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Thursday, March 30, 2023

St. Paul City Council Considers Pre-K and Child Care Ballot Proposal

The St. Paul City Council will decide this month whether to include a question on the November ballot asking voters to contribute money to child care and early education programs for individuals with limited financial resources.

The plan, developed by the St. Paul All Ready for Kindergarten group, or SPARK, intends to assist around 5,000 families in St. Paul with children ages 3 and 4 who make up to or less than 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold. For a family of four, it translates to an annual household income of around $51,000.

The cost would increase St. Paul property taxes by $2.6 million annually for ten years, after which voters would be asked to approve the program again on the ballot. The cost would be broken down as follows: $5.2 million in the first year, $2.6 million in the second, $7.8 million in the third, and so on.

According to Gordie Loewen, a SPARK organizer, “St. Paul would have to lead the way if we were to get this done.” “This may resemble an all-day kindergarten, in our opinion. This was first implemented by cities and school districts, but it quickly spread and the state followed.

Voters in St. Paul will discuss the SPARK plan on Election Day, November 8, if the city council decides to put it on the general ballot. The question must receive the support of a supermajority of the council, or five out of the seven council votes, and it must do so quickly in order to qualify for the ballot. Nelsie Yang, a council member who would probably vote “yes,” has been away on maternity leave, and Dai Thao, another council member who would probably vote “yes,” both complicate the decision. The Wednesday-only municipal council will hold two more meetings this month on July 20 and July 27.

One of the many political officials, child care providers, organizations, and commercial companies supporting the project is city council member Rebecca Noecker. The Wilder Foundation, the St. Paul Children’s Collaborative, M Health Fairview and Blue Cross Blue Shield, CLUES, Indivisible St. Paul, and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood are among the organizations represented in the SPARK alliance.

A group of supporters suggest establishing a nonprofit organization to manage funds provided by taxpayers for pre-kindergarten and child care programs. Advocates said child care providers would probably apply to the organization for funding that would pay the whole cost of enrolment for more than 5,000 low-income children by year four or five, but the precise procedure has not yet been outlined.

Additional households that are over 185 percent of the federal poverty line would be eligible for child care subsidies when new state, federal, or charitable funding comes in.

A navigator would help families choose from a choice of school-based programs, HeadStart, a child care facility or licensed family child care, up to full-day, full-year programming, using an online platform that would allow families to explore all available programs and apply for financing.

Though previous surveys were mostly focused on professional child care centers rather than home day care providers, which can cost as little as half as much, Minnesota has been ranked as the fourth most costly state in the nation for child care, according to some research. Numerous studies have shown that participants in early learning programs like Head Start were more likely than their peers to complete their secondary education, enroll in college, and achieve a post-secondary degree, certificate, or certification.

According to a Brookings Institution analysis from 2016, Black Head Start students made notable progress in terms of their social, emotional, and behavioral development, including self-control, self-esteem, and good parenting.

St. Paul put 1,000 children on waiting lists for a variety of government-supported preschool programs in 2018, when proponents tried to start an early-learning initiative funded by a local sales tax. In St. Paul Public Schools, huge success differences are visible by the third grade when pupils take their first standardized tests: just 20% of low-income students reached state reading criteria at that time, compared to 66 % of their more affluent counterparts.

The epidemic has made everything much more complicated. While waiting lists for early learning programs are sometimes extensive, the Minnesota Department of Education reported that under-enrollment was a more persistent issue in 2020–21 as parents took their children out of pre–kindergarten and kindergarten during the first two years of the epidemic.

The St. Paul Public Schools District spent $42 million more on special education services in 2018 than it took in.

According to Loewen, St. Paul has a persistent financial shortage for special education in primary schools. “We could save millions on special education in grade schools alone if a lot of those kids are showing up better equipped for kindergarten.”

The proposal would increase municipal property taxes by $2.6 million year over the following ten years, costing the typical family $19.94 in the first year and double that amount in the second. When the program is completely financed in year five, the cost to taxpayers will be $100. It is anticipated to reach $200 by year 10.

Until the fourth or fifth year, according to Loewen’s estimations regarding the proportion of eligible persons who would actually apply, “we won’t be able to serve everyone who is eligible.” “We still have to keep the infrastructure in good shape. Infrastructure will get no more than 10% of financing in any given year, although infrastructure is still expanding quickly.

Despite the rise in property taxes, proponents anticipate some economic benefits for taxpayers in the future when parents who were prevented from working because of their child care responsibilities form companies that pay taxes or find occupations that lessen their need for public help.

Due to a court dispute over how the city charges property owners for roadway maintenance, St. Paul already has a budget imbalance of $15 million heading into the next year. Some low- to moderate-income homes would undoubtedly feel the pain if such assessments are added to property taxes on top of the child care effort, affecting the same population that the organizers intended to benefit.

There is also considerable worry that important issues, such who will manage and oversee the finances, have not yet been thoroughly examined in front of the city council and taxpayers. The specifics of a rent-control legislation that was put to the ballot last year without essential infrastructure, like as money and personnel, are still being debated by council members and many voters, resulting to what some opponents have criticized as a hurried and chaotic implementation.

According to organizers, comparable early learning initiatives have received voter approval in New Orleans, Cincinnati, and San Antonio. Voters in San Antonio authorized the use of a local sales tax to pay for early education in 2012. In November 2020, reauthorization was put back on the ballot, and 73 percent of San Antonio voters approved. Loewen stated, “We’re trying to look at what happened correctly and badly in other areas. “The money in SPARK are much more flexible. As far as I’m aware, our program will be the only one that works with providers in the family and community.

Only “Parent Aware”-rated preschools were going to be eligible for the subsidies in 2018, when the funding source for a similar scheme was going to rely on a local sales tax. The St. Paul effort, according to Loewen, would prioritize “culturally competent” child care. However, he said, “We certainly can’t throw city money away to unregistered providers.” “We’re very purposely not employing some form of registration quality requirement,” he said.

The SPARK proposal required 11,821 valid signatures from registered St. Paul voters in order to be placed on the November ballot without the support of the city council. This is a significant number that is required by state law because the initiative is a special tax assessment.

The Ramsey County elections office received more than 19,400 signatures, according to SPARK organizers, but over 11,000 of them were rejected, therefore their petition was insufficient.

According to Megan Fournier, a Ramsey County spokesman, “a considerable number of signatures were rejected based on the voter not being registered to vote at the reported address.” The petitioner also received a copy of the master voter registration list for fact-checking reasons.

The SPARK coordinators admitted to being surprised. Loewen remarked, “I’ve never seen a rejection rate like this. We’re still attempting to unravel a lot of the events that occurred there. It’s absolutely plausible that they’re more likely to have migrated since we aimed to target the folks who would most likely benefit from the program.

Nevertheless, the 8,500 signatures gathered greatly outnumbered those for the majority of other ballot measures. For the city’s rent-control law to be on the November ballot, 5,000 signatures were required.

Cedric Blackwater
Cedric Blackwater
Cedric is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting on local US news, and touching on many global topics. He is currently the lead writer for Bulletin News.

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