In a city where 15 independent school districts share the task of educating about 315,000 of San Antonio’s students, Mayor Julian Castro still has a tough push ahead of him as he launches a citywide public preschool program.
So far, only seven of the city’s 15 school districts have agreed to partner in “Pre-K 4 SA,” the city-run preschool program that will help 22,400 mostly poor 4-year-olds when fully implemented in 2020 at a cumulative cost of $313.9 million.
Participation requires districts to give up both control and large amounts of money. In exchange, the Castro administration promises the districts will receive larger numbers of better-prepared kindergartners, more-informed and involved parents, teacher professional development, and a shot at competitive grants.
While some participating districts are enthusiastic, others say they’re not quite sure what they’re in for. A third camp is worried about not getting a fair shake, but felt compelled to join when voters pushed through a tax hike last November to pay for Pre-K 4 SA.
“By no means was this clear-cut for us,” said Aubrey Chancellor, the senior director of community relations for the 68,000-student North East school district, whose board agreed on a 6-1 vote in late February to join the partnership. “We don’t have waiting lists. We felt we were educating our kiddos and doing a good job.”
She said her district currently has 1,350 children enrolled in half-day, state-funded preschool, but expects that number to grow when 80 students move to the full-day Pre-K 4 SA program. And because in Texas, education money follows the child, $3,200 will be transferred from her district’s pot to that of Pre-K 4 SA when those students move. That means the money will no longer be available to pay for busing or administrative costs.
In the end, the school board’s consensus was that the voters had agreed to the plan, she said.
“We didn’t have the right to take the choice away from them,” Ms. Chancellor said.
The mayor’s team is quick to point out that the districts will receive many benefits through the partnership, the largest of which is a well-prepared K-12 population that will make up the workforce of tomorrow.
“There is a real consensus in our community that we absolutely have to get our arms around this educational challenge,” said Jeanne Russell, Mr. Castro’s education advisor. She added that more of San Antonio’s high school graduates should be enrolling in college than are doing so now.
Districts and taxpayers will “touch, feel, and reap the rewards,” she argued.
For starters, the city’s districts will have an opportunity to apply for competitive grants totaling $5.4 million—15 percent of funding collected under the new tax, starting in 2016. That money will serve 1,700 children, in part by extending current preschool services offered by winning districts.
Staff members in all partnering school districts will also be entitled to intensive professional development provided by master teachers both at the Pre-K 4 SA school sites and in their own home schools. That help will also be extended to charter and private preschool providers that send children to San Antonio’s K-12 schools.
In addition, monthly workshops with master teachers will also be offered for “informal” child-care providers—the abuelitas, or grandmothers, and other baby-sitters of the community—to focus on strategies for teaching literacy and numeracy. It is believed that the informal sector cares for many prospective Pre-K 4 SA pupils, Ms. Russell said, as their parents are ineligible for state or federal programs.
All the new services will greatly improve the knowledge of entering kindergarten classes throughout San Antonio, Ms. Russell said, and make it easier for districts to hit their grade-level markers.
Still, some remain skeptical.
One superintendent who asked not to be named said that while preschool is important, Pre-K 4 SA will drain local coffers and the perks won’t measure up: For example, professional development won’t likely be tailored to a specific district’s needs or be provided on a timeline that truly helps. It would be cheaper, that administrator argued, to simply pay for a consultant to come in and provide tailored help.
“If anybody knows education, it’s us, so why can’t they just give us the money?” the administrator said. “It’ll have the same effect, and we’ll maintain control.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2013 edition of Education Week as Corralling Local Support Still a Challenge