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Prop R Would Increase Property Taxes To Fund Early Childhood Education

Autumn Baker plays after being dropped off for her first day of pre-K in Affton Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019.
File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Autumn Baker plays after being dropped off for her first day of pre-K in Affton in 2019. Prop R advocates hope to increase early childhood education access in the city of St. Louis.

Would you pay an extra $20 a year in property taxes to help with early childhood education? Prop R asks city voters to do just that. Backers hope for an assessment that would cost the owners of a $100,000 home $11.40 a year. They say the estimated $2.3 million it would raise would be distributed by the St. Louis Mental Health Board to fund programs that serve children and families in need.

“What we all know is that the ages of zero to 5 are the most crucial years for our children,” Yes on R advocate Jodi Jordan told Wednesday's St. Louis on the Air. “If we can provide them with the services and resources at an early age, they will have access to greater opportunities for achievement and have access to interventions that maybe will be really positive for them as they go on to school.”

Jordan acknowledged that $2.3 million will hardly make a dent in the problems of access to high-quality child care for low-income families. But, she said, it’s a start. “That comes in place of a system that has not provided any support for early childhood education,” she said.

Backers have said the money will be used to support existing nonprofit programs. Their website says Prop R funds could be used for such needs as “quality improvement consultants,” “developmental and health screens,” and “data collection and evaluation.”

The program is backed by WePower, a St. Louis-based nonprofit focused on community organizing. WePower was founded by Charli Cooksey, a former member of St. Louis Public Schools’ elected board. Joey Saunders, director of policy and systems change for WePower, was scheduled as a guest on the show but canceled the night before.

In pretaped remarks, Will Suggs, the 6th Ward committeeman in St. Louis and a father of two, said he opposes Prop R.

“It comes down to a concern that we’re going to be funding private education with public dollars,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s good policy to do it that way.”

He noted that the St. Louis Public Schools offer a pre-kindergarten program for 4- and 5-year-olds. But, the Mental Health Board director has stated that neither the public school district nor charters within it would be eligible for Prop R funding.

Because of that, Suggs sees the money subsidizing the public school district’s competitors. “We can have a publicly funded, publicly controlled early education system, and we have that partway with SLPS’s pre-K,” he said. “But [we could have it] all the way down to [ages] zero to 3 if we invested the money the right way, and this doesn’t do that.”

WePower originally saw the city’s Prop R as one of a two-part campaign, with county voters being asked to raise sales taxes to pay for early childhood education. But that effort stalled after coming under fire from some elected officials in St. Louis County.

Jordan said backers have not given up on the idea of creating a similar fund in St. Louis County.

“We’re going to be working to reimagine and redesign the efforts in the county so we can still put forward the same agenda,” she said. “Quality early childhood education systems are important in the county as well.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.