St. Paul city, school and nonprofit leaders are working on a plan to offer free or heavily subsidized preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds in the city.
The effort would cost anywhere from $25 million to $41 million a year, depending on how generous the subsidies would be. The most likely main source of funding would be a new local sales tax.
City council member Rebecca Noecker said such a program would better prepare children for kindergarten while lifting a major financial burden off young families, making St. Paul a more attractive place to live.
“The challenge now is we’re asking families to just cobble it together until their kids turn the magical age of 5,” she said.
Planning began in spring 2017 with the St. Paul Children’s Collaborative, whose members represent the city, St. Paul Public Schools, Ramsey County, Head Start and the broader community.
The city has paid $20,000 for a financial study and the school district $15,000 to help hire a facilitator for the team that will design the program. Other significant contributors include the Sauer Family Foundation, Wilder Foundation, Greater Twin Cities United Way and Ecolab.
The design team should be done by early next year.
Noecker said St. Paul voters could be asked to vote on a half- or full-penny sales tax as early as 2020. It then would require approval from the Legislature.
If the plan succeeds, St. Paul would be the first city in Minnesota to pay for citywide preschool. Several large cities in other states do it, including New York City, Denver and Seattle.
TIRED OF WAITING
Minnesota has been relatively slow to invest in preschool.
Even after the $25 million a year, state-funded Voluntary PreK went into effect in 2016, just 20 percent of Minnesota 4-year-olds were enrolled in either that program, Head Start or school-based special education.
The state that year ranked 37th in the country in preschool access for 4-year-olds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Access is better in St. Paul because the school district runs its own 4-year-old preschool. However, the program operates only during the school year and most kids are there just two and a half hours a day.
Meanwhile, Minnesota is among the most expensive states for child care. In St. Paul, the average child care center charges $12,792 a year for a 3- or 4-year-old, according to Think Small, an early-learning advocacy group.
Noecker said the Legislature’s debate over whether and how to invest in preschool has become “very acrimonious and frankly very tired.” It’s been energizing, she said, to focus on what St. Paul could do on its own.
The city has close to 1,000 youngsters on waiting lists for a variety of government-funded preschool programs.
St. Paul Public Schools historically has not measured children’s readiness for kindergarten. But by third grade, when students take their first standardized tests, stark achievement gaps are evident: just 20 percent of low-income students meet state reading standards, compared with 66 percent of their more affluent peers.
HOW IT MIGHT WORK
The Children’s Collaborative last fall outlined a plan that leaves in place the city’s existing child care infrastructure, from preschools run by the school district to Head Start and other centers and home-based care.
As long as those providers get an evaluation from Parent Aware, the state’s child care quality rating system, their customers would be eligible for city subsidies.
Parents could place their child wherever they want, including all-day, year-round preschools, and most would pay nothing for the service.
The city sales-tax revenue would act as the “last dollar,” building on several state and federal revenue streams.
A financial study recently completed for the steering committee estimates that five years in, 76 percent of all St. Paul 3- and 4-year-olds would be enrolled in preschool, up from around 64 percent today.
Of those enrolled, the study found, around 80 percent would attend Parent Aware-rated preschools and be eligible for subsidies — up from 44 percent today.
PAYING FOR THE SUBSIDIES
If those assumptions are correct, the annual cost to the city by year five would be $25 million under the cheapest option studied.
That option would fully subsidize preschool for families making up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. That means free care for a family of three with an annual income of $38,443 or a family of four earning as much as $46,435.
Under that scenario, 58 percent of St. Paul kids would be eligible for free preschool, and there would be a sliding scale for fee-paying families making more money.
The committee also looked at a $27.8 million plan to fully cover families up to 300 percent of poverty — 73 percent of preschoolers — and a $40.9 million scenario that would fully subsidize all families.
Noecker called all three scenarios “viable” but said they’re unlikely to pursue the $40.9 million option.
“We’ll probably focus on the ones with the most need,” she said.
The Children’s Collaborative work group last fall said a citywide sales tax increase represents the best funding option. A half-cent tax, by adding a penny to every $2 purchase, would generate about $18 million per year.
WOULD QUALITY IMPROVE?
But first, a design team must decide exactly what a citywide 3K program might look like.
Mary Vanderwert, a preK advocate and St. Paul school board member involved in the planning, worries they won’t reach the neediest kids or improve kindergarten readiness.
Many low-income parents, she said, don’t have the wherewithal to apply for income-based subsidies, and such a system would require considerable administrative expense.
She said that’s been a problem for state-funded preschool and child care scholarships. Instead of pulling needy kids into quality preschools, she said, they subsidize families already enrolled.
“The biggest problem is we’re not getting to the right kids,” she said.
Beyond that, Vanderwert is not convinced that getting more providers rated through Parent Aware would significantly improve preschool quality.
She points to a study of the Denver Preschool Program, which found its 4-year-olds made statistically significant growth in math but not in English vocabulary or early literacy.
She’d like to see the St. Paul 3K design team include parent education, mental health support and provider training in its plan.
“It just could change everything, but we’ve got to do it right,” Vanderwert said.
Superintendent Joe Gothard said there would be plenty of advantages to having the school district operate the citywide preK program, but there’s not enough space in schools to do so.
The Children’s Collaborative also felt it was important to preserve a variety of choices for families.
If the design team moves ahead with a plan that subsidizes preschoolers in a range of settings, Gothard said, Parent Aware at least will ensure all those providers are meeting a common set of expectations.
Michelle Walker, executive director of Generation Next, which works to close achievement gaps in education, said the Children’s Collaborative is taking a practical approach to what St. Paul can accomplish given its existing infrastructure and potential funding.
The design team, she said, will be more focused on building a program that will both boost St. Paul’s workforce and improve academic outcomes for its kids.
“At this stage in the game, it really is designing what we think is going to work,” she said.
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