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St. Louis County Council Democrats eyeing sales tax for early childhood education

St. Louis County Council Democrats eyeing sales tax for early childhood education

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St. Louis County Chairwoman Lisa Clancy

St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy at a meeting of the St. Louis County Council, Monday Nov. 4, 2019. Clancy told St. Louis aldermanic President Lewis Reed in a letter on Thursday, July 16, 2020, the city should "abandon" plans to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

CLAYTON — Three Democrats on the St. Louis County Council plan to introduce a ballot measure on Tuesday asking county voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to support early childhood education.

The tax would raise at least tens of millions of dollars per year for early childhood education in the county. A half-cent sales tax equated to $87 million in revenue in 2019, but would be on target for just $75 million to $80 million this year because of the economic downturn.

In a memo to the county counselor’s office dated Monday, Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, said the tax would be used to “promote and implement high quality early childhood education as a long-term economic development strategy.” She pointed to research by the First Five Years Fund that says access to stable, high-quality child care helps parents improve their productivity and increases property values. Children who participate have been found less likely to be arrested or jailed later on, she said.

The effort would create a new layer of public funding for education — but one that would not necessarily fund public school districts. While advocates for school choice have pushed for expanding funding to nonpublic entities such as private child care operators, some public education supporters have expressed concern about oversight and transparency.

The tax proposal in St. Louis County follows a unanimous vote of the St. Louis Board of Alderman in June to ask city taxpayers to support it through a property tax hike. City voters will decide on Nov. 3 on a property tax hike of 6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. But the city’s tax hike would raise just $2.3 million per year — a small fraction of the revenue sought in the county.

Clancy wrote in the memo, “As a social worker and former elementary school teacher, I know the impact that quality early childhood programs have on the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development of young children.”

She added, “As a working mom of a young one, I also know the important connection between quality child care, labor productivity, and the economy, especially during our current global pandemic. Indeed, the connection between early childhood education and economic outcomes is compelling.”

The sales tax would increase all countywide sales taxes to 4.013 cents per every $1 spent. Clancy’s memo did not include details about how the revenue would be spent.

Ready By Five, a nonprofit group that has pushed for publicly-supported early child education, has proposed the revenue be used “exclusively to fund early childhood instruction and the development of quality early childhood care and education programs at certain facilities” in any public school building in any school district at least partly in St. Louis County, or any provider in the county that provides early childhood care and education for children up to age 5 before they enter kindergarten.

But public education advocates have raised concerns that the money could be steered toward home-based providers, church day cares or private preschools that aren’t subject to state sunshine laws or regulations on spending.

“Of course we know the power of early childhood education, but those programs should work in concert with the school districts and should be run through school districts so they align with local curriculum,” said Mark Jones, political director for the Missouri National Education Association, which has opposed prior attempts to raise tax dollars for private preschools.

All St. Louis County school districts offer preschool programs for a fee, including some on a sliding scale based on family income. Not all of the districts fulfill their communities’ needs for preschool slots, according to EducationPlus, a support agency for school districts.

A new nonprofit organization is forming to help advise an appointed board tasked with allocating the funds raised in St. Louis County. The nonprofit, not yet named, has posted a job listing for a CEO with a starting salary of $175,000 to $190,000.

The new nonprofit is connected to Ready By Five and WEPOWER, a nonprofit focused on equity which in turn is backed by Opportunity Trust, an education funding group that supports the expansion of charter schools in St. Louis.

Clancy helped create WEPOWER’s Playbook, which outlines the strategy for procuring public and private financing for early education. Among the effort’s most high profile backers is Maxine Clark, CEO of the Clark-Fox Family Foundation and founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

Ready By Five built its request on findings by For the Sake of All, a project at Washington University now known as Health Equity Works that identified a lack of quality early childhood education as a leading indicator of health disparities between white and black residents of the St. Louis area. And it points to the work of the Ferguson Commission, which prioritized early childhood education as one of its calls to action after the unrest in 2014 and 2015.

The initiative appeared to have enough support on the County Council to get to the ballot. Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District, and Rita Days, D-1st District, are cosponsoring the legislation. The fourth Democrat, Rochelle Walton Gray, D-4th District, also said Monday she supports it.

It was not immediately clear how soon it could get before voters. Supporters had been aiming for Nov. 3. For that to occur, the county by law would have to submit the ballot question to the Board of Election by Aug. 25. If the deadline were missed, the county would have another two weeks to seek a court order to have the ballot question on the ballot, a process that has been routine in other cases.

Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, said he was open to conversation with the Democrats and generally “not opposed to letting the electorate have a say” in how their tax dollars are spent.

Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, who has been critical of how the county has managed the spending of revenue from the Proposition P half-cent tax to support public safety, said he would oppose the new tax. He said the county charter included no mandate for county government to be involved in education. “That’s the responsibility of school districts.”

And, Fitch said, “I don’t know why they think this is a good time to put another tax on the ballot. It’s a horrible time to ask people who are out of work to increase their taxes, especially with a sales tax” whose burden is likely to be felt most by those who can least afford it.

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