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Would you pay more for pre-K in Harris County?

You might get the chance to vote on it.

pre-k

The recently formed Harris County School Readiness Corp., a group whose membership includes former Houston first lady Andrea White, is circulating a petition calling for the placement of an item on the next election ballot that would increase the county property tax rate by 1 cent, generating about $25 million a year to train teachers and buy school supplies for child-care centers serving children up to age 5.

“All the recent brain science development has indicated that early childhood education is absolutely pivotal,” said Jonathan Day, a member of the corporation’s board and a former Houston city attorney. “The business community and academics, everybody’s of the single mind that, if there is a single point of investment for leverage to improve children’s education, it’s at early childhood.”

The initiative stems from a recommendation made in an April report commissioned by the Greater Houston Partnership and the Collaborative for Children. It is similar to one launched by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, which ended in voters last year approving a modest sales tax hike to build new pre-kindergarten centers.

The corporation, however, faces several big hurdles before voters have a say.

Chief among them: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who says he believes the state law dictating the petition process the group is following is no longer valid.

While most county-related matters require the approval of the five-member Harris County Commissioners Court, the corporation is going by a process laid out in a state law that technically no longer is on the books that says county judges must call elections to increase the tax rates of county education departments if enough signatures are collected on a petition. The corporation will have to gather at least 78,000.

While conceding that the group’s legal interpretation “may be right” and describing childhood education as “a great need,” Emmett said he believes that portion of the education code no longer applies, and has asked the county attorney’s office to review it.

“I’m going to ask probably even the attorney general if I have to,” Emmett said, expressing a declining lack of confidence in the education department for hiring lobbyists to visit court members and state lawmakers. “They didn’t recodify these sections and you can’t find these anywhere in state statutes today.”

The issue here is that only two counties, Harris and Dallas, still have education departments. As is often the case, the laws on the books don’t quite line up with current reality, and as such there’s an ambiguity. Judge Emmett will seek counsel about that, as he should, but it’s a lead pipe cinch that if this election goes forward and the proponents of raising the tax rate win, someone will file a lawsuit to invalidate it. I can already hear Paul Bettencourt and the Hotze brothers cracking their knuckles in anticipation. Hell, there will probably be a lawsuit even before the election if enough petition signatures are collected to require one. At least then we’ll have a more definitive answer to the Judge’s question, though it might be quicker to just wait till 2015 and try to get a bill passed to clarify matters then.

Be that as it may, getting to the point of having an election is no sure thing. As Campos calculates, it’ll take about 78,000 signatures to clear that bar. I’m not exactly sure what that is based on – it’s always some percentage of the turnout of the previous election, but what that percentage is and which election it’s derived from are unknown to me. It’s also not clear to me that this would pass if it made it onto the ballot. The San Antonio pre-k initiative that Mayor Julian Castro championed passed with 53.56% of the vote, which is solid but not overwhelming and it happened in a city rather than a county in a high-turnout election. It’s easy to visualize the campaign against this initiative, no matter how good it sounds on paper. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea, I’m just saying it’s far from a slam-dunk.

There’s not a lot of information out there about the Harris County School Readiness Corporation right now – no webpage or Facebook presence, though I am told both will be up soon. I did get this press release yesterday, which fills in a few blanks.

Houston: Citizens for School Readiness made a presentation today to the Harris County Board of Education on the importance of early childhood education. The Board received a report commissioned by the Houston Endowment and conducted by the Greater Houston Partnership and Collaborative for Children, demonstrating the need for improved early education. Also presented to the Board was a plan to place a ballot measure before the voters this November that would create a dedicated revenue stream for early childhood education.

The additional revenues will be overseen by the Harris County School Readiness Corporation, a public/private partnership board headed by Mr. James Calaway, Chairman of the Board of the Center for Houston’s Future. Also serving on the board is Houston’s Former First Lady, Mrs. Andrea White, as well as Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village United Methodist Church, Mr. Jonathan Day former Houston City Attorney and civic leader, leading Houston businessman Mr. Lupe Fraga, Ms. Y. Ping Sun, and Ms. Laura Jaramillo, Senior Vice President of Wells Fargo.

A poll conducted by Dr. Richard Murray of the University of Houston found strong support for the proposed measure. Dr. Murray’s survey showed, “Nearly 70% of county voters said a local effort to improve early childhood education in Harris County should be a priority.”

“People from every sector of this city recognize the critical importance of strengthening early childhood education for our youngest children. Kindergarten is the new first grade, and children need to enter kindergarten already knowing their ABCs and with their skill sets already developed.” said Mr. Jonathan Day, referencing numerous studies that tout the long-term social benefits of early childhood education programs.

There’s more, so click over and read the rest. Like I said, I think the hill is a lot steeper than Dr. Murray’s poll suggests, but I daresay the pro-pre-K group won’t be outspent. What do you think about this?

UPDATE: HCDE trustees approve the plan, which has a wrinkle I didn’t catch the first time around.

The Harris County Department of Education board of trustees voted 6-1 Tuesday to allow its superintendent to review a proposal calling for a 1-cent increase to the agency’s tax rate to fund early childhood education programs. Board members, however, expressed concern about the lack of oversight they may have under the proposal, pitched by recently formed nonprofit Harris County School Readiness Corp.

The group’s plan, which it presented to the board on Tuesday, involves collecting at least 78,000 signatures on a petition, which would – according to a 1937 state law – require the county judge to place the tax hike on the next election ballot.

The increase would generate an additional $25 million a year, which would be used in part to train teachers to staff child-care centers in the county serving children up to age 5. If voters were to approve the hike, the nonprofit’s plan says its own board would administer the new revenue.

The item approved by the board Tuesday allows the superintendent to review the plan and later bring a recommendation back to the board.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the funds being administered by the unelected board of a nonprofit. See CPRIT for the reasons why. I’d still like to see pre-k funding happen, but I’d like to know more about how these funds would be administered.

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4 Comments

  1. […] on it yesterday on his Camposcommunication’s Blog. Charles Kuffner commented on it today at OfftheKuff.com. And there will be a lot more noise about it in the future because they want to raise […]

  2. […] more details on that pre-k proposal being pitched to the HCDE. It raises more questions than it […]

  3. […] here and here for the background, and here for more on the petition effort. Lisa Falkenberg notes the […]

  4. […] here, here, and here for the background. I’m glad to see that Early To Rise is working out an […]

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