St. Paul pre-K, child care ballot proposal: Here are the details.


The St. Paul City Council will vote this month on whether to add a question to the November ballot asking residents to fund child care and early-learning options for low-income residents.

The proposal was drawn up by the St. Paul All Ready for Kindergarten coalition, or SPARK, and aims to benefit some 5,000 St. Paul families with 3- and 4-year-olds living at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s an annual household income of about $51,000 for a family of four.

The cost — $2.6 million in the first year, $5.2 million in the second year, $7.8 million in the third year and so on — would increase St. Paul property taxes $2.6 million each year for 10 years, at which point voters would be asked on the ballot to reauthorize the program.

“It’s become apparent that St. Paul, if we want this done, would have to lead the way,” said Gordie Loewen, a SPARK organizer. “We could foresee this looking like all-day kindergarten. Cities and school districts started doing this, and then it snowballed, and the state did it.”

Here are the details:

THE PROCESS: If the city council agrees to place the SPARK proposal on the public ballot, St. Paul voters will take up the issue on Election Day, Nov. 8. To make it to ballot, the question needs to be approved by a supermajority of the council, or five out of seven council votes, and it needs to happen soon. Complicating the vote, council member Nelsie Yang has been out on maternity leave, and council member Dai Thao, a likely “yes” vote, plans to resign Aug. 1. The city council, which meets on Wednesdays, hosts two more meetings this month on July 20 and July 27.

PROPONENTS: City council member Rebecca Noecker is among a broad coalition of elected leaders, child care providers, nonprofits and private businesses advocating for the initiative. The SPARK coalition includes representatives of 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.

THE PROPOSAL: A coalition of advocates propose creating a nonprofit to administer taxpayer-supported funding for child care and pre-kindergarten initiatives. While the exact process has yet to be laid out, advocates say child care providers would likely apply to the nonprofit for grants that would cover the full cost of enrollment for upwards of 5,000 low-income children by year four or five.

As additional state, federal or philanthropic funding rolls in, additional households above 185 percent of the federal poverty level would qualify for child care subsidies.

An online platform would allow families to view all available programs and apply for funding, and navigators would assist families in choosing from a variety of school-based programs, HeadStart, a child care center or licensed family child care and up to full-day, full-year programming.

THE NEED: Some studies have shown Minnesota to be the fourth most expensive state in the nation for child care, though those studies were focused heavily on professional child care centers as opposed to home day care providers, which can average half the cost. Multiple studies have found that participants in early-learning programs like Head Start were more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and receive a post-secondary degree, license or certification than their peers.

A 2016 report from the Brookings Institution found particular gains for Black students enrolled in Head Start with regard to social, emotional and behavioral development, including self-control, self-esteem and positive parenting.

In 2018, when advocates attempted to launch an early-learning effort funded by a city sales tax, St. Paul listed 1,000 youth on waiting lists for a variety of government-funded preschool programs. By third grade, when students take their first standardized tests, stark achievement gaps are evident in St. Paul Public Schools: just 20 percent of low-income students met state reading standards around that time, compared with 66 percent of their more affluent peers.

The pandemic has further muddied the picture. Early-learning programs are often overenrolled, leading to long waiting lists, though looking statewide, the Minnesota Department of Education found under-enrollment to be a more chronic problem in 2020-21 as families pulled their kids out of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten during the first two years of the pandemic.

In 2018, the St. Paul Public Schools system spent $42 million more than it received to fund special-education programs.

“St. Paul has a chronic funding gap in special education in elementary school,” Loewen said. “If a lot of those kids are showing up better prepared for kindergarten, we could save millions in special education in grade schools alone.”

THE COST: The initiative would raise city property taxes $2.6 million a year over the next 10 years, which advocates project would cost the average household $19.94 next year, and double that the following year. By year five, when the program is fully funded, the cost to taxpayers would be $100. By year 10, it’s projected to be $200.

“We won’t be able to serve everyone that’s eligible until year four or five, and that’s with projections about what percentage of eligible people will actually apply,” Loewen said. “We still need to maintain the infrastructure. No more than 10 percent (of funding) in any given year is going to go to infrastructure, but that infrastructure still grows precipitously.”

Despite the increase to property taxes, advocates expect some economic benefit to taxpayers down the line as parents who were unable to join the workforce because of their child care duties find jobs that reduce their need for public assistance or start businesses that generate tax revenue.

THE CRITICISM: St. Paul is already facing a $15 million budget gap leading into next year as a result of a legal fight over how the city assesses property owners for street maintenance. If those assessments land on property taxes on top of the child care initiative, some low- to moderate-income homeowners are bound to feel the pinch, hurting the very group organizers intend to help.

There’s also some concern that key questions — such as who will control and administer the funds — have yet to be properly vetted before both the city council and taxpayers. Council members, and many voters, are still grappling with the particulars of a rent-control ordinance that went before voters last year without key infrastructure in place such as funding and staffing, leading to what some critics have derided as a rushed and haphazard rollout.

PRECEDENT: Organizers say New Orleans, Cincinnati and San Antonio voters have approved similar early-learning efforts. In 2012, San Antonio voters approved using a city sales tax to fund early learning. When reauthorization returned to the ballot in November 2020, 73 percent of San Antonio voters were on board. “We’re trying to look at what went right and wrong in other places,” Loewen said. “In SPARK, the dollars are a lot more flexible. We’ll be the only program that involves family and community providers, as far as I know.”

PRIOR EFFORTS: In 2018, when the revenue source for a similar initiative was going to rely on a city sales tax, only “Parent Aware”-rated preschools were going to be eligible for the subsidies. Loewen said the St. Paul initiative will emphasize “culturally competent” child care. “We’re very intentionally not using some sort of registration quality standard, (though) we obviously can’t give city money away to unlicensed providers,” he said.

THE PETITION THAT FAILED: To get on the November ballot without city council approval, the SPARK initiative needed 11,821 signatures from registered St. Paul voters, a relatively high threshold triggered by state statute because the initiative is a special tax assessment.

SPARK organizers said they submitted more than 19,400 signatures to Ramsey County elections staff, but the county rejected nearly 11,000 of those and their petition fell short.

“A large number of signatures were rejected based on the voter not being registered to vote at the given address,” said Megan Fournier, a spokesperson for Ramsey County, in an email. “A copy of the master voter registration list was provided to the petitioner as well for fact checking purposes.”

SPARK organizers said they were taken aback. “I’ve never seen a rejection rate like this,” Loewen said. “We’re still trying to figure out a lot of what happened there. It’s entirely possible that because we tried to target the people who would most likely benefit from the program, they’re more likely to have moved.”

Even so, the 8,500 signatures collected far exceeded that of most other ballot initiatives. The city’s rent-control ordinance needed 5,000 signatures to make it to the ballot last November.

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