After unsuccessfully petitioning to put universal preschool on the ballots of St. Paul voters this fall, a coalition of elected officials, educators and business owners is pinning its hopes on 2023.

The City Council on Wednesday voted to create an early learning legislative advisory committee to evaluate designs and funding for "a locally governed program to ensure universal and equitable access to early care and education for all St. Paul children."

"My hope is that this process will give St. Paul voters the clarity and confidence they need to decide whether this is an investment that we, as a community, want to make," said Council Member Rebecca Noecker, chair of the St. Paul All Ready for Kindergarten (SPARK) campaign.

Advocates this summer submitted petitions with nearly 20,000 signatures to place their proposal on the fall ballot, but Ramsey County election officials could only verify about 8,500 of them — more than 3,000 below the number required by state law.

County spokeswoman Megan Fournier said a large number of signatures were rejected because voters were not registered at the address listed on their petition. Some signatures were invalidated because of addresses outside of the city.

SPARK's proposal aims to completely cover the cost of early childhood learning programs for St. Paul 3- and 4-year-olds whose families live at or below 185% of the federal poverty line, which is $51,338 annually for a family of four.

The program would be funded by raising St. Paul property taxes by $2.6 million each year for a decade. By its 10th year, the program would collect $26 million annually, costing the average homeowner about $200.

The council has the power to place the measure on the ballot, but Noecker withdrew a resolution to do so Wednesday, saying she heard from voters that "people want the details."

"I just really believe this idea would be a game changer for our community, and I don't want to wait any longer," said Noecker, who with other advocates started working on the policy in 2017. "At the same time, I really acknowledge that this is a big idea, and big ideas require careful consideration."

If passed, St. Paul's initiative would be the first of its kind in Minnesota and follow similar efforts in other cities, such as Boston, Denver, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Noecker said many city residents have referenced St. Paul's rent-control ordinance that voters approved in 2021, citing an at-times confusing implementation of the law. Others criticized the cost of the universal preschool proposal and the prospect of higher property taxes.

The council's advisory group will be asked to examine the need for a universal preschool program and lay out how such a policy might work and be funded. The committee will be convened by the council this fall and required to issue recommendations in March, paving the way for a 2023 referendum.