A St. Paul coalition delivered more than 13,000 resident signatures to Ramsey County on Wednesday as part of a push to provide free preschool to thousands of families by raising the city's property tax levy.
The group gathered enough signatures to get the measure on the November ballot. Now organizers — many of whom have been working on the policy since 2017 — plan to shift their focus to educating and winning the support of St. Paul voters.
"We need to make sure people understand why early learning is so important," said City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, the campaign's chair, at a news conference outside the Ramsey County elections office.
The St. Paul All Ready for Kindergarten (SPARK) campaign aims to cover the cost of early childhood learning programs for 3- and 4-year-olds in the city who live at or below 185% of the federal poverty line.
According to SPARK, more than half of preschool-aged children in St. Paul would qualify for free 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.
If voters approve the measure, money for the program would be raised through incremental increases to the property tax levy. In SPARK's first year, the levy would collect a total of $2.6 million, which is about $20 for the average homeowner.
Each year, the levy would grow by $2.6 million until SPARK's 10th year, at which point the program would collect $26 million annually, about $200 for the average homeowner. Voters then would have to decide if the city should keep the program.
The SPARK fund would supplement — and not supplant — existing state and federal assistance programs that help low-income families afford preschool, Noecker said.
The COVID-19 pandemic 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. SPARK supporters say the initiative would keep more parents in the workforce and prevent low-income children from falling behind in school.
Families in the program could choose any quality preschool program for their children, including school-based programs, Head Start, child-care centers and family child care.
Roughly 10% of the program's money would go toward administrative costs, such as staffing and an online system to help connect families with preschools, Noecker said.
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 enthusiasm is building for St. Paul to follow suit.
"It's been extremely encouraging to see the fact that at doors, at events, people are responding so positively to this idea," she said.