By Samuel Ast
August 17 marked a bitter defeat for Kansas City Mayor Sly James and his proposed early childhood education plan.
Under threat from all fronts, James appeared to be capitulating to the political pressure from his own allies on the city council, and demands from public school officials in the metro area, that he wait until a later date to handle the issue of funding for expanded pre-kindergarten programs in order to provide time for more.
Instead of forcing this issue onto the November ballot to let voters decide whether or not the tax increase is the best course of action, James dropped his initial urgency and submitted to calls to wait, possibly even until after the 2019 election.
Less than a week later, the strategy of James and the future of the sales tax became clear. On Wednesday August 22 the Kansas City, Missouri Finance Committee approved the pre-k tax increase to appear on the April 2019 ballot, coinciding with the election that will replace James as mayor.
Mr. James is currently serving his final term as mayor, and since taking office he has made creating access to educational opportunities a high priority. Former Missouri secretary of state Jason Kander, widely assumed to be James’ successor, had this to say about education in the city in a campaign news release announcing his candidacy for mayor in June: “I want to make sure we continue addressing critical issues like economic inequality, crime, inclusive housing and economic development, and access to a quality education for every child in the city.”
During the brief announcement of his decision at Union Station on Friday, the mayor conceded to those who favored more discourse and open debate on policy surrounding high-quality, affordable education for the city’s 3 and 4 year olds. “We’re going to have time for everybody who has some issue to bring those issues forward and offer suggestions on how to make this project stronger,” said James. It seems that the time granted for those to make their case has been definitively extended until April of next year, at which point voters will have the final say.
Outlines of the proposed sales tax increase, that is now on hold illustrate that 50% of the proceeds would have been put towards tuition assistance for families, 20% to be spent on capital improvements like building repairs, another twenty percent for educator training–along with curriculum updates–with the remaining 10 percent allocated for administration, evaluation and marketing of the levy
Since making the decision to push for the ⅜ of a cent increase on the sales tax levy public earlier this year, the mayor was met with a fury of dissent from local superintendents like Dan Clemens and Mark Bedell. In fact, the opposition was so fierce that the Board of Directors for Kansas City public schools was in unanimous agreement against the proposed plan. Their concerns centered largely around doubts that local officials would not have much control or oversight over the allocation of new funds to education providers.
Also included in these concerns were questions regarding who would have access to this new revenue, projected to have taken in $30 million annually. Whether or not it was a sound decision for the city to include private and parochial schools on the list of recipients was a point of consensus among the various objectors to the plan.
The Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City–a group that represents 31 metro area school districts–sums up the unpreparedness of school officials in comments made to the Kansas City Star. The group’s Executive Director stated that “It is extremely difficult to respond to the presented proposal when many questions remain unanswered,” adding that “Our district’s superintendents were unaware of the proposal until May of this year.”
The disconnect and lack of coordination between local education officials and the mayor are striking given that they both notice the necessity to better fund education providers so that they are effective in preparing the city’s youth for K-12 schooling. However, the few major differences of approach that remain between these two camps, are sure to be debated in the weeks and months moving forward.
On Wednesday, the role of public school officials was still in question as none of them attended the finance hearing. This absence marks a continuation of a trend and belief that the current mayor and public schools are at odds on how to implement education reform, as they progress on two parallel tracks towards the same goal.