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KCMO districts won’t support Sly James’ pre-K proposal, but the chamber is behind him

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City endorsed Mayor Sly James’ plan to raise sales taxes to fund early childhood education.
The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City endorsed Mayor Sly James’ plan to raise sales taxes to fund early childhood education.

Mayor Sly James’ plan to expand pre-K for Kansas City children has picked up endorsements from two organizations that represent the city’s business leadership, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City.

“Our primary concern is the kids,” chamber president and CEO Joe Reardon said in a statement Monday. “One in three children in Kansas City doesn’t have the skills necessary to succeed when they begin kindergarten. They’re behind before they even start and that’s potential lost.”

Civic Council President Marc Hill said the business community “doesn’t take a proposal to raise taxes lightly.”

“At the same time, we see no viable alternatives to funding the expansion of early childhood education in Kansas City,” Hill said.

“I appreciate the KC Chamber and Civic Council for standing up for all children in Kansas City with their strong support of our plan to ensure every 4-year-old has access to quality Pre-K education,” Mayor Sly James said in a statement. “Building a bigger, stronger, more skilled and adaptable workforce that will be ready for the future begins with how well we prepare our children today. Now is the time to take this important step forward and invest in our youngest Kansas Citians”

The Civic Council’s board voted Friday to endorse the proposal, and the chamber voted Monday.

The actions follow news last week that Kansas City Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell would not support a 3/8-cent sales tax increase to provide $30 million for expandiing early childhood education. KCPS and the other 14 districts in the city that belong to the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City formally announced their opposition Monday.

James’ “Pre-K for KC” campaign launched over the summer, with a plan to seek voter approval in November. But the effort was placed on hold after the city’s school superintendents balked at key provisions: lack of representation on the board that would be appointed to oversee the funds, the use of public dollars at religious schools and the regressive nature of a sales tax.

James and school leaders held a series of private sessions but could not come to an accord. The question is scheduled to be on the April ballot.

School officials said they preferred to use property tax authority in their own districts to finance pre-K expansion with money they would directly control.

“As hard as we have all tried to come to a reasonable conclusion in this specific matter, we are recommending that all parties come together for the purpose of supporting individual local school districts in property tax initiatives...as well as assisting in the pursuit of state funding for early childhood education,” Gayden Carruth, executive director of the cooperating school districts, said in a letter to James.

The chamber has been deeply involved with the pre-K issue for the last several years. Reardon urged James and educators to continue talking.

“The bottom line is, our kids need quality early childhood education to succeed,” Reardon said. “If this measure doesn’t pass, things don’t get better, and every year there’s another new round of four-year-olds who will not get what they need.”

The Missouri Charter Public School Association, however, will back the proposal.

“It is almost universally accepted that investing in high-quality early childhood education pays tremendous dividends to society as students grow and achieve a higher quality of life outcomes and make greater contributions to the local economy,” Dean Johnson, the association’s chairman, said in a release.

According to city officials, only 35 percent of Kansas City’s 4-year-olds attend pre-K. Children who have access to quality pre-K are better prepared for kindergarten and more likely to be proficient in reading by third grade, a key indicator of future academic success, research shows.

The proposal would fund pre-K at both public schools and private or parochial schools, a source of opposition by the public districts. A five-member tax board would oversee the program.

Funds from the tax increase would offset the cost of pre-K for families, who would pay any necessary tuition on a sliding scale. Some families would qualify for free pre-K.

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