Opinion

Why should Kansas City kids suffer because adults can’t agree on a pre-K plan?

Sly James says he’s focused on kids, not ‘adult drama’ in pre-K initiative

KC Mayor Sly James held a press conference Aug. 15 to address the city school district's decision to oppose putting his pre-K sales tax initiative on the November ballot.
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KC Mayor Sly James held a press conference Aug. 15 to address the city school district's decision to oppose putting his pre-K sales tax initiative on the November ballot.

Here’s the alternative to the three-eighths-of-a-cent sales tax increase on the April ballot that would fund quality pre-K for all Kansas City kids: It’s no quality pre-K for all Kansas City kids.

Only 35 percent of the city’s 4-year-olds attend any school before kindergarten. And does anyone doubt that the cost of continuing to let so many of our children fall behind is unaffordable?

One of the reasons local public school superintendents can’t support the pre-K plan put forward by Mayor Sly James, they’ve said, is that it would spend public dollars on parochial and other private schools.

But this isn’t a voucher program in any traditional sense; it’s not diverting funds from public education to private. Most of those Kansas City 4-year-olds who are enrolled in a program now are not in public schools, but are in a whole constellation of private preschools, some faith-based and many not.

In an interview, the mayor defended his plan. “People act like — first of all, I don’t know what their objection to religious-based schools is. They’re not teaching religion; they’re teaching a state-approved curriculum. Secondly, there’s already public money that goes to those facilities. Does anybody seriously argue that if a church catches on fire, we should not send the publicly-funded fire department to put the fire out? The school districts have said over and over that they spend money on private entities — special ed, for bus companies, all sorts of stuff — but for them, it’s not a voucher. It’s only when someone other than them does it that it becomes a voucher.”

As a former parochial school kid myself, I’ll admit that I lack a proper horror of even actual vouchers. But if this aspect of the Kansas City plan is the unconstitutional stopper that critics claim it is, then why is this exact plan working in Denver, where voters passed it in 2006, under then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, and again in 2016? It’s the same as the plans that have been implemented in San Antonio, Seattle, Cleveland, Dayton, Cincinnati, Boston and Washington, D.C.

And the perhaps the more-to-the-point sticking point — who controls the money — is so beside the point with the future of Kansas City’s kids at stake that if school and city officials can’t work this out, I see no reason children should suffer as a result.

A Star news story reported that “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.” No doubt they do.

“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.

State funding, as in from this state? That’s a funny one. And if you could do it through local school district property tax initiatives, then why haven’t you?

James says that “while we’re diddling around and having adult conversations about adult problems that don’t really move the needle, kids’ lives are being challenged by our lack of activity and inattention on things that we know. We absolutely know pre-K makes a difference in a child’s life. We know it, so why aren’t we doing it?”

It will be up to Kansas City voters to change that — now, before thousands more kids fall behind.

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