St. Paul voters are right to be skeptical about free preschool

Earlier this year, St. Paul activists started a coalition to bring free preschool to St. Paul. The coalition, which is named SPARK — St. Paul All Ready for Kindergarten — has been garnering petition signatures to bring a ballot measure that would ask St. Paul residents to vote for property tax hikes, the revenue of which will be used to cover preschool costs for low-income families.

And according to the Star Tribune, the coalition has failed to gather enough support.

After failing to deliver enough verified petition signatures to election officials, St. Paul activists want the City Council to approve a ballot measure asking voters to raise property taxes to pay for preschool for thousands of low-income families.

The St. Paul All Ready for Kindergarten (SPARK) coalition announced in a press release Thursday that their petition drive fell short by more than 3,000 signatures.

Their proposal aims to completely 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, or $51,388 annually for a family of four.

The measure would raise property taxes in St. Paul 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.

To place a measure on the ballot through a petition, under state law the group needed signatures from a number of voters equal to 20% of those who voted in the last municipal election — which in this case amounts to 11,821.

Though SPARK submitted nearly 20,000 signatures, the Ramsey County elections office could only certify 8,541, according to the release.

Residents are right not to support the petition

It is quite questionable that out of nearly 20,000 signatures, far fewer than half were verifiable. But assuming the City Council can get past this and still put the measure on the ballot, there are a lot of reasons why taxpayers need to say no.

For one, the City of St. Paul has already raised its property tax levy by 6.2 percent for the 2022 operating budget. A $2.6 million tax would mean a 1.5 percent hike for the following budget year (based on current numbers). And this only assumes that the number of households using the service stays the same. If instead, more households than initially estimated become eligible for free pre-K, the city would have to raise taxes further.

And this does not take into account any other property tax hikes that the city might have planned for other services. This year, for example, a court ruling left St. Paul with a $15 million hole in its budget. If that hole was to be covered by tax hikes, it would mean an 8.5 percent hike in the next year. Adding in childcare, that goes up to about 10 percent.

And unfortunately, higher taxes are not the only thing that St. Paul residents have to be concerned about. Results from other places have shown that free Pre-K is not necessarily better than no Pre-K. In fact, sometimes it’s worse.

When Quebec offered cheap childcare to all parents, it encouraged more mothers to enter the workforce. However, according to later research, the program also worsened behavioral and health outcomes in children and led to “more hostile, less consistent parenting, worse parental health, and lower-quality parental relationships.”Moreover, these effects persisted to school ages and beyond. One study found that “cohorts with increased childcare access had worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates later in life.”

In Tennessee, children enrolled in the state Pre-K program “had lower state achievement test scores in third through sixth grades than control children, with the strongest negative effects in sixth grade.” Moreover, the children were also more likely to misbehave and face disciplinary action, and more likely to need special education.

Certainly, some early childhood education programs are associated with positive outcomes. But these programs tend to be small, intensive, high quality, and focused on disadvantaged kids. For most large-scale childcare programs, any cognitive benefits that children receive tend to fade out; however, those negative behavioral and social outcomes may persist.

Other programs like Head Start are not immune to this. In 2010, for example, an Impact Study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that cognitive gains among children enrolled in first grade faded by the time they enrolled in first grade. However, some kids experienced negative cognitive, social-emotional, and health outcomes.

Excessive regulation is to blame

As American Experiment has shown time and time again, the childcare crisis is largely a result of excessive regulation. Throwing money at the problem will not address the issue. It would only push costs onto taxpayers, and potentially harm children — as results from other places have shown.

The St. Paul city council will do a disservice to its residents by putting this measure on the ballot come November.