Pre-K: It’s time to refocus the conversation

Over the past several months, I’ve been joined by a coalition of dedicated community organizations, leaders and educators in an unprecedented effort to ensure every 4-year-old living in Kansas City has access to high-quality pre-K instruction.

We’ve met with well over 200 stakeholders – school administrators, community leaders, as well as parents, children and policy experts – to craft a bold and effective plan that would give 4-year-olds access to a quality pre-K program, allowing them to be kindergarten-ready on day one of their academic careers.

Studies show that a high-quality early childhood education increases a child’s chance of reaching high school graduation by 31 percent, attending college by more than 80 percent, and increasing employment rates by 23 percent. And we also know that it makes more sense to invest in children as young as 4 years old to make sure taxpayers aren’t paying for prison space when those 4-year-olds are 40.

Currently, there are about 6,800 4-year-olds living in Kansas City, and only 35 percent are enrolled in a pre-K program. But what about the other 65 percent – the other roughly 4,500 4-year-olds out there who didn’t walk into a high-quality pre-K class this week?

These children – two-thirds of our 4-year-olds – have already started to fall behind by not joining their peers in a high-quality pre-K classroom. Just imagine what that gap will look like when they reach third, seventh or tenth grade. By the time these children are old enough for middle school, many of them will have fallen too far behind to ever catch up.

Two primary barriers are preventing many of Kansas City’s 4-year-olds from receiving high-quality pre-K education: access – meaning there are no pre-K options in those zip codes – and affordability.

The estimated annual cost of full-day, high-quality pre-K is $12,000/child, while the median household income is just $47,489 – the median parent would have to spend 25 percent of their income to send their child to a high-quality pre-K program, which is simply not feasible for many families.

So what do we do?

Our broad coalition of stakeholders is proposing a ballot measure expected to generate $30 million in new dollars dedicated to pre-K each year. With this investment, we can ensure high-quality, affordable pre-K is available to all Kansas City children for the academic year prior to Kindergarten.

It’s the best investment we can make in the future of this City, an investment that will continue to pay dividends for decades to come, in the form of a more highly-skilled workforce, lower crime rates, and a stronger regional economy.

Unfortunately, this conversation over our pre-K plan has become all about the agendas of adults, and not about the needs of our children. So rather than allow the importance of a child’s education to get lost in an increasingly acrimonious political environment, we will instead step back, invite even more conversations, and let April voters hear the arguments and decide for themselves.

Despite the fact that we’ve been talking about the need for expanded access to high-quality pre-K for years, some people appear to need more time. But let me be clear –  this time should be spent focusing on our children, and how we can ensure 100 percent of our 4-year-olds have access to quality pre-K.

So here’s the challenge for all of us, as adults who care deeply about our community and the future of this City:

  1. Provide pre-K for ALL children in Kansas City – considering we know that the majority of pre-K instruction in this city is not provided by our local school districts.
  2. Ensure there’s a standard quality rating system, uniform across the entire city. Because kids in EVERY part of the city should get the same high-quality pre-K. And because parents and caregivers should be able to easily identify the pre-K instruction that prepares kids for kindergarten.
  3. Accomplish this within the confines of existing laws.

It’s time to focus on solutions that help our children.

It’s time to refocus the conversation on what’s really at stake – Kansas City’s future.

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