At a reception at the United Way near downtown, people are picking up white envelopes. They’re filled with petitions and talking points.
“Learning begins from zero on,” says Anna Babin, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Houston.
“A quality early education can make the difference of a child entering kindergarten ready or not,” she adds.
That’s the pitch from the Early To Rise campaign.
The goal is to get 78,000 signatures from registered voters in Harris County in the next few weeks to put a proposed county-wide property tax on the ballot in November.
The proposal is a 1-cent property tax per $100 dollars of assessed value on a home. It would pay to expand and improve early childhood education, including better training for child-care providers, parenting support and teacher training.
James Calaway, who is helping lead the campaign, says the average homeowner would pay an extra $18.50 a year, based on the median home value of $185,000 in Harris County.
In total, the new property tax would generate $25 million dollars a year for early childhood education.
Calaway says it’s worth it if you have kids or not.
“Given the extraordinarily high return that we will get for those tax dollars we think it’s a great investment.”
Studies show that there’s a high rate of return, for example seven dollars for every dollar spent on quality early education programs.
Stephen Klineberg, who is co- director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, is helping drum up support. He says both education and economic issues come “massively together in this.”
“Knowledge and skills and an educated workforce are critical for the economic well-being of this city in the 21st century.”
He says investing in early education becomes even more critical, when the region’s changing demographics are considered.
According to Klineberg, a leading demographer, 58 percent of adults age 65 and older are Anglo in Houston. But 70 percent of all children are black or Latino.
“It’s a safe statement that if Houston’s African American, Latino young people are unprepared to succeed in a knowledge economy of the 21st century, it is hard to envision a prosperous future for Houston. That is who we are and will be in the 21st century.”
Supporters are confident they’ll have enough signatures to give Harris County Judge Ed Emmett in early August and get the measure on the ballot.
The measure actually has a good chance of passing in the November election, says Richard Murray. He is a political scientist at the University of Houston and has done some pro bono polling for the campaign.
He says the proposal’s success has a lot to do with the timing of the election and voter turnout.
“If it’s on the ballot in November 2013, the same day that the city of Houston is having its election for mayor, I think the odds are probably 80 to 90 percent that it would get a positive vote.”
He points to the city of San Antonio, which had success getting a sales tax increase passed in the November 2012 general election to support full-day prekindergarten.
Murray says his survey found a small group of voters in Harris County who say they would vote no.
But he says in general, voters support paying more for early education, especially younger people and minority voters.