PRESCHOOL kids in classroom pre-k

In an era when people too often select who they’ll vote for based on sound bites, slogans, and/or a candidate's good looks, many Kansas City residents find themselves struggling to decide how they’ll vote on the city’s April 2 ballot issue, “Pre-K For All.”

The Pre-K for All issue will be on the April 2 ballot, along with the races for mayor, city council, and school board.

The polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

If you would like to see a ballot ahead of time, you can download the ballot at www.kceb.or/elections.

On the surface, the concept sounds good, but this is one of those issues where you have to dig a little deeper to understand what’s really going on.

What makes the decision even more difficult, is that even those who oppose the ballot issue, support the idea of “Pre-K for All.”

Everyone, everywhere recognizes how important it is for children to get an early start on education. They are throwing around scientific facts about the development of a child’s brain.

We know that 90% of a child’s brain is developed by age 5.

And that a child who isn’t reading at grade level by the end of the 3rd grade will begin to fall behind.

“Through third grade, children are learning to read,” Mayor Sly Williams is prone to saying. “After the third grade they’re reading to learn.”

In 2011, when Mayor James started looking at the educational performance of Kansas City students as a way to address the “chronic problems of poverty and crime,” only 1/3 of Kansas City 3rd graders were reading at grade level.

Currently, only 35% of KCMO four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality pre-K program. Additionally, issues of pre-K affordability and accessibility remain two of the greatest inherent barriers facing KCMO parents. For 40% of the city’s zip codes are in deserts where there are no quality pre-K. With a quality pre-school costing an average of $12,000/ year, and a median gross income of $47,000 in Kansas City, even an average family can’t afford it.

How the Mayor’s Plan Would Work

Everyone agrees quality pre-K is important, but not everyone agrees with the plan the mayor put forth to expand the availability of pre-K for 4-year-olds living within the boundaries of Kansas City, MO.

About a dozen other cities across the country, including San Francisco, Washington D.C., and San Antonio have introduced similar programs. Kansas City has closely modeled their program after the one in Denver, which has been in place since 2006.

Similar to Denver, the Kansas City plan funds the expansion of pre-K through a sales tax. If approved, the KC sales tax would be three-eight cents sales tax, and it is projected to generate about $30 million per year.

Initially, about 50% of the money generated by the sales tax would be distributed among eligible pre-K providers, including public school districts, charter schools, private schools, and religiously-affiliated schools. To receive the funds all providers would have to accept all students, discriminatory admission policies would not be allowed.

Families would enroll their 4-year-old in an approved re-K program, and the provider would receive money from the tax increase to help cover the cost for the child to attend the school. How much tuition assistance a family would receive would be based on a scale that takes two things into consideration: the family’s income and the quality of the school they choose to send their child to.

The program offers more tuition assistance to lower income families as well as more tuition assistance for families that choose to send their child to a higher quality pre-school

The tuition assistance would be paid directly to the provider.

Of the remaining 50% of the sales tax revenue, 20% would go to capital/facility improvements — to help expand the physical capacity of child care provider’s facilities. Another 20% would go to "quality improvement supports" — training, coaching and curriculum for child care providers. All providers would be charged with teaching a standard curriculum.

The remaining 10% would fund administration of the tax, evaluation and marketing.

A five-member board or agency --three appointed by the mayor, two by the county administrator and one by the school boards – would oversee the program. In addition, there would be a governing board made up of experts, small providers, and six or seven representatives from various school districts who would make recommendations on how the money is spent.

Mid-America Regional Council, that already oversees the early learning and Missouri Head Start program, would manage the day-to-day operations of the program.

Accessibility & Affordability

What the mayor likes about his approach is that it addresses the issue of affordability of pre-K, but it also addresses the issue of accessibility. By working with and helping to build up existing child care providers, the program makes quality programs available in neighborhoods close to where the families live and/or work.

“We have to go where the children are,” says Mayor James.

The program also helps build up existing small businesses in the community.

Workable Money Option

The city has been looking for avenues to fund the expansion of pre-K for several years. Working within existing Missouri laws and regulations, a sales tax is the only immediately available option, says the mayor. Other measures, like approving an increased tax levy, would require the Missouri legislators approval, which they have failed to give during the past three sessions.

Another option for funding could be for the legislature to increase the level of funding for school districts to include pre-K for all. In his budget this year, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has proposed spending just $6 million statewide on early childhood education.

School District Opposition 

There are 15 school districts within the city limits of Kansas City, and the superintendents and school boards of almost all of them oppose the mayor’s plan.

They believe in the importance of expanding pre-K they just don’t like the way the mayor’s plan goes about it. They’re concerns are:

1. Sales taxes are regressive and would hurt the families it’s trying to help. He’s correct, a regressive tax is a tax applied uniformly, which means it takes a larger percentage of income from low-income earners than from high-income earners. It is in opposition to a progressive tax, like an income tax, which takes a larger percentage from high-income earners.

A property tax may have been better, but says Mayor James, “I don’t remember seeing any ballot issues for increased property taxes.”

2. They question the constitutionality of a plan that sends tuition money to private and parochial schools. This hasn’t seemed to be a problem in other cities where similar plans have been implemented. However, if the sales tax passes, the districts might challenge the constitutionality of the program in court.

3. They dislike the governance structure of the plan. Which really means they don’t like their limited role in the program, which may be a legitimate concern and not just a “power play.”

Lack of Efficiency

The superintendents say this isn’t a case of them being upset about their limited role. The way the program is structured, “implementing it out weights the benefits,” Dr. Dan Clemens, Superintendent of North Kansas City Schools, told KCUR radio’s Gina Kaufman. “It’s not an efficient plan.”

For the same cost of serving one child under the mayor’s plan, Clemens says schools districts can serve three or four. In addition, they say creating a whole new hierarchy -- administrators and boards -- is redundant since the districts already have these things in place. 

When he took over the position as superintendent of the Kansas City Public Schools, Mark Bedell made expanding pre-K a priority.

KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell made preschool expansion a priority when he arrived in the district two years ago. In August, the Star reported that KCPS already had early childhood education classrooms in 14 of its elementary schools serving 1,200 3- and 4-year-old students.

Still, KCPS has a long waiting list of students whose parents want to enroll them in public preschool. The same holds true for other districts, many have made positive moves to increase their available number of pre-K seats, but they still have a waiting list.

According to Mayor James, the city has a shortage of 6,000 pre-K seats.

Conclusion

If you’re looking to us for a recommendation, you’re not going to get one. We’re just laying out the facts here. As we were working on this article, we kept drawing comparisons between the Pre-K for All Plan and Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The health care plan isn’t perfect, but it’s what Congress could pass. The same goes for Pre-K for All, it’s what the mayor could put together that works. Now it’s up to the citizens of Kansas City to decide if there is enough good in it for them to accept it.

Want to learn more about the mayor’s “Pre-K for All” Plan, go online to: http://kcmayor.org/pre-k.

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