Sweeten Up for Pre-K

City announces efforts to create a tax on sugary drinks to pay for more early childhood education

Mayor Javier Gonzales and fellow city councilors are working to support expanding and improving early childhood education offerings in Santa Fe to reach an estimated 1,237 3- and 4-year-olds in the city who don't yet have access to high-quality early education programs.

"We are at a go-big moment in Santa Fe," Gonzales told attendees at a press conference Thursday afternoon. "We're either going to decide we want to stop the generational cycles of poverty and start to pivot and focus on opportunity for every child and every family, or we're just going to charge forwards and hope this problem solves itself."

Research shows pre-K enrollment increases the chance that a student will be reading at grade level in third grade and finish high school—and grow up to increased earnings potential that contributes to boosting the local economy.

And how is the city going to tackle the investment?

After crunching the numbers on property tax and gross receipts tax, the Early Childhood Working Group, a part of the mayor's Children, Youth and Families Community Cabinet, determined the best source to generate an estimated $10.6 million annually to expand these offerings is a tax on sweetened drinks like soda.

Whether that tax of  $.02 per ounce would hit consumers directly or distributors who sell wholesale remains one of several pieces still being ironed out in this proposal, as is the timeline. To enact the tax, the mayor will need first to take the ordinance to city council, where he expects to introduce it in December. If it passes, it will go before voters sometime in 2017 in a special election.

"I think Santa Feans are committed to giving the youngest members of this town a healthy, vibrant start," said Mayor Pro-Tem Signe Lindell. "Who doesn't deserve that?"

The money generated will go toward improving the quality of existing programs and increasing the number of certified teachers. The initiative is expected to create 261 new jobs, most of them for certified early education teachers.

The mayor said during a press conference Thursday that he thought existing facilities had enough seats to accommodate these students, so most of the costs would go to programming. All of new tax revenue would stay in early childhood education and if funds become available could expand to include programming for infants and neo-natal care. Some will go to building a navigation system for families to understand how to make use of the services available, and some to education on the connections between enrolling children in these programs and better ensuring their success later in life.

"This could be a game changer for this community," said Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia, who could not directly endorse the issue but spoke of her strong support for early education programs.

The roughly 1,200 students not able to access early education programs are thought to be disproportionately Hispanic and poor, according to research from the Brindle Foundation. The foundation aided in developing the proposal and referenced other municipalities that have passed a similar tax for the model on a tax on sweetened drinks.

Some of the city's pre-K centers score a three on a scale of five; part of the goal is to hire teachers and expand programs so that those centers score higher.

"I want the people in my district to benefit from early childhood education as much as the kids on the north side of town," said Councilor Chris Rivera, who represents District 3 on the city's Southside and the area with the greatest demonstrated need for this expansion. He pointed to the YMCA a block away from his house, with 50 children on the waiting list for its early education programs.

Like the mayor, he's campaigned on a platform of improving education.

"It's true that it takes a village to raise a child, and that's what we're asking," Rivera said. "We're asking the entire city of Santa Fe to rise up and help us raise our children on every side of town."

The city is stepping in to help in the ongoing absence—one that's only expected to continue—of funding for these programs from the state or federal government, Gonzales said, "So we have to do this as a community." Half an hour after this story's publication, the following comment came in from the New Mexico Beverage Association: "While providing more early childhood education is a worthy goal, paying for it with a tax just on beverages comes with real downsides. Soft drink consumption has been declining for more than a decade, meaning this important program will depend on an unreliable and unsustainable revenue source. While we disagree with taxes that single out one set of products, we would like to work with the mayor and community leaders on better ways to help move forward important programs like early childhood education.

"In the meantime, our energy remains squarely focused on reducing the sugar consumed from beverages—engaging with prominent public health and community organizations to change behavior."

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