St. Paul City Council Withdraws Early Education Ballot Proposal

By a vote of 6-0 on Wednesday, the St. Paul City Council decided to create a legislative advisory group that would carefully consider how to design and finance an early education and child care project targeted at the city’s lowest-income families.

The work group is anticipated to provide a report to the council in the early months of 2023, with the general expectation that the proposal would be put to a vote in November 2023.

The seven-member city council was prepared to decide on Wednesday whether to place a special property tax assessment on the November 8 ballot this year to raise money for grants to child care and pre-K providers. However, the St. Paul All Ready for Kindergarten (SPARK) alliance, which is led in part by councilwoman Rebecca Noecker, acknowledged that they lacked the necessary five council votes. During the council meeting, Noecker withdrew the ballot proposal and substituted a request to form a council advisory committee by September 28.

In the upcoming weeks, Noecker said she will propose a follow-up resolution that will include individuals who are “representative of our complete community,” most likely including council members Mitra Jalali and Nelsie Yang. The appointments would be made by the municipal council, who would then follow up by March. Yang was missing on Wednesday since she is on maternity leave.

Noecker told the city council, “Right now, we are failing too many of our kids just when they need us most.” “The majority of brain growth occurs around the time kids turn 5,” The cost of child care in Minnesota is higher than practically everywhere else in the country.

Two things, she said, were obvious: “First, this is a concept whose time has come,” she remarked. “Secondly, folks want the specifics. I’m quite happy that we are moving forward. It really formalizes the discussions taking place in the community and puts them into a framework that will allow us to pass genuine laws.

In a statement following the council vote, SPARK referred to the choice as “a major step forward.” They pointed out that postponing a final financing decision until November 2023 would not necessarily result in a one-year delay in implementation because the initial few months of the project would have been devoted to setting up the administrative infrastructure anyhow.

Halla Henderson, a SPARK organizer and member of the St. Paul school board, was quoted in the statement as saying, “Every family deserves access to an early learning program that will equip their kids to succeed in kindergarten. Knowing that our city is creating a plan to help us achieve that objective next year is encouraging.

But although appearing to be aimed at preparing children for kindergarten, critics have pointed out that the SPARK project may support daycare centers with no educational content whatsoever.

An earlier suggestion to employ a “Parent Aware” curriculum grading system to choose which providers would be eligible for funds was rejected by the organizers in 2018. Instead, in order to be more inclusive of a larger range of child care programs, particularly those that are representative of other cultures, SPARK has supported abolishing ratings.

Attorney Peter Hendricks pointed out that the term “early care and education” was not defined in the ballot text in an email to the city council. “Would all authorized childcare programs, including in-home day care, be eligible? Should in-home daycare be subsidized by property taxpayers?” he wrote. Hendricks also noted that the term “low-income” was not defined in the ballot language, despite the fact that organizers had previously stated that children whose families made up at least 185 percent of the federal poverty level would be considered low-income, as well as other individuals if funding permitted.

By asking taxpayers to fund subsidies to providers, the proposed ballot text for the election on November 8 sought to provide free care for 5,000 low-income children between the ages of 3 and 4 by the fourth or fifth year of implementation.

It was estimated that a property tax assessment would increase by $2.6 million each year over a period of ten years, totalling $2.6 million in the first year, $5.2 million in the second, $7.8 million in the third, and so on.

That would raise property taxes on a home in St. Paul with a median value by around $20 in the first year, $40 in the second year, $60 in the third year, and so on.

Hendricks and others have asked the city to consider alternative funding options, such as state and federal assistance, as opposed to the city’s property tax, which may financially strain the same people the idea is meant to assist. In 2018, a similar plan to use the local sales tax to support early childhood education was put out.

Future discussions are necessary, according to Jalali, but her constituents feel that “this is something we could lead on as a community” and that “we do want to address what’s ultimately a gap in our community in an area of enormous need.”

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