St. Paul voters soon will be asked to support a series of property tax increases to cover two years of preschool for children from low-income families.
A coalition now called SPARK — St. Paul All Ready for Kindergarten — is finalizing the language on a petition to put the question on city ballots this November. If it passes, St. Paul would become the first city in the state to publicly fund preschool and child care for 3- and 4-year-olds.
Councilmember Rebecca Noecker said there are enough supporters on the City Council to directly put an initiative on the ballot, but she’d rather do it by petition.
“I’m excited to go the petition route and getting the chance to actually have … conversations with St. Paul voters, not just about the referendum but about this opportunity to invest in our kids and the importance of doing it,” she said in an interview Monday.
Later this month, organizers plan to begin circulating petitions in hopes of picking up the nearly 12,000 signatures — 20 percent of the ballots cast in the last mayoral election — needed for a special election.
FIVE YEARS OF STUDY
City, school and nonprofit leaders with the St. Paul Children’s Collaborative began studying the idea in 2017 and initially were focused on a dedicated sales tax.
In early 2020, the City Council debated a sales tax that could pay for a range of initiatives, from affordable housing and road and transit improvements to preschool, but they were put off by legislative hurdles.
Noecker said the sales tax route “would be a really long and fraught road,” so they’re now focused on property taxes.
Noecker said the current plan is to gradually grow the program to one that receives $26 million a year through 10 consecutive years of small tax increases.
In year one, the program would spend just $2.6 million and cost the average homeowner $20. In year 10, it would spend $26 million and cost the same homeowner $200.
After 10 years, residents would get to vote again whether they want to renew the $26 million-a-year program.
Families making less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level — $42,606 for a family of three — would be eligible for free preschool or child care, whether it’s in school or at a Head Start program, other child care center or home-based provider.
As program revenue grows, there would be a sliding scale for child care subsidies for families with higher incomes.
Roughly 10 percent of the revenue would be spent on program evaluation and administration, which would include an online platform that displays all eligible care providers.
If some other funding source shows up — President Joe Biden, for example, has proposed universal pre-K for kids ages 3 and 4 funded by state and federal governments — St. Paul could start covering child care for kids under 3, Noecker said.
WHAT SUPPORTERS SAY
Supporters say the program both would help parents afford to work and prepare their children for kindergarten.
Minnesota has some of the most expensive child care in the country and some of the worst racial disparities in educational outcomes.
It also ranks near the bottom in the number of publicly funded preschool seats, although access is better during the school year because St. Paul Public Schools dedicates part of its referendum revenue to 4-year-old preschool.
“Every family deserves high-quality, culturally responsive early learning options that are right for them,” Superintendent Joe Gothard said in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic showed how important affordable and reliable early learning programs are, not only for children but for their families and building strong communities. This effort aligns with St. Paul Public Schools’ goal to improve kindergarten readiness, and I am a strong believer in the opportunity this program creates for our young people and city as a whole.”
Noecker said citywide preschool would make St. Paul more attractive to families and employers and would enable mothers, in particular, to rejoin the workforce.
She said 90 percent of brain development takes place before kids start school at age 5, and St. Paul shouldn’t “leave families on their own when they’re least able to bear the burden.”
St. Paul school board member Halla Henderson thinks free preschool would improve kindergarten readiness.
“The research is clear that improving access to quality, culturally responsive early learning programs will level the playing field for children in St. Paul,” she said in a coalition statement.
Although studies have shown high-quality pre-school can have lasting benefits, publicly funded pre-K is no sure thing.
The federal government’s study of Head Start a decade ago found the benefits disappeared by third grade, which caused the government to start focusing on program quality.
Last month, Tennessee discovered children who were randomly assigned to that state’s voluntary pre-K program actually did worse, academically and behaviorally, than those who didn’t get in.
For St. Paul’s program, SPARK members considered excluding providers that have not been evaluated by Parent Aware, the state’s child care rating system. But Noecker said that would have left out half of all providers, and she said there are concerns that Parent Aware doesn’t acknowledge the benefits of providers who speak a language besides English.
“Families need to be able to choose the provider that works best for them,” she said.
Although the city wouldn’t screen for quality, Noecker said some of the program’s administrative funds would be spent on training for preschool and child care providers.