A push is on for Kansas City Public Schools to champion a great idea: Finance a universal preschool program starting as early as next year.
It would be free to parents of 3- and 4-year-olds in the district, from downtown through the West Side, the Southwest Corridor and onto the East Side.
But questions remain unanswered about the plan. One is whether voters will support it at an election that could be just a few months away.
More community input is badly needed before the school board votes, likely next Wednesday, on whether to place a large property tax increase on the Aug. 2 ballot.
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Very few members of the public spoke this week at a hearing to discuss the wisdom of boosting the tax inside the district’s expansive boundaries. The idea certainly has not had widespread discussions in the media as have, say, plans for renovating Kansas City International Airport.
However, building a workforce for tomorrow through kindergarten readiness tops the Greater Kansas City of Commerce’s Big 5 initiatives. Plus, the school board’s vote would cap three years of work by the Early Childhood Education Commission.
The free quality preschool would help attract young families to Kansas City schools because they could save $7,300 to $12,000 a year per child on early childhood education costs.
The program would be open to more than 6,000 eligible 3- and 4-year-olds living in the district, which currently enrolls about 1,200 children in preschool. About $8,000 per child would be spent on the proposed eight-hour, five-day a week, year-round program.
Herb Kohn, who’s with the early childhood group, told the board Wednesday night that voters would be asked to increase the district levy by $1.0401 per $100 assessed valuation to $6. That rate would be on par with levies for other districts in the Kansas City area.
The tax increase would require a simple majority vote for approval. It would be the first levy increase for Kansas City Public Schools since 1995.
The ballot measure would generate $29.1 million annually. The money would go to a nonprofit corporation operating independently of the school district, administered and governed by the commission.
The oversight is important for accountability in the district, which is still struggling to attain full accreditation.
It’s encouraging to note that the property tax increase would be for only five years. The school district and early childhood advocates would have to provide data during that time on whether the program is being effective in readying children socially, emotionally and academically for elementary school.
By 2022, a regional authority is expected to be created with taxing power that could make universal preschool a reality for Missouri districts in the Kansas City area.
School board members had several reasonable questions.
One wanted to know why some of the money was not dedicated to improvements for children of all ages and grades in Kansas City schools. Another asked whether quality preschools would be located in under-served East Side neighborhoods. A third question was whether transportation would be included; the answer is “no,” and that raises concerns about access to the program for low-income families without cars.
To get this far, the commission worked to secure enabling legislation from the Missouri General Assembly so the money would go only to the Kansas City preschool program and not to charter schools. That bill was passed by the House and Senate and went to conference committee this week to work out different versions.
Proponents told the board that polling shows that 70 percent of voters favor early childhood education, and 62 percent were willing to pay for it. Campaign funds would have to be generated if the board votes to put the issue on the ballot.
Under federal control during the desegregation lawsuit, Kansas City Public Schools levies were increased by the court from $2.05 in 1987 to $4.96 by 1995. The last year that voters approved a tax increase for Kansas City schools was 1969, which also happened to be the last year that white students outnumbered students of color in the district.
Proponents are pushing for the August vote to keep the issue from clashing with ballot measures in November. They went with a property tax increase because the overall sales tax is about 10 percent already in the city.
“I think this is a real win for the district,” Kohn, a lawyer, told the board. “As a result of this we’re going to have better students coming to our schools.”
Universal preschool would be a big investment in the future of children. But the plans need to be solid and well-vetted before they are given to voters.