A coalition of St. Paul educators, elected officials, business owners and activists on Monday launched a campaign for a referendum that would raise the city's property tax levy to provide free early childhood education to thousands of families.

The proposal — dubbed St. Paul All Ready for Kindergarten (SPARK) — would supplement existing federal and state assistance programs so that all St. Paul 3- and 4-year-olds who live at or below 185% of the federal poverty line could attend early learning programs at no cost.

According to SPARK's website, more than half of St. Paul children between the ages of 3 and 4 would qualify for free early childhood education under those guidelines. Once the program is fully funded, the city would offer subsidies to families above the income threshold, which is $51,388 annually for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Organizers are proposing incremental increases to St. Paul's property tax levy over 10 years. In the program's first year, the average homeowner would pay an additional $19.94 for SPARK. By its 10th year, the average homeowner would pay $199.40, and the city would collect an estimated total of $26 million for the program.

"Preschool shouldn't be a luxury only available to a few families," said City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, a member of the coalition that has been working to design SPARK over the past five years.

"Part of the reason for doing this at the local level is we can't wait any longer," she added. "We have a real sense of urgency about the power of making sure that all children get a strong start."

Children could attend "any quality program in a mixed delivery system," including school-based programs, HeadStart, child care centers and family child care, according to SPARK's website. An online platform would allow families to view available programs, receive assistance and apply for funding.

Maria Snider, director of the Rainbow Development Center in St. Paul, said almost every week she has to turn away a family who can't pay for child care. About 90% of the center's families are facing poverty, she said, and parents regularly walk in seeking an affordable option.

"It literally feels like a magic trick trying to figure out which funding streams might a family qualify for," Snider said, adding that SPARK would "fill in the gaps" that federal and state assistance programs do not cover.

The pandemic has exacerbated the child-care crisis in Minnesota and across the country as an already-stretched system was stressed by staffing shortages, rising costs and a decrease in providers.

Noecker, who said she was at one point spending more on child care than her mortgage payments, said SPARK also aims to help provide the revenue needed for more providers to open in St. Paul.

"Everybody sort of struggles alone because there's no system," she said. "Everybody is out there having to fend for themselves for the first five years of your child's life. It's the time when families most need support and when children's brain and development most need support — and when as a society, we provide the absolute least of it."

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. New Orleans will vote on a similar ballot measure in April.

The measure could be added to the city's November ballot through a City Council vote or by collecting petition signatures from residents.