St. Paul has no money for its roads, yet some elected officials want the city to provide free childcare

St. Paul needs to fix its roads. However, the city does not have the money for that.

So in January of this year, the St. Paul City Council and Mayor voted to increase the city’s sales tax by 1 cent on the dollar — or 1 percent.

Per Minnesota law, the St. Paul City Council has to get permission from the Minnesota legislature, after which the city can ask its residents through a ballot to approve the sales tax hike. Currently, the bill that would allow St. Paul to pose the ballot question is moving through the legislature. How that will turn out is anyone’s guess.

But as if that is not enough, some elected officials and educators are reviving an old proposal that would have the city provide free childcare to some residents.

The Proposal

Last year, a group of leaders in St. Paul started a coalition to get the city of St. Paul to provide free Pre-K to low-income families. Named St. Paul Ready for Kindergarten (SPARK), the coalition asked residents to sign a petition that would put a question on the city’s ballot asking residents to approve a series of property tax hikes that would pay for the program. That petition failed to garner enough signatures.

That did not kill the idea, however. While the petition failed to get on the ballot, it prompted the City Council to appoint an Early Learning Legislative Advisory Committee (ELLAC) to look into how a free Pre-K program might work.

And according to the Star Tribune, last 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.

But while SPARK proposed funding Pre-K for 3 and 4-year-olds living below 185 percent of the Federal poverty level — which is currently $55,000 for a family of four —, ELLAC proposes expanding the program to all kids from ages 0 to 5.

To cover their proposal, last year

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.

In their report, ELLAC estimates that there are about 10,500 kids 5 and under in families with less than 185 percent of the Federal Poverty level. This is more than double the number of 3 and 4-year-olds in the eligible income bracket. This means that ELLAC’s proposal, even under the same income thresholds as SPARK, would potentially require the city to raise over $6 million in the first year, $13 million in the second year, and so on, reaching $64 million in its 10th year. Adding the growing population, not to mention rising costs, those costs are likely going to be even higher.

Offering free Pre-K would be unwise for St. Paul’s budget

I have previously written about why free large-scale preschool programs are problematic. Not only do these programs fail to address the root cause of high and rising childcare costs, but they are also sometimes associated with negative outcomes among children.

But given that St. Paul does not even have money for its roads despite its recent double-digit property tax hike, offering free Pre-k by raising property taxes even further would be especially unwise.