Digging into the early childhood component of the Little Rock tax plan

Digging into the early childhood component of the Little Rock tax plan

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The Little Rock Board of Directors will vote tonight on whether to call a special election to ask voters to approve a permanent 1% sales tax increase. The proposed tax would raise an estimated $53 million per year, which would go toward familiar projects: parks improvements, public safety, infrastructure, street resurfacing and the Little Rock Zoo. The plan also calls for significant investment — $45 million over 10 years or 8% of the tax revenue — in early childhood care, a new idea for Little Rock that’s been maligned and misrepresented by several board members and members of the business community.

The early childhood proposal may be new for Little Rock, but it’s increasingly common across the country. It wouldn’t put the city in the education business. Instead, it aims to improve the city’s child care market by addressing its two main problems, according to Dr. Jay Barth, the city’s chief education officer: Little Rock doesn’t have enough high-quality child care providers and too few working poor families have access to them. Only 17% of families in the city earning 200% of the federal poverty level ($53,000 for a family of four) receive financial assistance to send their kids to child care programs that meet the state’s criteria as “high quality,” according to Barth.

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To address those problems, under the plan, the city would send money to the state to expand access to free high-quality child care for Little Rock families. At the same time, the city would provide technical assistance to help increase the number of high-quality child care providers.

Barth and Mayor Frank Scott Jr. describe the initiative in part as a long-term means to address violent crime, a subject that has dominated city board discussions in recent years. “Early childhood education has a proven track record of reducing violent crime over the long haul,” Barth told the board on April 13. They’ve also described it as economic development, both because of the evidence that kids who have high-quality early care do better in school and because of the new opportunities the program would create for child care workers.

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The framing of the proposal as early childhood education seems to have confused some critics, perhaps because they don’t think of child care for infants and toddlers as education. But high-quality care is crucially important for very young children, according to Angela Duran, executive director of Excel by Eight, a nonprofit aimed at improving educational and health outcomes for Arkansas children.

Those first three years are where the most brain development is happening. A lot of people think if the baby can’t talk, there’s not much going on. But the reality is having back and forth verbal and other interaction is important. It’s changing a diaper and talking to them and saying things like, ‘Here’s your toes.’ It’s known as serve and return. You’re basically putting the words in the child’s mouth and modeling the conversation. There’s a lot of assumption that you just need a babysitter, but there is actual pedagogy about infants and toddlers.”

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The state Department of Human Services’ Division of Early Childhood rates licensed child care providers on a scale of 1 to 3 stars and publishes the results on its Arkansas Better Beginnings website. The ratings consider a wide range of factors: educational attainment of workers, staff to child ratios, class sizes, supplies, space for staff, along with with a series of issues related to financial stability. The state defines “high quality” providers as Level 2 or 3, but most in Little Rock are either Level 1 or 3. There are only 20 Level 3 providers for 0-36 months in Little Rock and only five of those are south of Interstate 630 and east of Interstate 430, “where they’re needed most,” Duran said.

Here’s a financial breakdown of the plan:

*Most significantly, it sends city tax money to the state’s early childhood assistance program to pay for the full cost of families who earn 200% of the federal poverty level to attend high-quality programs, and it sends money to the Arkansas Better Chance program to pay for families who earn up to 300% of the federal poverty level to attend high-quality 3-year-old programs. The city anticipates spending about $1.5 million per year on this portion initially but closer to $3 million in later years as more families learn they’re eligible. There’s also early money devoted to publicizing the new opportunities.

*$400,000 per year goes to providing technical assistance to Level 1 providers to help them move to Level 2 or 3.

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*Another $400,000 goes toward job training for child care workers. It and the technical assistance piece would be run out of the city’s Community Programs department.

*Around $220,000 per year would go toward establishing 529 education savings accounts for every public school child in Little Rock. 529 plans are tax-advantaged accounts through which families can save or invest money to pay toward higher education costs. In Arkansas, the program is administered by the state treasurer’s office. The city would open the accounts after kindergarten graduation and deposit $50 and then deposit another $50 after the child exits fifth grade. Barth hopes that foundations or corporations would kick in additional amounts. The program would also provide financial literacy to students and families about the importance of savings.

Some funding priorities could shift depending on federal developments. City directors including Lance Hines and Doris Wright have said that this is a federal and state issue. The state legislature has shown no appetite for increasing funding for early childhood care. There has been some help to families from recent federal stimulus plans, which expand the eligibility of child care assistance, including to essential workers. That money is expected to last until 2024. The Biden administration recently proposed spending $200 billion on universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds as part of a sweeping $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. It of course has a long road ahead of it in Congress, and it doesn’t address infants and toddlers.

Duran noted that even for someone like her who doesn’t qualify for child care assistance, merely finding a slot at a high-quality provider is difficult.

Barth sees the city’s plan as helping the entire child care market.

“While the direct impact is on the lowest income, there is an impact across the board in terms of families with kids, no matter their income levels. We’d see lifting of quality across town and with the number of providers, which has benefits in terms of the marketplace.”

The program could also potentially benefit the Little Rock School District, which has discussed expanding its early childhood offerings. It already has a robust pre-kindergarten offering for 3- and especially 4-year-olds. Those programs significantly rely on the Arkansas Better Chance program, which covers the children of families who earn up to 200% of the federal poverty level (along with children with limited English proficiency, children of parents who didn’t earn high school diplomas and other criteria). The LRSD also provides free pre-K to families who don’t qualify for Arkansas Better Chance. My family doesn’t qualify, and both of my children attended LRSD pre-K when they were 4. But through the city’s plan, the LRSD could potentially expand on successful high-quality programs like Rockefeller Early Childhood Center’s birth to pre-K offerings.

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