Denver shares difficult lessons for Kansas City’s universal pre-K plans

Children listened during a lesson at Denver’s Paddington Station Preschool.
Children listened during a lesson at Denver’s Paddington Station Preschool.

Everything that a visiting crew of Kansas City visionaries wanted was here.

Not the mountains. Not Denver’s robust commuter train system.

The 18 civic and education leaders, all with ties to Kansas City’s Early Learning Commission, came for a long day of learning how Denver pulled off universal preschool.

Specifically, they coveted the strategies that have delivered $77 million from Denver taxpayers since 2007 — a pot of money the Denver Preschool Program has used to put $66 million into tuition and $9.7 million into improving public and private preschools, with more than 36,000 4-year-olds served so far.

And Denver was eager to receive the Kansas City delegation. Education leaders here would love new partners in the push for universal prekindergarten. They want to see Kansas City winning the kind of tax that raises the money that makes a good preschool possible for every 4-year-old, poor or not.

“It should go out into other cities,” said Jennifer Landrum, head of the Denver Preschool Program, “so that other cities can value children and do the same for theirs.”

Know that Denver’s first two attempts at tax elections — in 2000 and 2001 — “failed miserably,” Landrum said, before a successful campaign in 2006 and then a 10-year tax renewal that passed in 2014.

Know, too, that while data show that graduates who came through the preschool program are outperforming those who didn’t on third-grade tests, elementary schools aren’t narrowing achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

Other difficult questions would fill the Kansas Citians’ day.

Property tax levy or sales tax? Kansas City aims to go after a levy increase next year within the Kansas City school district boundary. Denver didn’t think its voters would go for a property tax and went the sales tax route.

And if voters approve, administering the funds will be a bear. Preschools will have to rise to the high-quality demands, meaning more certified teachers with opportunities for ongoing training. Audits and rigorous attendance checks will need to guard against fraud. A watchful community will want to know — through precise and presentable data — whether its tax investment is raising student growth and performance.

The Kansas City plan, with nearly three years in planning, is moving toward an “implementation” phase, said Early Learning Commission board president George Lopez.

The commission’s delegation, he said, would be fully taking advantage of the expertise the Denver team was sharing free of charge in a full 8-to-5 day of workshops earlier this month — “fittingly the length of a typical early learning day,” Lopez said, “minus the nap and the milk breaks.”

These Denver early adopters crave a larger “peer network,” said Landrum, noting the still small collection of cities, including Seattle, San Antonio and Tulsa, Okla., that have launched or are developing universal pre-kindergarten programming.

“This is reciprocal.”

Making the pitch

Roll call.

Mayor Sly James’ education adviser is here. The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce is represented. The Mid-America Regional Council. The United Way.

Community preschool providers are here: Operation Breakthrough, the St. Mark Child and Family Development Center. The Family Conservancy is here, and the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and Communities Creating Opportunity.

And so are several officials with Kansas City Public Schools — though the role of the public school district will, as it was in Denver, purposefully be as just one of the participants.

When it came to Denver’s campaigns, strategist Cody Belzley said, “we emphasized the community-based provider aspect. (The campaign) was intentionally not about Denver Public Schools.”

Failed campaigns in 2000 and 2001 asked voter support for a sales tax increase to fund early childhood services and programs. The message was too scattered, strategists said. The community leadership was not broad enough or strong enough. It didn’t matter that there was no organized opposition — it failed anyway.

Come the 2006 campaign, the measure was focused on providing preschool for all 4-year-olds.

The sales pitch emphasized that an independent agency — separate from the city and the school district — would control the preschool funding.

Every participating preschool operation — from the school district’s classrooms to community centers and even home-based providers — would be carefully reviewed and assigned a rating on a four-star scale.

“We were empowering parent choice,” Landrum said.

One of their campaign slogans: You choose. We pay. They (with pictures of children) win. It’s that simple, really.

Costs, they warned, will likely soar as in Denver as the campaign pursued the 65 percent favorable polling that Denver strategist Lynea Hansen said is needed come election day.

An “angel donor,” Gary Community Investments’ Piton Foundation, sank more than $1 million into the research, polling and campaigning, she said.

The city passed a 0.12 percent sales tax in 2006, so close it required a re-count. Then voters approved a renewal at 0.15 percent in 2014 that is good through 2026.

The Kansas City commission imagines seeking roughly a $1 increase on the existing $4.95 levy assessed for the Kansas City school district. The additional funds, either through contracts or by legislative statute, would bypass the school district and be administered by the commission.

The funds would be doled back to preschool providers, including the school district, charter schools and community preschool programs that earned a quality rating through the commission’s separate rating committee.

The projected election day is planned for mid or late 2016 — safely distanced from Kansas City’s earnings tax renewal election in the spring. Neither tax request wants to share space with the other. Mayor James, in fact, made it clear he would be supporting the early-learning levy only if it comes well after the earnings tax election.

The Denver program is serving between 5,500 and 6,000 4-year-olds each year. The Kansas City Early Learning Commission is aiming to serve some 4,800 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds who live within the Kansas City Public Schools boundary.

Better performance

Now, a moment of silence.

This is what Landrum said she heard during some of her first presentations of the findings that the program’s data researcher made on student academic performance.

That’s the moment they saw the concern in otherwise heartening numbers.

The results are heartening because, unlike a large number of reports on different preschool programs around the U.S., Denver Preschool Program graduates are not showing the “fade-out” by third grade.

In many other instances, researchers found, kids who did not get the advantages of certain preschool programs were catching up to their preschool peers by third grade.

In Denver, state testing at third grade shows that children who were in the preschool program continue to be more likely to score proficient or advanced than children who were not in the program.

The percentage scoring proficient or better was generally five to 10 percentage points higher among preschool graduates, whether looking at the overall population, or broken down by ethnic groups, or broken down by economically advantaged and disadvantaged students. The advantage persisted across the board.

Other data show preschool graduates are less likely to be retained a grade and tend to be less transient, staying with the same school more often.

All good.

The concern, though, is that a gap of 30 to 40 percentage points persists between students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and those who don’t, and between white students and students of color. And the gap is not closing.

The Denver preschools can’t be content with saying all children are growing, Landrum said. But closing the performance deficits between groups of children will require support in the homes ahead of preschool and the elementary schools.

“The deficit is too big,” she said. “Our work has to inform our community how we invest in children and inform the school district. We need to think of something more.”

The challenge awaiting Kansas City is one it has had all along, said Gwen Grant of the Urban League — getting more children into classrooms with strong teachers who set high standards and hold high expectations for all.

“If our judgment (of preschool programming) is going to be based on third-grade performances in some other schools, we’re going to be in trouble,” Grant said. “We know there are a number of factors that impact children in low-income areas, but we also know these factors have no impact on the brain’s ability to function.”

Questions to answer

The Kansas City delegation is home again with a lot to think through.

As Lopez told the Denver hosts, “You’ve challenged some of our assumptions.”

For instance, Kansas City has imagined it would set its rating system, and preschool programs would have to meet a high standard before receiving funding from the levy.

Denver chose to let lower-rated programs into the system, with their rating publicized, as long as they are striving to attain a higher rating. Now, says Chris Miller, director of quality initiatives for the Denver program, 91 percent of the 5,500 children in the program are in classrooms rated three or four stars.

“We didn’t want to limit parent choice,” Miller said. “We wanted to get the tuition support out there. We wanted families participating … (and) our data has shown that once we bring (preschools) in, they do improve.”

Kansas City will — if it succeeds — need a means to independently monitor attendance to ensure that the children drawing the tax revenue are actually in the classrooms, plus other protections against potential fraud.

And it has to think through how it shapes an election campaign.

But as they go, said interim superintendent Al Tunis, there is comfort knowing they aren’t “operating in isolation.”

Several in the Kansas City delegation, like lawyer Herb Kohn, have been working at a preschool plan for three years with still no program to show for it.

“Another thing you’ve shown us,” Kohn told the Denver hosts, “is that at the end of the day it can work. You do overcome obstacles. It is worthwhile.”