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Details emerging in mayor’s soda-tax-for-pre-K plan

SANTA FE, N.M. — So far, Mayor Javier Gonzales and his supporters seem to have done their homework on an ambitious proposal for an early childhood education program to assure pre-K for every 3- or 4-year-old in Santa Fe.

The project would be financed with a 2-cent-per-ounce tax on sugared drinks – that’s everything from soda pop, energy drinks and those faux fruit juices to Frappucinos.

As described by the mayor and his experts, the plan is to “fill in the cracks” in the existing pre-K system via funding to private or nonprofit providers for families who either can’t afford it now or don’t have access to existing slots. “Affordable for some families may be free,” the mayor said.

What about having to establish a new bureaucracy to manage what’s projected to be a $7 million program?

Santa Fe Community College, which already runs a well-respected early childhood education program, would do the heavy lifting, the mayor says, putting operations “squarely in the hands of a community expert.” The idea is to keep city government out of the actual delivery of pre-K services, although a new city commission would also “provide oversight and administration,” according to a formal resolution that Gonzales introduced this week.

The proposal is aimed at half of the Santa Fe kids, roughly 1,000 3- or 4-year-olds, who now aren’t accessing early childhood education.

So, will pre-K providers, including many who currently get students from families able to afford their services, both accept and have the skills to educate children from a broader demographic?

The mayor and his team say providers receiving city funds under a competitive contracting basis will not be able to limit their number of low-income kids. Gonzales said the “people who can least afford it” would “move to the front of the line” for new pre-K slots.

The funding would be intended to increase capacity and access, and providers would be required to meet New Mexico’s four- or five-star standards.

Where will the teachers come from to serve the hundreds of young children who currently aren’t getting any pre-K services? The answer: Some of the money from the proposed program would be funneled through providers to train a teaching corps.

Any way the soda tax money could be siphoned off for other purposes?

The plan will be written to ensure that, if the City Council tries to redirect the tax revenue, “the tax would cease to exist,” said Gonzales.

The proposal also calls for a public outreach program about the value of early learning, and a “navigation system” to help families understand and access pre-K services.

There’s really not an argument about whether early childhood education is important, particularly in a state that lags in educational achievement. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has increased funding in this category and received kudos from former Democratic President Barack Obama for the effort, although Democrats like Gonzales believe state government’s effort falls short.

When Gonzales first mentioned soda taxes in a wide-ranging resolution he proposed to the City Council, he appeared to be suggesting that the value of such a levy would be to encourage healthier lifestyles. He’s backed off that “nanny state” position somewhat, now emphasizing the tax as a funding source for pre-K, with any community health benefits from reducing sugar intake as a bonus.

The Santa Fe plan, if endorsed by the City Council, would put the tax and early childhood education plan before city voters. Assuming we’re headed for an election, the issues will be whether city government and its partners can really pull off the mayor’s pre-K plan and whether the plan is worth Santa Feans paying more for sugared drinks – sometimes a lot more. Those big, two-liter bottles of soda that often can be purchased now at an on-sale price just over $1, including tax, would more than double in price.

There will be time before an election to parse all details and, as required, worry about how $7 million in potential tax revenue could inspire abuses created by politics, nepotism and cronyism. For now, though, it appears that Gonzales has put on the table a serious proposal that deserves serious consideration.