Harris County poised to give private non-profit tax dollars to improve pre-schools

August 13, 2013 2:58:35 AM PDT
Under a plan to improve preschool, tens of thousands of you are willing to pay more property tax, so long as the cash goes to kids. It could be more than enough signatures to get the question on November's ballot, but this has never been tried before. And just who's getting your money?

The Harris County School Readiness Corporation collected thousands of signatures this summer to put the proposition on the ballot. If it passes, the same group will decide how the money is spent -- a nonprofit-appointed group of well-meaning people in charge of millions of your dollars. It's not necessarily good or bad, it's just never been done before.

You likely haven't seen it and probably haven't signed it, but this summer, 140,000 Harris County voters signed a petition to raise their own taxes. They want to give more to the government. The money would be targeted to improve early childhood education at private and non-private pre-schools.

"We think this is incredibly important to the future of our work force, and also, it's the right thing to do," said James Callaway with the Early to Rise Initiative.

Never before has a specific public tax gone almost entirely to a private non-profit. The details of how it would be done haven't been publicized or, for that matter, even finalized.

"It's almost breathtaking in the audacity," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

Early childhood education works. It's a fact -- the research is rock solid. For 10 years in Harris County, the preschool improvements the group wants to implement have been used and successfully tested.

"It's time to expand that across the county, and really the only way to do that is to find public resources to significantly augment private resources," Callaway said.

But Callaway's group can't just propose a tax on its own. To get the money, the group is teaming up with the Harris County Department of Education to collect it for them.

"How do we know this group is the best group to do this?" we asked Dr. John Sawyer, superintendent of the Harris County Department of Education.

"I don't know that," he said.

The Harris County Department of Education will collect your tax money, and Sawyer admits once the public money comes in, the publicly elected county board of education will hand it over to a privately appointed non-profit board to distribute to other non-profits for training.

"It just seems to be a small group that said, 'OK, we're going to be doing what we want to do for early childhood education; by the way, we're going to get the taxpayers to pay for it every year to the tune of $30 million,'" Emmett said.

There were no bids on this deal, no public hearings -- just a proposal to give your money to a private group with the important goal of helping kids.

"Has this ever been done before?" we asked Emmett.

"No," he said.

Of course not. The law it's based on is so old it's not even printed in law books anymore. It dates back to the 1930s, and the group behind the drive says it specifically authorizes a vote like this one.

"Are they better than someone else? I don't know. But they put a proposal to the table, and the details of that are getting close to being finalized," Sawyer said. "And it looks like the kind of proposal that could have real benefit for helping students be kindergarten ready."

The group behind the plan tells us it would make no money off of the deal. They would simply be a middle man, finding the best providers for things like preschool teacher training.

The county judge has two weeks to put it on the ballot, and he's not sure this petition drive based on an 80-year-old law is legal. If he doesn't, the group behind the drive vows to sue.

Find Ted on Facebook at ABC13TedOberg or on Twitter at @tedoberg


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