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Pre-K For All?

The Robert J Mohart Multipurpose FOCUS Center

Pre-K For All?

The Robert J Mohart Multipurpose FOCUS Center

Through initiative petition, a coalition of civic and business leaders, community activists, and educators, have proposed a sales tax to fund expanded pre-k education programs. The question will appear on the April 2, 2019, ballot.

Many agree that pre-k education benefits students and their families and that children who attend high-quality pre-k programs tend to find greater academic and economic success. But some argue that a sales tax is regressive, disproportionately impacting those least able to pay. Others question the constitutionality of the City’s proposal because private sectarian and parochial schools would receive funding from the tax. Additionally, some worry that the plan excludes locally elected boards of education from any significant governance role.

Join American Public Square and The Kansas City Star on March 12, 2019, at the Mohart Center for a conversation about pre-k in KC.


Mary Esselman, President & CEO, Operation Breakthrough

Sly James, Mayor, Kansas City, Missouri

Sylvester “Sly” James, Jr. entered politics in 2011. He is serving his second term as Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. His Four “E” Agenda – Efficiency, Employment, Enforcement, Education – is practical yet innovative: Focus on the quality of citizens’ lives. Use facts and data to make decisions. Tackle challenges ignored for too long. Plan for the future.

Today, KC is enjoying a renaissance. The city boasts the nation’s largest SMART City technology deployment with predictive analytics that help maximize city services. The most successful streetcar service in the U.S. has tallied more than 4 million rides since 2016. Recipient of the All American City Award, his reading proficiency initiative, Turn the Page KC, has helped increase city-wide third-grade reading levels by more than 20%. An adoption of an $800 million, 20-year infrastructure repair package represents a generational commitment to repairing and improving roads, bridges, sidewalks and facilities. Under his leadership, in late 2017, 76% of voters approved a new, more efficient single terminal airport, which is scheduled to break ground this summer.

Mayor James is a graduate of Rockhurst University, a Marine and an attorney. His background informs his leadership style – discipline and service with a focus on results. He has served on the Advisory Board for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and President of both the National Conference of Democratic Mayors and African-American Mayors Association. A life long Kansas Citian, he and his family have called Kansas City home for more than 60 years.

Paula Neth, Vice President of Programs, The Family Conservancy At The Family Conservancy, Paula oversees the direction of programs and services including the supervision of program directors, innovation, systems development, budgeting, and planning. Paula is a passionate and committed advocate in building strong systems for all families and their young children. She has over 20 years of experience in child care resource and referral (CCR&R) at both the state and local level.

Patrick Tuohey, Director of Municipal Policy, The Show-Me Institute Patrick Tuohey is the Director of Municipal Policy at the Show-Me Institute. He works with taxpayers, media, and policymakers to foster understanding of the consequences—sometimes unintended—of policies regarding economic development, taxation, education, and transportation. His recent paper on tax increment financing in Kansas City, “Urban Neglect: Kansas City’s Misuse of Tax Increment Financing” was published in the Urban League’s “2015 State of Black Kansas City.” It has spurred parents and activists to oppose TIF projects where they are not needed and was a contributing factor in the KCPT documentary, “Our Divided City” about crime, urban blight, and public policy in Kansas City. Patrick is a regular panelist on Kansas City Public Television’s Ruckus and appears on television and radio across Missouri. Before joining the Show-Me Institute, Patrick operated his own corporate market research company in Maryland and then relocated to Kansas City in 2005. He previously served as an aide to U.S. Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) in Washington, DC, and as director of communications for Frank Luntz’s polling shop, representing the firm and its research to members of the U.S. Senate and House as well as regularly attending congressional staff meetings. He has developed research methodologies for clients such as Monsanto, Anheuser-Busch, the National Sheriffs Association, the Christian Coalition, the Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse, ABC News, and NBC News. Patrick received a bachelor’s degree from Boston College in 1993.


Colleen McCain Nelson, Kansas City Star Editorial Page Editor Brian Ellison is a host of KCUR talk shows, podcasts and live community events. He is regular substitute host of Central Standard and Up to Date and hosted the political podcast Statehouse Blend Missouri. He also contributes to the station’s news coverage, including political reporting, anchoring election night broadcasts and conducting interviews for KCUR’s Morning Edition. He has moderated panel discussions in partnership with American Public Square, anchored live statewide coverage of Missouri political events, and appeared frequently on NPR’s Here and Now. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Brian is also executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, and a regional administrator for Presbyterian churches in Kansas and Missouri.

Fact Sheet

The Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) offer Pre-K programs in selected locations (1). At this time, only 34 percent of the 6,750 4 yr-olds in the KCPS district are enrolled in a pre-K program (2). Reading scores show “only ⅓ of Kansas City 3rd graders read at grade level” (3).


Through initiative petition, a coalition of civic and business leaders, community activists, and educators have proposed a sales tax to fund expanded Pre-K programs. The question will appear on the April 2, 2019 ballot. Ten other cities in other states serve as models for comprehensive Pre-K programs with some sort of local tax support (4). The proposal is opposed by all the public school districts in Kansas City. Critics argue three main points: the governance, the funding model of a sales tax, and the constitutionality of the program, which would include funding any Pre-K program that meets standards, even those offered in private and religiously-affiliated organizations.


The proposal would fund Pre-K with a ⅜ cent sales tax, raising $30 million annually. Superintendent of the Kansas City Public Schools Mark Bedell argued that the schools lost $35 million last year due to economic development incentives. Supporters of tax incentives argue that without incentives, this tax revenue would not exist (5). Critics of the new sales tax argue that sales taxes are regressive, hurting low income families. Add the new sales tax to existing city sales taxes, and the combined sales tax will reach 10.6 percent in some areas of the city (6). Despite this, Kansas Citians have supported a number of different types of tax measures in the last few years (7). Opponents label the plan a voucher plan, but supporters say it is not. The plan will offer tuition discounts for families [on a sliding scale], quality improvement grants, and facilities funding for providers” (8).


The Pre-K program would be governed by a five-member board which would contract with a nonprofit to manage the program (9). The Head Start Program is administered similarly, not by the school districts but by MARC. The school districts argue that Pre-K education should be managed by the districts, not by outside agencies or boards.


Some opponents claim the plan is unconstitutional because Missouri law prohibits a city from using public money to fund private and parochial schools (10).


Enthusiasm for Pre-K programs is high in both civic and educational circles, but research on the short and long-term gains indicates varying results. Only 15 states have conducted long term studies (11). Research does show “The quality … of early experiences and environments are the building blocks of early brain architecture” (12). Some studies show “positive results that carry into elementary school.” Several other studies show that the “positive impacts on children’s skills” from Pre-K programs have not carried over into elementary school (13). This is referred to as the “fading effect.”


“Only by placing the pre-k year in the developmental context of what comes before and after can we understand what to expect from pre-k programs and why”. “Following pre-k, children are exposed to widely divergent k-12 experiences that can either support or undermine the gains made in pre-k” (14).



FT1 – Kansas City Public Schools. “Pre-Kindergarten,” LINK and “Preschool Options,” LINK.

FT2 – Clayton-Jones, Andrea T. “I’m a kindergarten teacher. Pre-K for KC deserves your vote,” Kansas City Star (commentary), January 15, 2019.

FT3 –Office of the Mayor, Sly James. “The KC Pre-K Program Implementation Plan.” LINK

FT4 –Denver, San Antonio, San Francisco, Tulsa, Seattle, Cleveland, Dayton, Cincinnati, Boston, Washington D.C.

FT5 – Moxley, Elle. “Kansas City Public Schools Are Asking Missouri Lawmakers For These 3 Things,” KCUR, January 8, 2019. LINK

FT6 – Turque, Bill and Mara Rose Williams. “‘We’re going to step back’: Sly James delays pre-K tax plan after schools’ concerns,” Kansas City Star, August 17, 2018.

FT7 – Helling, Dave. “Sales tax hike to expand pre-K rests on broad shoulders of bow-tied Sly James,” Kansas City Star, July 3, 2018.

FT8- Office of the Mayor, Sly James. “The KC Pre-K Program Implementation Plan,” LINK ; and Kite, Allison. “KCMO districts won’t support Sly James’ pre-K proposal, but the chamber is behind him,” Kansas City Star, December 17, 2019.

FT9 – Turque, Bill and Mara Rose Williams. “‘We’re going to step back’: Sly James delays pre-K tax plan after schools’ concerns,” Kansas City Star, August 17, 2018.

FT10 – Carruth, Gayden. “KC school districts concerned about pre-K sales tax proposal” Kansas City Star, January 15, 2019. See also Missouri Constitution, Article IX [sec. 8] LINK

FT11 – Duke University, Center for Child and Family Policy with Brookings Institution. “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects,” p. 21. Link

FT12 – Duke University, p. 4. Link FT13 – Duke University, p. 21. Link FT14 – Duke University, p. 21-22. Link


Suggested Reading:

Duke University, Center for Child and Family Policy with Brookings Institution. “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects,” 2017. Link (also discusses studies of Head Start programs)

Mokrova, Irina, et al. “Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten Classroom Quality and Children’s Social and Academic Skills in Early Elementary Grades.” Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, 1 January 2015. LINK

Tuohey, Patrick. “Are Sales Taxes to Fund Pre-K a Good Idea?” Show Me Institute, 19 June 19 2018. LINK

Bassok D., C. Gibbs, and S. Latham. “Preschool and Children’s Outcomes in Elementary School: Have Patterns Changed Nationwide Between 1998 and 2010?” Child Development, 17 April 2018. LINK

Ansari, A. and R.C. Pianta. “Variation in the long-term benefits of child care: The role of classroom quality in elementary school.” Developmental Psychology, 2018, 54(10):1854-1867.

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