Judging by the results of Tuesday’s election, in which Kansas City, Missouri, voters rejected a universal pre-K plan by a nearly 2-1 margin, some might think there's little interest in early childhood education.
But Annie Watson doesn't see it that way. She spent hours on the phone talking to voters on behalf of her employer, Turn The Page KC, the child literacy organization that was founded by Mayor Sly James.
“The majority of folks would say, 'No, we believe in the importance of early childhood education. We believe in pre-K. We send our own kids to pre-K. We’ve seen the benefit,'” Watson said the day after the election. “There’s something about this that feels counter to how we think it should be done.”
Voters rejected a three-eights-cent sales tax that would’ve generated $30 million over 10 years. It's not the last they'll hear of it, though, as supporters and opponents of the measure said they would continue to work at bringing universal pre-K to the city.
Watson, director of early education and parent success at Turn The Page KC, said on KCUR’s Up To Date that she’s optimistic about working with more partners, including Kansas City Public Schools, which was against the ballot measure.
“I hope that I do see a viable plan that we can all come out and support and to work together more collaboratively on that doesn’t just support any one system of early childhood but raise all boats,” Watson said.
Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell insisted Wednesday that the district is committed to developing a pre-K through the district without a sales tax increase.
“We have been very intentional around looking at how we can expand early childhood, and we will continue to do that,” Bedell said.
Earlier this week, the district tweeted that it would have 1,268 pre-K seats for 3- and 4-year-olds in the 2019-2020 school year.
The district had opposed the measure for a number of reasons, including the burden of the sales tax on low-income families, the long-term viability of the funding, the mayor’s office inserting itself into school district affairs and because it would have used vouchers for families to use at private pre-K programs.
Bedell said the district doesn’t oppose small businesses and other operators providing pre-K education as part of a district-based plan.
“We wanted to do this in a collaborative manner where we work with the Mom-and-Pop providers, small companies that are out there that do it to make sure that they wouldn’t get hurt by any potential expansion,” Bedell said.
Question 1 was rejected on Tuesday by 63% of Kansas City voters. Watson acknowledges that much of the resistance was likely due to the proposed tax hike, which could have been a burden for voters especially in lower-income areas.
Watson believed, however, that the relatively small burden seemed reasonable, as it would have helped families not have to pay for quality pre-K, which can top $10,000 per year.
“The choice was a yucky one,” Watson said, “But unfortunately, in this case, since it was the only funding mechanism that we had, it was a choice that we had to make.”
Bedell said state funding could potentially be more important for pre-K, and as interest in universal pre-K in Kansas City has grown, he belives there are still underused local partnerships and untested avenues to bring it to fruition.
“You have the Chamber (of Commerce). You have the Civic Council. You have charter schools,” Bedell said. “You have us, as an entity. And we believe that there are any people on both sides of the aisle on this issue that want to see early childhood expanded. We want to make sure that everyone agrees on the funding mechanism.”
Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.