A group of St. Paul elected officials, educators and business owners is reviving its push for a special property tax levy to cover the costs of child care and early-learning programs for low-income families.

A City Council-appointed Early Learning Legislative Advisory Committee (ELLAC) has been studying what such a program might look like since last year, when a petition to place a proposal on the ballot fell short on signatures.

On Wednesday, the ELLAC presented its findings to the council with a 65-page report that "strongly recommends" the city use a voter-approved property tax levy to create a city-governed early-learning program.

The report said a city program is needed because federal and state funding for early childhood education have failed to keep up with the growing costs of child care. St. Paul would step in to fill the financial gaps that many families are struggling to manage — something Maria Snider says she sees every day as director of Rainbow Child Development Center in St. Paul.

"I think the city is uniquely positioned to solve a problem that no other school district, state or federal government is," Snider said. "No one else is coming in to save the day here."

The recommendations are giving new energy to St. Paul Kindergarten For All (SPARK), the coalition that led the campaign for a ballot measure last year. Though the ELLAC's report lacks a dollar estimate and some program details, much of the committee's suggestions align with what SPARK had proposed.

Instead of collecting petition signatures again, advocates — many of whom have been working on this issue since 2017 — are now asking the council to nail down policy specifics and vote to pose the question to voters in November.

"We need to take action, and we do need to talk together about what that action is," said City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who serves on SPARK's board of directors. "But this can't just be a report that sits on the shelf. Because our kids can't wait years and years and years."

Program recommendations

Noecker sat on the ELLAC, along with Council Members Mitra Jalali and Nelsie Yang, meaning council momentum for action already exists in some form.

But the devil is in the details.

SPARK's proposal last year aimed to cover the costs of preschool for all St. Paul 3- and 4-year-olds living at or below 185% of the poverty line, which is $55,500 annually for a family of four. The ELLAC report suggests using the same income threshold but said funds should go to early learning for children between the ages of 0 and 5.

A cost estimate for that expanded age range was not provided. SPARK proposed raising property taxes by $2.6 million each year for 10 years, collecting $2.6 million the first year, $5.2 million the second year and so on. In the program's 10th year, the city would collect roughly $26 million total, costing the average homeowner about $200.

The ELLAC urged the council to explore ways to address staffing shortages, rising costs and a decrease in providers, noting that city funding cannot help if there are not open spots for kids.

Existing public programs in St. Paul are underfunded and have thousands of families on waitlists, said the report, which examined Head Start, St. Paul Public Schools and the state-run Child Care Assistance Program and Early Learning Scholarships. Complex eligibility requirements can also prevent those who need help from seeking it, advocates said.

Members of the ELLAC expressed a desire for an easy-to-navigate system that prioritized parent choice, meaning the funding could go toward whatever type of program works best for families. St. Paul should develop a system to prioritize families with the greatest needs, the report said, and offer extra funding to families above the income threshold on a sliding scale.

They also said city funding "should supplement, and not supplant, existing state and federal funding for early care and education."

Public appetite?

A pair of ELLAC members suggested the city should wait to act until it sees what the Legislature does with child care funding. Gov. Tim Walz has proposed large investments in early learning, including an expansion of the state's child care and dependent care tax credit.

Organizers would also potentially be pitching the program to voters alongside the city's proposed 1% sales tax, which would fund nearly $1 billion in street and park maintenance over 20 years.

In a statement Wednesday, Kamal Baker, Mayor Melvin Carter's press secretary, said the administration is "laser-focused on our sales tax proposal."

"The mayor appreciates the work of the advisory committee and looks forward to reviewing the report," Baker wrote.

Some residents could also still have a sour taste from the nearly 15% property tax levy increase the city approved for 2023.

"We've heard loud and clear that people want to invest in our kids," Noecker said. "I would say this is the time to invest in all of our capital — human and physical."