Government & Politics

‘It’s about getting ready to learn’: What to know about Sly James’ pre-K proposal

Gwendolyn Grant could barely stay in her seat as she talked about the reasons she’s leading a campaign against Kansas City’s proposed sales tax for universal pre-K.

“It’s not universal,” said Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, pushing away from the boardroom table and throwing both hands in the air.

“It’s pre-K for some but they are asking all of us to pay for it.”

Grant is voicing one of the most frequently heard objections to Mayor Sly James’ pre-K proposal: that it is financed on the backs of the poor with a regressive tax that claims a bigger portion of their income than it does the better-off.

There’s nothing more regressive than poverty, James retorts. Too many Kansas City children enter kindergarten already behind those who attended a quality pre-K program. Many never catch up.

“Reaching kindergarten and being ready is not about bringing in the latest box of crayons with the sharpener on the side and having Velcro shoes,” James told a group of supporters gathered for a brunch last month. “It’s about getting ready to learn.”

It is hard to find anyone who disputes that expanded access to pre-K would be good for Kansas City children. But the tax increase, which would raise about $30 million a year, is the wrong way to get there, in the view of opponents.

On April 2, voters in Kansas City will have the last word. And it’s a tight race.

While both sides have waged campaigns outlining their positions, voters still have questions about how the plan will operate, who will oversee the money, and who will benefit.

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

Who would benefit?

Kansas City has approximately 6,750 four-year-olds. The city estimates that 34 percent attend what the mayor’s plan calls “high quality pre-K.”

James’ proposal is modeled after programs launched in Denver and San Antonio. It promises to open pre-K centers in parts of the city where none exist, making it available to low-income families. It will prepare more four-year-olds to enter kindergarten as ready to learn as children who come out of the city’s best programs.

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.”

Children who attend good pre-K programs are more likely to graduate high school and college, some studies show. That makes pre-K not only a long-term investment in children but in the economic and social well-being of a community.

Research suggests that expansion of early childhood learning, including good pre-K programs, provides a return on investment of $8.60 for every $1 spent. About half of that reflects increased earnings when pre-K children join the workforce.

Who supports the plan?

Major business and community groups such as the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Council are on board, Among the employers in support are Hallmark, Husch Blackwell and BNIM.

Educational groups in favor include the Missouri Charter Schools Association, Teach for America and The Family Conservancy. Jennifer Landrum, who used to run the Denver Preschool Program, has been appearing with James to sell the plan.

Who opposes it?

Joining the Urban League of Greater Kansas City are superintendents of the city’s 14 school districts.

School leaders object to the use of taxpayer money for private education, which they regard as a step toward a voucher system. And they don’t like that under the plan the pre-K seats, even those housed in public school buildings, would not be under their control.

Superintendents worked with the mayor’s pre-K team last year to try to reach a compromise. But in the end they could not resolve differences over the questions of control, of funding private pre-K with public money, and the regressive nature of the tax. They announced their opposition in December.

Leaders of the 14 districts each say they have plans for universal pre-K within their boundaries. Two districts already have it for three and four year olds. Combined, the systems expect to add about 780 new pre-K spots next year. Kansas City Public Schools says it wants to create about 120 spots each year for the next five years, without a sales tax.

School boards in 18 additional districts, including North Kansas City, Smithville, Grandview and Lee’s Summit, have voted not to support the plan. The League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Platte County Economic Development Council are some of the other groups in opposition.

How would families qualify?

The Kansas City proposal, like Denver’s program, provides tuition discounts on a sliding scale. They are based on household size and income up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line.

A household of three, for example, would qualify for some assistance as long as they made roughly $83,100 or less. The poorest families would pay no tuition.

Discounts would vary with the quality of the provider. The plan presumes $12,000 annual tuition at advanced programs, $10,000 for slightly lower-quality but improving, or “mastering” providers, and $6,000 for those “emerging,” meaning they have work to do.

Families must live within the city limits of Kansas City, with children who turn four before Aug. 1 of their pre-K year and are scheduled to enter kindergarten the following year.

How would providers qualify?

Any licensed provider educating four-year-olds in Kansas City can sign up.

To qualify, a provider must agree to enter a city-developed review and support system. Requirements include competitive pay for teachers, full-day programs and use of a state-approved, non-religious curriculum. Suspensions or expulsions of children are prohibited.

Qualifying centers cannot charge more than $12,000 a year in tuition.

Money from the sales tax would assist providers in meeting qualifications. Priority will be given to minority-owned programs operating in high-need areas that serve students from the surrounding community.

Did it work in Denver?

To proponents, the proof lies in the decision of voters to renew and expand the program in 2014, eight years after its initial approval.

A 0.15 percent sales tax brings in $23 million a year, providing tuition assistance for about 5,000 kids, according to Landrum.

The program is billed as “universal access,” and, like the Kansas City proposal, it helps families with tuition and providers to improve services and curriculum.

In its first year, Landrum said, Denver had about 52 pre-K programs rated by the state of Colorado, mostly with low-level scores. There are now more than 250 licensed, quality-rated providers.

Denver’s reports show the vast majority of students who go through the program are ready for kindergarten. They continue to outperform peers into elementary school.

The program reported that in the 2014-2015 school year, 55.6 percent of Denver third graders who attended pre-K either approached, met or exceeded expectations on standardized national reading tests, compared to 48.9 percent of students who didn’t attend.

The program only has one year of data from that test, but two previous reports showed Denver’s pre-K children also outperformed their peers on a state assessment that was discontinued.

How about San Antonio?

When it passed its pre-K initiative in 2013, about 65 percent of eligible children were in a state-funded program. This includes those who are homeless, who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, or who don’t speak English.

Now, with 3,900 new seats, 71 percent are in programs, and Pre-K 4 SA is working to keep up with the rising population of kids living in San Antonio.

The ⅛-cent sales tax raises more than $36 million per year and primarily pays for four Pre-K 4 SA centers around the city.

Tax proceeds help fund continuing education and materials for teachers at other pre-K programs. Centers that previously operated half days now run full-day programs.

What’s wrong with a sales tax?

Sales taxes consume larger portions of low-income Kansas Citians’ paychecks, while wealthier residents may hardly notice a change. That is why they are called regressive.

On average, the $30 million tax increase means every Kansas City resident would have to pay another $60 per year.

“This tax is definitely regressive,” Grant said. “Research and history tell us that low-income families pay more for goods and services. This tax is too much of a burden for people right now. It’s a burden on low and middle income people and the elder

James pointed to the ⅛-cent sales tax voters approved to help boost development on the east side. He noted that few objected to that regressive tax.

“So really, regression is in the eye of the beholder,” he said.

What happens to small pre-K providers?

Small business pre-K providers, including those operating in a home, can sign up to participate in the Mayor’s pre-K plan.

Like other providers, they would have to be located in Kansas City, serve four-year-olds and agree to participate in the city’s early learning program.

They would be eligible for capital improvements through the plan’s facilities fund and receive money for teacher training and administrative upgrades. Parents with children in qualifying small pre-K programs would be eligible for subsidies drawn from sales tax revenues to help cover tuition.

How are the school districts involved?

The plan provides for one schools representative to sit on a five-member taxing board. The mayor would appoint three members and Jackson County one member.

Schools are allowed up to seven members — from among the 14 districts and all the charter schools — on a larger advisory board. All decisions would be subject to review by the Kansas City Council.

What is a pre-K/child-care desert?

It is an area where there are more than three four-year-olds per every pre-K seat. In parts of Kansas City, there are 35 for every seat.

Is this a voucher?

The National Conference of State Legislatures says, “Traditional vouchers are state-funded scholarships that pay for students to attend private school rather than public school.”

In this case, opponents see the use of new taxpayer funds for children at private pre-K programs as the beginning of a voucher system.

Under the proposal, parents get a discount on tuition based on income, ability to pay, and the quality of the program their child attends. In many cases, for families with the greatest need, the tax pays the full tuition to the child-care provider. The money follows the four-year-old, even if a child moves from a district pre-K program to a private one.

Proponents contend that the plan is not a voucher system because there is no diversion of existing public school funds. It creates a new source of money public schools would not have received.

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Allison Kite reports on City Hall and local politics for The Star. She joined the paper in February 2018 and covered Midterm election races on both sides of the state line. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with minors in economics and public policy from the University of Kansas.