Tax Increase Yes, but With Two Conditions

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By: Robert H. Dugger, PhD

 

I want to go on record favoring a property tax increase to pay for upgrading Alexandria public schools in line with the School Board’s ten-year $291 million request -- with two conditions.

I applaud the City Council and the School Board’s attention to the deepening capacity problem in our public schools.  Do as I did and take a look at the years of careful evaluation and discussion of the emerging problem documented on the City Council and School Board websites. Yes, it seems no action gets taken until there is a crises, and this crisis has been long anticipated and it’s here now.

But crisis is also opportunity. Yes, our public schools need additional classrooms, and yes, to do this sensibly something has to be done about pre-k. But before we go leasing empty office space and busing 4-year olds far from their neighborhoods to make-shift classrooms, we should use this opportunity to pause and think carefully about what young kids and their working parents need.

So you understand my perspective -- two years ago, research I was involved in showed that high-quality prenatal counseling for at-risk mothers reduces Medicaid costs enough to pay for the counseling.  South Carolina just announced that they’re scaling-up their main prenatal home visiting program and they’re paying for it in this way.  Data is being gathered in Richmond to see if we can do the same in Virginia.

Four years ago, similar research I was involved in showed that high-quality 3- and 4-year old prekindergarten reduces public school special-education costs enough to pay for the pre-k. Last year, Salt Lake City provided pre-k to almost 600 at-risk kids and is paying for it with special-ed savings.  More than twenty other states are looking into how they can do the same.

Ten years ago I co-founded ReadyNation. It’s now the premier business early-childhood advocacy organization in the US.

Here’s the problem. America has organized its workforce so it’s now impossible for low and moderate-income moms and dads to maintain an adequate living standard without both of them working. It’s no longer possible for one parent to stay at home and care for and educate a young child. However, we expect these parents to raise school-ready children who’ll graduate from high school and be productive citizens, with virtually no help from the rest of us.

Get to know parents who are trying to do this. You’ll see what research shows -- they’re under enormous stress. If we did this on purpose it would be cruelty. But we’re not doing it on purpose. It’s just stupidity. The research on this is absolutely clear. Parent stress affects their children. Highly stressed parents are less productive at work and raise less academically successful children. We pay for our stupidity in the form of higher taxes for social services and crime, fewer profitable businesses, and weaker school performance.

Pre-k is important, but nationally and here in Alexandria, education-enriched child care is what’s most urgently needed.

Like pre-k and home visiting, good childcare has high economic returns. A study conducted by America's leading economic development institute, shows that there’s no sports stadium, office park or tax give-away that’s better for regional economic development than good childcare. Why? Businesses find it’s easier to attract and keep good employees. Parents are less stressed and immediately more productive. Children are more ready for school. With better prepared kids, the schools are more productive. Graduation rates are higher. And crime, drug use and teen pregnancies rates are lower.

Earlier I said I support a property tax increase with two conditions. Here they are:

First, plan for early learning from infancy through pre-k. Provide enough education-enriched childcare resources to meet the needs of all working parents. Good childcare has all the lower-stress benefits I mentioned earlier plus one more. Brain science is telling us the earlier a dollar is invested in a child’s life, the higher the return is. If you think pre-k for 4-year olds is a good idea, keep in mind that only 3- and 4-year old pre-k has been shown to significantly pay for itself in lower special education costs. If you want to lock in a child’s curiously, trust and ability to work with others, a dollar invested at 6 months is more effective than one invested at age 3.

Second, involve the private sector. Broaden the discussion to include all the city’s non-profit, for-profit, public and faith based childcare providers and see if these early care and learning professionals can accommodate with existing capacity, or open new facilities to handle the 400 kids that concern you today and the roughly 1500 that are right behind them. I will be very surprised if they cannot come up with a way to meet the needs of our working parents at lower cost than now projected. Use the proposed $3 million capital investment to structure a financing plan that expands quality childcare in Alexandria. This is the way to truly strengthen our economy, help parents do what we need them to do, and help kids arrive at school ready-to-learn.
 

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