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Kansas City Mayor Pushes A Sales Tax For Pre-K But Concerns Linger

Kansas City Mayor Sly James is working on a plan that would increase sales tax to make preschool more affordable for area families.

Kansas City, Missouri, residents could be asked to vote on a sales tax increase in November to help make early childhood education more affordable for area children.

Mayor Sly James is working with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce on a plan that would offset pre-K costs for families of eligible 4-year-olds. A three-eighths of a cent sales tax would raise more than $30 million a year, making early childhood education more accessible in Kansas City, where the need for these services surpasses their availability.

The plan has not yet been formally brought before city council, and many key details are still being worked out. But even at this beginning stage, some city council and community members are concerned that there has not been enough collaboration.

Councilman Quinton Lucas told KCUR’s Steve Kraske that he only found out about the plan recently through reading The Kansas City Star.

“I don’t think almost any of my colleagues have been party to any of these conversations,” Lucas said.  

According to The Star, funds from the tax will support public, private and charter schools that meet education and curriculum requirements. Lucas said he is concerned that public dollars could go toward private education options rather than supporting the city’s  public schools. He emphasized that more conversation with Kansas City Public Schools is necessary.

Then there are the proponents of early childhood education who oppose the mayor’s proposed funding mechanism. Lucas said a sales tax would be regressive, taking a larger percentage of income from poor and working class taxpayers than from high-income earners. Property taxes, however, tend to be unpopular among voters.

Seft Hunter, the executive director of Communities Creating Opportunity, an organization that advocates for low-income people in Kansas City, said cost is an important part of the decision, but other factors are also at play.

“When we’re having a conversation about cost, we also have to look at what has been the cost over generations for inaction,” Hunter said. “We need to move forward opportunities that ensures that we are providing quality programs at the developmental level where it can actually make a difference”

Education advocates like Hunter say early childhood has been an area of concern in Kansas City for decades, and available state funds do not spread far enough to support high quality programs. He pointed to pre-K as an important part of combatting other social issues in the community.

“We recognize the importance of what it means to provide certainly the most vulnerable folks in out city the best start possible,” Hunter said. “Some of the social conditions we look at later in life are a direct result of some of these young people not having the best start in life.”

Kansas City is not the only place looking to this option. Hunter was part of a group of community and education leaders that visited Denver in 2015 to explore the city’s expanded early childhood education plan, the Denver Preschool Program.

Denver’s program is similarly funded by a sales tax increase that was passed over a decade ago and renewed in 2014.

Sophia Tulp is a KCUR news intern. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_tulp.

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