If Niqui Hill had a do-over with her 17-year-old son, she would start off his education in a quality pre-K classroom, one with a curriculum designed to prepare him to thrive in kindergarten.
But her son spent his early childhood years in plain old, everyday day care, not a program with the kind of structure, one-on-one attention and confidence-building that she now sees as a teacher at one of Kansas City’s most highly sought-after early childhood learning centers.
In the end, Hill wasn’t happy about what her son learned — and didn’t learn — in day care. “I don’t think he was school-ready at all,” she said recently.
So when she got pregnant with her youngest son, she started filling out applications to enroll him in pre-K before he was even born. He is 6 now, and the difference in the early development of the two boys, she said, is clear.
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“My oldest wasn’t fortunate enough to be in (pre-K). He’s a great child but he was never as outgoing. Socially he was very introverted. He did not seem to have the will to want to ask and be outwardly expressive. My 6-year-old was in (pre-K). They encourage the child’s self expression.”
What Hill saw play out with her two sons supports educators and government officials pushing to expand pre-K so that all of Kansas City’s estimated 6,800 4-year-olds can have access.
Kansas City voters will decide April 2 on Mayor Sly James’ 3/8-cent sales tax plan that would generate $30 million a year to pay for citywide pre-K. But as the conversation on the proposal builds, so does the debate over where the funding should come from and who should keep watch over how that money is spent.
James has drawn the support of some of the city’s most active advocacy groups, including the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, the Civic Council, Operation Breakthrough and the Missouri Charter School Association.
At the same time, the city’s leading civil rights organizations — the local chapters of the NAACP and the Urban League — have joined superintendents of the 14 school districts within Kansas City’s boundaries to oppose it.
Back when Hill was looking for a place to send her oldest son, she was making too much money to get a break on pre-K tuition yet not enough to afford the best spots in the city.
A top pre-K program can cost as much as $12,000 a year per child, experts say. By comparison, University of Missouri-Kansas City charges $9,885 a year for in-state undergraduates.
For her second son, Hill had some experience as an early childhood teacher, and she did everything she could to get him in a good program.
It would take four years before she landed a spot for him at St. Mark Center in Kansas City, where she now works with infants. St. Mark has about 85 3-, 4-and 5-year-olds but carries a waiting list of more than 100. And it is a prime example of the kind of pre-K centers that education and city officials say they want for all 4-year-olds.
St. Mark, at 2008 E. 12th St., is smack in the middle of the urban core, surrounded by some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Yet it is bright, colorful and full of the playful sounds of young children, an oasis for many of the low-income families in the area.
Currently only an estimated 35 percent of Kansas City’s 4-year-olds attend what city officials consider high quality pre-K.
“High quality,” according to the mayor’s plan, means at least 50 percent of the lead teachers have bachelor’s degrees in education or childhood development. Those centers follow an approved curriculum and have at least one staff member for every 10 students.
What it is not, said Ashley Jones, a pre-K teacher at St. Mark, “is baby-sitting, you know, where you drop off your child and we give them back to you in one piece at the end of the day.”
No one on either side of the debate disputes the importance of quality pre-K. But critics object to the mayor’s method to achieve it.
The local debate
James, who has sold Kansas City voters on an airport and a major bond issue during his two terms in office, is spending the last of his political capital on early childhood education.
“People get it,” he said recently. “Any parent that’s tried to find day care for their child and has seen how much it costs and where they can go. … Forty percent of our ZIP codes are quality pre-K deserts. There’s no educator who doesn’t know what needs to be done. The problem is there’s very little political will to get it done.”
The big reason, critics say, is the sales tax, which hits poor households the hardest.
In addition, the 14 school districts whose boundaries extend into Kansas City want more control over the pre-K program, which, under the mayor’s plan, would be governed by a city-appointed board. That governing structure “removes pre-K decision making from local superintendents,” said Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League.
She and many mayoral candidates would prefer seeing districts fund pre-K expansion through a property tax.
Districts are also concerned that the mayor’s plan would funnel some of those public dollars to private and parochial pre-K classrooms.
James has run into stiff opposition from those campaigning to succeed him. Just one of the 11 candidates in the April 2 primary — City Councilwoman Jolie Justus — has voiced support for James’ plan. Most contenders echo the NAACP and the Urban League.
“This ballot measure is a regressive tax to support a function that is the responsibility of the school districts — that also do not support this,” said 5th District Councilwoman Alissia Canady.
Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, 1st District at large, questions the idea that pre-K merits the kind of direct city investment being proposed. “There is nowhere in this city that I have gone where pre-K is a priority over crime, economic development, affordable housing or anything else,” he said. “It would seem any taxing authority we have should be pursued for these more pressing issues.”
All of the 14 school districts affected, including Raytown, Hickman Mills, Grandview and North Kansas City, provide some pre-K that’s funded in part through district and federal dollars and Missouri’s limited pre-K grant coffers. But districts are quick to acknowledge there isn’t enough money to develop needed additional pre-K classrooms, train more quality teachers and monitor pre-K providers across the city to ensure they offer a curriculum that gets children to kindergarten prepared to learn.
In the previous two years, the Kansas City Public School District has sought a levy for expanded pre-K. But those proposals failed in Jefferson City.
Under the mayor’s plan, the money collected through the sales tax would subsidize tuition costs for low-income families, train teachers, expand existing facilities and open new ones in areas of the city without quality pre-K centers.
The goal, James has said, is to “close the kindergarten readiness gap to ensure there are no differences in measurable outcomes by race, ethnicity or family income.”
A nationwide push
In recent years, a number of cities have created local funding mechanisms to pay for universal pre-K.
Denver and San Antonio, Texas, have expanded pre-K through sales tax revenues.
Seattle used a property tax. Philadelphia taxes sodas. Kansas is one of three states, including Arizona and Connecticut, that uses money from tobacco settlements to give some money to pre-K.
The federal government has been providing pre-K to low-income 3- and 4-year-olds through Head Start for more than 50 years. But it’s far from universal — open to everyone. Only the states of Vermont, Washington and Florida, plus the District of Columbia, have true universal pre-K.
According to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Education, for some children who lack a pre-K background, “starting out school from behind can trap them in a cycle of continuous catch-up in their learning.”
Some experts argue that children who attend quality pre-K are more likely to graduate high school and college and to contribute to society. They say investing in universal pre-K is more than an investment in the child but also in the economic and social well-being of the community.
Research suggests that expansion of early learning, including good pre-K programs, provides society with a return on investment of $8.60 for every $1 spent. About half of that comes from increased earnings when those children grow up.
Others have argued that while that may be true, the returns can take years to accrue. But a recent study in the District of Columbia showed that within eight years after D.C. expanded preschool the city saw a 10 percentage point jump in mothers participating in the labor force.
Some teachers say they can tell how well prepared a child is for grade school as soon as they are in the classroom.
“Unfortunately very quickly it becomes clear that not every student is starting from the same place,” kindergarten teacher Andrea Clayton-Jones wrote in a recent commentary in The Star. “Within the first month of school I can immediately tell which students have had some access to early learning and which have not.”
Students with structured early learning, she said, come to kindergarten with some “language, numbers, and social interaction. The students who have not are simply academically and emotionally behind their peers.”
What quality looks like
At St. Mark one recent afternoon, young voices poured out from Jones’ classroom.
Yiudiel Beltran held up four fingers and boldly stated that she’s 4. She was playing with her friend Zuri Tann, also 4. The girls spelled their names slowly, pronouncing each letter and dragging the last sound the way young schoolchildren sometimes do. Yiudiel became a tad frustrated when a school administrator who was asking her name mistook her N sound for an M. She repeated it louder, enunciating even more.
They stacked bright red and yellow clip-together blocks and colorful plastic monkeys. Yiudiel built “a castle for the monkeys,” she said. Zuri built “a choo choo for the monkeys,” who, she explained, were going to visit monkeys at Yiudiel’s castle.
Quality pre-K programs like this one follow a curriculum in which the students learn to count at least to 30, recite the alphabet, read and write their own name and identify colors and shapes.
But even more important is the “social and emotional development of children,” said Kellie Beverly, who is a teacher and parent of a preschool-age child.
Jones, who teaches 3- 4- and 5-year-olds at St. Mark, agrees: “It’s more about the experiences than it is about the rote memorizing. It’s about giving the child words to say how they feel that is a lot more meaningful to them down the road.”
She sent her children to pre-K, she said, “because I wanted to make sure they had a sturdy foundation.” Jones is the parent or guardian of six children. Three of them are nieces and nephews.
“My sister did not have the resources for her children to go to pre-K,” Jones said. Her sister’s youngest is 4, and, along with Jones’ 5-year-old, is now enrolled at St. Mark, where Jones has taught for two years.
With such programs, she said, children feel “more comfortable being in a classroom, they know we have expectations. A 4-year-old not having that experience will definitely need a lot more one-on-one time … help and guidance with the things we do throughout the day.”
Other parents know the benefits of quality pre-K, she said, but for many it doesn’t exist in their neighborhood or the cost is prohibitive.
That’s why Deborah Mann, executive director at Emmanuel Family & Child Development Center on Swope Parkway, is rooting for the mayor’s sales tax proposal.
Smaller early childhood providers, she said, don’t have the resources to train their staff, compared to those at larger facilities.
“This tax will help bridge the gap,” Mann said. “The smaller providers need to know these are funds that will help provide resources that even the playing field for the students they serve. Without it, the kids that are not ready get left behind.”