Steve Rose

If Sly James wants his pre-K proposal on the April ballot, he needs to act now

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If Kansas City Mayor Sly James wants to get his early childhood education proposal on the April ballot, he had better get started yesterday.

He has some backfilling to do. James has ignored, and perhaps even alienated, key individuals in Kansas City who may agree — in concept — with his bold pre-K plan. But when it comes to the critical details, there are many unanswered questions and lots of skepticism. In addition, there are more than a few noses bent out of joint because the mayor did not include a host of key players in the initial planning process.

James seems to have a bad habit of unveiling bold plans almost single-handedly, only to discover he forgot to get critical input first. Such was the case with the proposed privatization of a new single-terminal airport. It was a grand idea, and ultimately succeeded. But it had a rough start because the mayor never got around to testing the idea of a no-bid contract. That was a deal killer, which the mayor should have known long before he unveiled what he thought was a finished product.

Now, he has another grand plan. James wants the vast majority of 4-year-olds in Kansas City to have the opportunity to attend a quality pre-K program. Early childhood education has been shown to vastly improve reading and math proficiency in kindergarten, and that success continues throughout a child’s entire education.

The mayor tried to rush through a complicated proposal that caught too many Kansas City leaders by surprise. James enthusiastically presented his broad outline to the Kansas City Council with the hope of getting his proposal on the November ballot. He was met with immediate rebukes from several council members. The City Council’s mixed response was soon followed by slings and arrows from other community leaders and organizations who had serious reservations about the details.

Lost in all the politics and skepticism was the sad fact that only about one-third of 4-year-old children in Kansas City attend pre-K programs. The mayor sees a way to remedy that void. James has proposed a three-eighths-cent sales tax to generate $30 million annually for a citywide pre-K program.

James and his staff have studied preschool initiatives in several major cities. Denver’s successful plan was a model for the mayor’s proposal. It’s critical to bring key leaders from Denver to Kansas City to provide a full-blown, detailed presentation with open discussion involving as many stakeholders as possible.

This time, James needs broad-based participation. The City Council should provide input in the earliest stages. The 15 superintendents and school boards of districts that include Kansas City can provide the perspectives of educators whose students will benefit from this effort. Leadership from the Urban League of Greater Kansas City is a critical component. The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce — which is a booster, if not a true partner in this effort — will almost certainly take a leadership role, along with the mayor.

The details need to be hammered out right now. It will take until year’s end to weave together a proposal that the community and local leaders will support. Since James wants to put this on the ballot in April, through a citizen petition, that effort needs to start in early January so that the campaign can quickly get underway. It will take three months to run a decent campaign.

Fortunately, Kansas City has a visionary mayor to lead the charge for this visionary idea. But a lot more work and planning need to take place before it goes to Kansas City voters in April. Already the mayor has provided a rough blueprint for success. But more consensus is needed, or this worthy proposal will be nitpicked to death.