Bedell hopes the third time will be the charm, with the district using momentum from the pre-K campaign to try again for a levy.

He said the district would seek to partner with the Early Learning Commission — a group of civic leaders formed in 2013 to find funding for more pre-K — as well as other groups that had sided with the mayor in the sales tax vote.

“For us it would be continuing to work with the Early Learning Commission, the Chamber of Commerce, the Civic Counsel, if they are interested in working with us,” Bedell said. “I think you don’t rule out any options.”

Like other districts that would have been impacted by the defeated proposal, Kansas City already planned to expand pre-K programs. Currently the district serves about 1,200 3- and 4-year-olds and intends to add 600 new spots over the next five years, using federal, state and grant dollars.

Bedell said the mayor’s plan actually was similar to one the district had put together when it sought the levy. He said the district intends to dust that plan off and work with area pre-K providers, education advocacy groups and civic and business leaders to develop and fund pre-K expansion in a way voters can get behind.

One reason the 14 superintendents had opposed the mayor’s plan is that each district has different needs, said Gayden Carruth, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City, which represents 32 districts in the area.

Raytown and Hickman Mills school districts, for example, already offer 3- and 4-year-olds universal access to pre-K, and the other districts are working on their own plans.

Carruth said, “There is not ever going to be just one plan.”

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.