Sly James, school districts shouldn’t abandon efforts to compromise on 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.

The apparent collapse of negotiations over a plan to provide early childhood education in Kansas City is a serious setback, threatening progress for thousands of kids and their parents.

At the same time, there is still a window to come up with a framework before the April vote, one that stakeholders can endorse. Stakeholders in Kansas City — including business and labor leaders, civic groups, faith organizations, teachers and parents — should continue exploring ways to agree on a pre-K proposal.

For weeks, Mayor Sly James has worked with school district leadership on his pre-K plan, one that would raise $30 million a year in sales taxes for pre-K programs. That proposal will be on the April ballot.

School districts have objected to the mayor’s plan. They’re worried that his framework puts too much power in the city’s hands, extends public dollars to private and parochial providers of education and uses a regressive sales tax that hurts the poor.

Both sides tried to address these three concerns but came up short. “It appears that there is no more opportunity for progress on these issues,” Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell said in a prepared district news release.

James expressed disappointment in the failed talks in a statement Thursday, but said, “I remain steadfast in my commitment to make sure every child has access to educational opportunities.”

Kansas Citians shouldn’t question the good faith work of the schools or the mayor. Deciding which side is more responsible for the impasse is an interesting parlor game, but that won’t do much to ensure Kansas City kids get the early education they need.

Instead, responsible outside parties should now step forward and offer alternatives. If the proposed governance structure leans too hard on City Hall, there may be ways to give the schools a larger voice. The sales tax might be lowered, or combined with a voter-approved property tax increase, to lessen its impact on the poor.

In Denver, public pre-K funds are available for instruction in faith-based facilities, but operators “separate their religious instruction from their general curriculum, so that tax dollars are not used to support religious instruction,” according to the program’s website. Some version of that might work here.

The state legislature and the governor might also play a role by providing funds for statewide pre-K programs.

The specifics of alternatives seem less important at this point than a continued conversation. The mayor has definite ideas about the framework, but it will not pass unless Kansas City voters are convinced his is the best possible plan for providing this important service.

That’s why it’s important for outsiders to step forward and suggest alternatives. Sometimes negotiators get stuck, and a fresh look provides a path forward.

The mayor’s plan will be on the ballot in April. We’ll take a closer look at the merits of his framework as Election Day approaches. By then, perhaps, additional ideas will have surfaced.

Pre-K is an important and worthwhile investment. There must be a way to provide it that Kansas Citians would support, and the mayor, school leaders and other stakeholders should continue the conversation.