Vote no on pre-K plan that’s too expensive, too confusing and hurts the poor

On Tuesday, Kansas City voters will decide whether to raise local sales taxes to expand access to early childhood education.

Providing more learning options for pre-kindergarten children is a worthwhile goal. Done right, an investment in quality early childhood education should pay short- and long-term dividends for kids and families, and our community.

Unfortunately, the plan on the ballot approaches pre-K the wrong way. The measure is too expensive, its structure is too confusing, and it faces serious opposition from the city’s educators and community groups.

We recommend a no vote on Question 1.

The plan calls for raising the Kansas City sales tax by three-eighths of a cent for a 10-year period. The tax would generate an estimated $30 million a year.

The money would be used to provide access to year-round educational opportunities for 4- and 5-year-olds before they enter kindergarten. It would pay for buildings and equipment, teacher training and evaluation, and subsidies for parents who enroll their children in qualified pre-K programs.

Mayor Sly James is the chief author of the plan and has fiercely defended it. “There is no other option,” he has said. “This is what we have.”

Yet “what we have” is a plan that is seriously flawed in several ways.

The plan is strongly opposed by the 14 school districts that operate within the city limits. Superintendents have told us the program’s oversight structure is unworkable: Its five-member governing board would include just one person nominated by the schools. The Mid-America Regional Council and the Kansas City Council also would play roles.

The structure, required in part by state law, is unnecessarily confusing and potentially non-transparent. It would provoke arguments over where the money is spent and who gets to spend it.

Kansas City school districts already provide some pre-K learning programs and plan to expand them. They are justifiably concerned that the proposal on the ballot would shift control of teaching away from educators to politicians at City Hall — a waste of time, money and effort.

Some of the funds from the new tax would go to private pre-K providers, which some opponents believe would lead to a voucher system for private K-12 tuition. While we’re less worried about that, anything that could accelerate a private school voucher system is a potential danger to public education.

There is a more fundamental reason for voters to reject Question 1 Tuesday: The plan costs too much, and it raises the money in the wrong way.

At a $30 million annual cost, the Kansas City pre-K program would be more expensive than the pre-K program in Denver, a bigger city. San Antonio’s pre-K program collects $36 million a year, but does so with a one-eighth-cent sales tax, much smaller than Kansas City’s proposal.

Why is the Kansas City plan so expensive? It would pay for some building and construction expenses. And, in the first three years, the plan would spend roughly $60 million on marketing, administration, training and evaluation.

Just $30 million would go for tuition assistance during the same period.

Kansas City’s pre-K plan uses remaining state authority to impose an economic development sales tax. Several candidates and elected officials say that would reduce the city’s flexibility to fund other needs over the next decade — yet another reason to vote no.

Kansas City voters also should take note of the regressive nature of the sales tax plan. If it passes, most Kansas Citians will pay a sales tax of nearly 10 cents on the dollar. That’s an extraordinary burden for those on fixed incomes, including elderly residents.

School officials say they remain committed to providing quality early education for students and their parents. If the sales tax fails, Kansas Citians must challenge them to come up with a concrete plan for expanded pre-K, including the tax revenue needed to provide it.

They should finalize such a plan by next fall.

The pre-K sales tax is opposed by the Kansas City chapters of the NAACP, the Urban League, the League of Women Voters and others. With just a couple of exceptions, Kansas City Council and mayoral candidates who met with us are voting no.

They know: Question 1 costs too much, hurts the poor and preempts qualified educators from doing their jobs. We recommend a no vote Tuesday.