A "Yes for NOLA kids" campaign sign, supporting a property tax to fund 1,000 early childhood education seats, in a front yard in Mid-City.

A new property tax that’s expected to pull in $21 million annually for early childhood education in New Orleans was poised to pass by a wide margin in Saturday’s election. With only a few precincts uncounted as of 10:15 p.m., 61 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of the tax.

The tax proposition was the only item on the New Orleans ballot in Saturday’s election, leading to a low turnout in the city: 24,611 of the New Orleans’ 267,266 registered voters , with 347 out of 351 precincts — or about 99 percent of the city — tallied.

The revenue generated by the tax will fund an additional 1,000 early childhood education seats for New Orleans students. A state matching grant could double that, expanding the program to 2,000 seats. Either way, it will vastly expand the city’s current program which is funded at $3 million per year, creating 200 seats.

The New Orleans city government began directly funding early childhood education in 2018 with a $750,000 pilot program. The city doubled that investment to $1.5 million in 2019, and doubled it again in 2020 to reach $3 million. Those funds are used to pay the tuition costs for private early childhood education programs for kids who can’t afford them. 

The measure was championed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell. In the fall, New Orleans City Councilmember Helena Moreno backed it, introducing the ballot measure voters approved on Saturday.

“For years, this Council has fought for funding for Early Childhood Education because we know that this essential building block is out of reach for too many of our City’s children,” Moreno said in a released statement. “Studies conclusively show that Early Childhood education sets children on the path to greater academic and social success. We want to eliminate the financial barriers to Early Childhood Education, and this millage is a strong step in that direction.”

The property tax, also known as a millage, could partially resolve a dispute between the cityl and the Orleans Parish School Board over how to use grant money provided by Harrah’s Casino as part of its agreement to operate in the city. The city has expressed a desire to use that money, which had traditionally gone directly to OPSB, to fund early childhood education.

That funding came into question for the district last year and this spring, but in both instances the council ultimately allotted the money to the district. Though council members did warn district officials they shouldn’t count on it. 

With the millage passing, the 45,000-student district will take on some additional work.

Earlier this month, the New Orleans City Council approved a cooperative endeavor agreement that will send $1.5 million of the new property tax collection each year to NOLA Public Schools to manage centralized enrollment for the new seats. It will also fund additional support services for families entering the system, district officials said. 

The agreement also includes a one-time payment of $500,000 to the school district for outreach and marketing concerning early childhood seats.

Another $1 million each year will go to administrative costs for Agenda for Children, a nonprofit organization authorized by the state to coordinate early childhood education in the city. 

“Those funds cover staffing and oversight of the City Seats [publicly funded early childhood education] program, independent evaluation and quality assurance,” Yes for NOLA Kids campaign spokeswoman Caitlin Berni wrote in an email earlier this year. 

The payments to the school district would be made on a per-student basis: $1,000 per student to run an enrollment program, similar to the web-based lottery system (formerly known as OneApp)  it runs for K-12 schools, and $500 per student for staff. If 1,000 students apply and receive spots in early education centers, the total comes to $1.5 million, roughly seven percent of projected tax collections. 

The district and Agenda are required to submit quarterly reports to the council, in addition to the city.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...