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Prop R Seeks To Increase Taxes To Support St. Louis Early Childhood Education

Matea Tilden hangs from the slide at the Affton Early Childhood Center Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, on her first day of school.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Metea Tilden hangs from the slide at the Affton Early Childhood Center in August 2019 on her first day of school.

In a year full of high-stakes Election Day choices, St. Louis city voters will be asked to decide if they want to raise taxes to benefit early childhood education.

Proposition R, an initiative placed on the ballot by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, looks to secure the funds by increasing the property tax rate by 6 cents. The increase would raise roughly $2.3 million annually.

St. Louis suffers from two combined forces: not enough spots for children who are eligible to receive early child care and high costs for the spots that do exist.

And Albert Sanders, a pre-K teacher for St. Louis Public Schools, said those issues don’t even address what a kid’s early education looks like.

“It’s not enough spots, and not just enough spots, but not enough quality spots and equitable spots,” Sanders said.

He added that during his 21-year teaching career he has often witnessed the gaps in student performance between those who have had access to quality early care and those who haven’t.

“You can tell the difference between a kid who has been to a child care center, a day care center or just home with grandparents,” he said.

Sanders believes the additional money from Prop R will allow centers to hire more qualified people and better train and pay the employees they currently have.

Rochelle Bea runs one of those centers, Beginning Futures, and she echoed Sanders' support. Not only because few centers receive federal funding like hers does, but because the pandemic has hit all early child care providers. She said things haven’t been the same since mid-March.

“We’re still struggling at this point,” Bea said. “We had about 130 students daily over the past 10 years, we have about 50 students now.”

Both Bea and Sanders are affiliated with WEPOWER, a nonprofit that has engaged in aggressive community organizing for St. Louis educational funding.

WEPOWER worked closely with legislators in St. Louis County for their own version of Prop R, until the bill lost support in August following concerns about a lack of specificity on how the tax dollars would be spent.

For some like Ray Cummings, president of the union that represents St. Louis Public Schools teachers, that skepticism about where the money will go still persists with regard to the city’s bill.

“It’s not quite clear how the money is to be spent or where it’s going,” Cummings said.

He said the nonprofits, like WEPOWER, that have actively pushed for the tax increase on residents could put their own money toward the effort.

“These folks that are saying that it’s an emergency, and it is, but they have enough money to finance it and kick-start it and get it going themselves,” he added.

Cummings added that the pandemic is not the time to add any financial burden to city residents, especially if there could be alternative routes to raise the funds.

Ultimately, the decision on how the funds are allocated will fall to St. Louis City’s Mental Health Board, which oversees the Community Children’s Services Fund —where the additional funds raised by the Prop R tax increase would land.

Sanders said the board has done a good job in the past with the money it receives. “It's been 25 years without any hiccups, and their allocation process puts equity at the forefront by taking into consideration the demographics each grant applicant serves, as well as their existing revenue streams,” he said. “This will help them prioritize providers with the highest needs.”

Both he and Bea say even if the timing isn’t perfect for a tax increase, they wonder if that day would ever come.

“Children are always there, and children will always need services,” Bea said. “Whether I pay for a tax or not, a child is going to need the service.”

Follow Becca on Twitter: @itsreallyflick

Becca is an intern with St. Louis Public Radio.