Since Chicago economist James Heckman won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, there has been no serious debate about whether early investments in human potential yield returns to stabilize families, reduce crime, and grow regional economies. They do. This is especially the case with early childhood programs which, research proves, increase economic development over time. So, credit should be given to the hundreds of parents, early childhood advocates and elected officials organizing to increase public investment in kids of our region under the banner of the Ready by Five Campaign.

Because of a rally at St. Louis County government offices this week, phone banking by organizers, Zoom meeting displays by County Council members and some pretty heated Twitter exchanges, most of the energy and headlines have centered on the effort in St. Louis County to put an economic development sales tax on the November 3 ballot. But, a different measure to enhance pre-kindergarten programs is already set for a vote in the city on November 3.    

In June, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved Board Bill 8 (sponsored by Alderwoman Shameem Clark Hubbard and passed without opposition) to have voters decide whether to increase the property tax rate for the community children’s services from the 19 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to 25 cents due to increase early childhood programming for children aged five years and younger. If approved by the voters, the tax would yield approximately $2.3 million annually. The fund would be administered by the St. Louis Mental Health Board, which has overseen the children’s services tax in the city since 2004.

In fact, the child advocates working in the county helped to make the city effort possible. But, differences in policy and politics have led to conflict in the ambitious county proposal, which endangers the effort that proponents say is critical for advancing racial equity.

First, sales taxes (the engine for the county fund) are regressive, tending to hurt poor people more than those with resources. In the toughest economic recession since the Great Depression, raising taxes is one thing, but a higher sales tax will land squarely on the people in the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis’ weekly mass distribution lines who also need early childhood services most. The city proposal raises less money, but it does so in a more socially responsible way.

Second, transparency differs in the respective bills’ language about purpose and oversight. Tying an early childhood tax to a yet-to-be established economic development board, as the county proposal would do, when there is already a community children’s service fund with built in public oversight raises questions. With as much language about sewer infrastructure and construction as about children and youth, the county bill is at best murky. Conversely, the St. Louis Mental Health Board has a track record going back 25 years of effectively deploying public resources with confidence and without controversy.   

Finally, who carries the ball matters. The wide range of community leaders engaged in the county effort is unquestionable. But, County Council Chair Lisa Clancy mis-stepped when she didn’t bring her African-American colleagues into the conversation early and wasn’t clear about her own connection to the effort before it came to the council. She also probably shouldn’t have been the one to call for a rally at the same time as the projected board vote. In contrast, the city measure quietly earned the support of the alderpersons and enjoyed the leadership of the St. Louis Black Aldermanic Caucus.  

Wisely, on Tuesday, August 18, Clancy pulled the bill, promising to make some changes with hopes of shoring up support. If she is wise and committed to the benefits early childhood programs offer our kids, she will look to the city for lessons – and Black leadership for guidance.  

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