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As Kansas City Council Considers Pre-K Plan, Mayor Sly James Goes On The Defensive

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Only 35 percent of preschool-age children in Kansas City are enrolled in high-quality pre-K.

Mayor Sly James is ready to fight for a 3/8-cent sales tax to improve access to quality preschool in Kansas City.

“Only 35 percent of the kids in this city are engaged in quality pre-K. We have 40 percent of zip codes in deserts where there is no quality pre-K,” James said Monday on KCUR’s Up To Date.

Nearly 2,000 people signed a petition in support of the pre-K sales tax, but the Kansas City Council has to approve ballot language before it can go to voters. The Finance and Governance Committee is expected to take up the proposal Wednesday.

“This is really more of an administrative duty,” said Councilman Scott Wagner, who is chairman of the Finance and Governance Committee. “If 13 people loved it, or 13 people hated it, it wouldn’t matter (because) we know we’re obligated to put it on the ballot. It’s really a question of what kind of conversation do we want to have now?”

There is popular support for publicly-funded preschool, as kindergarten readiness is one of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s top priorities. But there’s been some concern with how the mayor wants to pay for pre-K, as sales taxes are considered regressive.

James isn’t buying it.

“I will say the same thing that I said to a parent who made that concern known to me the other day, a father who said he understood the pre-K issue but he didn’t like the tax,” James said. “I asked him about his own children, and he told me he had taken on a second job to pay for their education. And when I asked him why he did that, he said, ‘Because education is the most important thing I can give them.’”

High-quality pre-K is expensive – it can cost more than $12,000 a year – putting it out of reach of even middle-income families. James’ plan would pay for pre-K on a sliding scale, so a family of limited means might not pay anything while a family with more resources received a tuition break.

The $30 million generated by the 3/8-cent sales tax would be distributed among eligible pre-K providers, including public school districts, charter schools, private schools and religiously-affiliated schools. James said concerns that some of the preschools wouldn’t accept all students are unfounded.

“That’s not the case. The plan requires open enrollment. You can’t freeze them out, and if you do, you simply won’t be receiving tuition discounts through this plan,” James said, adding that all participating preschools, regardless of affiliation, would be required to teach a Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education-approved curriculum.

Still, Wagner wants to give the school districts – Kansas City area superintendents strongly support early childhood education but have questions about how the mayor’s pre-K fund would be distributed – more time to comment. He said it’s likely the ballot language will be held in committee for a week, since local districts are busy with back-to-school activities.

Wagner does not expect pre-K to become an issue in next April’s mayoral election.

“I think it would be a campaign issue only with respect to how you execute it, you know, the structure of it and all that,” said Wagner, who is one of five city councilmembers vying to replace James when he is term-limited out.

With city council approval, the mayor’s pre-K plan will go to voters Nov. 6.

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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