Paying for pre-K is a huge burden for families with young children, even for parents with good jobs.
Tiffany Price has one of those. She works with teen moms in the Hickman Mills School District, and she’s a mom herself. She has four boys, and the two youngest aren’t in school yet.
So every week she writes a check for $270 to Ronnie’s Childcare.
“Because I do have a job and I am employed, I am able to budget and take care of child care,” Price said. “And she is understanding. If I’m a day or two late, she works with us. But if I could eliminate childcare? I would love that.”
Soon Price’s 5-year-old will head off to kindergarten, but she’ll still be paying for her youngest. That’s why she’s hoping Kansas City voters will approve a three-eighth cent sales tax to offset pre-K costs for families.
“I feel that – why not invest in our kids? They are our future,” Price said.
Out of reach
Price actually pays less for daycare for two kids than what some families pay for pre-K for one. The mayor’s office estimates it costs about $12,000 to provide a child with a high-quality early childhood education the year before a child starts Kindergarten. That amount is out of reach for low-income families, and a lot of middle-income families can’t afford it, either.
So last summer, Mayor Sly James outlined a plan to make pre-K more accessible. He proposed the three-eighth cent sales tax, which would generate about $28 million a year. Families of 4-year-olds would be eligible for up to $12,000 a year, on a sliding scale based on income. To get the full amount, they’d need to send their kid to a high-quality preschool. That preschool could be public or private, attached to a church, or run by a nonprofit.
And that’s where James lost the support of the school superintendents. The superintendents of all 14 districts in Kansas City are opposed to the mayor’s plan, which they’ve described as a backdoor voucher for private and parochial schools.
“The question that you really have to ask yourself in April is who do you trust to educate students? Do you want city government to add another sales tax so that they can control the outcomes of what happens with those resources?” Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell asked at a press conference in February.
Just a few weeks before the mayor announced his pre-K plan, Bedell had asked the city council to take a closer look at a tax incentive deal for Three Light, one of the luxury apartments going up downtown. He pointed out that every deal the city strikes with developers costs his district money. KCPS lost out on $26.8 million last year, according to the district’s annual financial report.
“If we were to retrieve some of that money back, think about the wonders of what we could do in early childhood,” Bedell said.
Pre-K for all?
North Kansas City Schools Superintendent Danny Clemens said administering the pre-K plan would be a logistical nightmare in districts that cross city lines. Kids from five municipalities attend Gracemor Elementary, where the news conference was held, and Clemens said it would be next to impossible to shift money around to serve only students who don’t live in Kansas City, Missouri.
“I’ve been told, ‘Well, just readjust and use some of your existing money in other places.’ You can’t do that in public education,” Clemens said.
That’s because there are rules about how districts can use Title I and special education funds, the two pots of money that NKC is using now to serve about 900 pre-K students.
Clemens also said he’s troubled that only 25 percent of the revenue generated by the pre-K sales tax will be used for tuition discount in the first three years.
“Let’s do a quick math problem since we’re at an elementary school,” he said. “If it’s $12,000 to educate an early childhood student, and not everyone will get the full discount, let’s round down. If you have $7 million and it’s $10,000 to educate a student, this plan is not universal. It’s pre-K for about 700 students.”
The mayor’s office estimates there are 6,750 4-year-olds in Kansas City.
Too few seats
But supporters of the sales tax say that’s because Kansas City needs to make major investments in pre-K infrastructure. There simply aren’t enough seats in pre-K classrooms for all the 4-year-olds in the city.
“The joke is before you set up your first OB appointment, before you tell your family, you should get on the waitlist for every quality early ed center you possibly can,” said Annie Watson, the director of early education for Turn the Page KC, the mayor’s third-grade reading initiative.
Watson said with her first child, she started too late. She didn’t start putting her daughter’s name on waiting lists until she was eight months pregnant.
One of the centers finally called Watson when her daughter was about to start kindergarten to say a spot had opened up.
It’s like that all over the city, James said after a day spent touring small, independent providers.
“This has nothing to do with poverty,” James said. “There’s probably going to be more in the poorer neighborhoods, but it’s north of the river, it’s south of the river, it’s east and it’s west.”
For example, take ZIP code 64111, which includes the Volker neighborhood, where there are three kids for every pre-K seat.
The mayor’s plan would help providers expand, train their teachers and develop curriculum. James said most 4-year-olds in Kansas City already attend these independent daycares and preschools, so it makes sense to invest in them.
“They're taking great care of kids. They need more capacity, more ability to expand that they don't have and they've not had any opportunity to get, and this is really important to them,” James said.
But critics of his plan say there’s nothing in it to guarantee pre-K seats would open in the poorest neighborhoods, where the true child care deserts are.
If not this, then what?
James has said that the school districts are being too protective of their turf. The superintendents have said the mayor is putting them in a tough position because normally they’d back any initiative that would get more kids into pre-K. After all, preschool is hugely beneficial, and kids really struggle in kindergarten when they aren’t ready for school. They feel backed into a corner, though, because this isn’t their plan, but they’ll still have to implement it if it passes.
That’s why some folks with ties to the districts are trying to be pragmatic. Nate Hogan will be representing sub-district 2 on the Kansas City Public Schools Board of Education starting next month. (No one filed to run against him, so he’s already secured his seat.)
“So if the pre-K initiative passes, we’re going to be responsible for implementing it in the best interest of the kids and doing it effectively and efficiently,” Hogan said. “If it fails, I think we need to take the lead and come up with an alternative solution.”
And really, that’s what voters have to decide. Is a three-eighth cent sales tax the only way to get pre-K done, as the mayor is suggesting? Or is early childhood education better left to the school district?
The election is April 2.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.