Most Texans would rather sell a favorite horse than vote for a tax hike that promises bigger government. Yet San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro has not only persuaded his constituents to spend $248 million to pay for an unusual and ambitious preschool program for poor 4-year-olds, but he’s also going to open doors in August—a mere nine months after people asked for it.
The city partnered with seven of the 15 local school districts within its borders to launch the “Pre-K 4 SA” program since the November election that authorized a tax increase for preschool programs.
Mr. Castro aims to deliver what he deems are gold-standard academics to 22,400 children over eight years in addition to intensive professional development for staff members and extensive parental supports. The action will take place in four new or retrofitted 50,000-square-foot state-of-the-art school buildings located at the corners of San Antonio’s highways for easy access.
“It’s entrepreneurial, it’s ambitious,” said Mr. Castro, a 39-year-old Democratic Party darling who gave the keynote speech at the party’s national convention last summer. “We saw a gap that existed in access … and are convinced that the city can fill that gap in an effective way,” he said in an interview this month.
Articulating the Need
The need for such a plan was articulated in 2011 by a mayoral task force made up of business leaders, superintendents, and education professionals in reaction to numbers showing that San Antonio—a city of 1.36 million people, making it the country’s seventh largest—has a population with low college attainment, said Jeanne Russell, the mayor’s education adviser.
The task force was also contending with kindergarten teachers who were complaining that children weren’t prepared, she said. Moreover, she said, business leaders from Toyota, the computing firm Rack Space, HEB grocery, and the insurance company USAA said they wanted to hire locally, but couldn’t find qualified applicants.
Ms. Russell said there seemed to be an important hole in the city’s education system: While federal and state dollars provided money for preschool services like Head Start or school district programs, only 3,400 children attended for some portion of the day throughout all 15 districts. Some 2,300 families were eligible but not served at all. (Overall public school enrollment in San Antonio was about 315,000 in the 2011-12 school year.)
Preschool is key to future academic success, the Castro camp argues, citing research from pre-K programs in Michigan, New Jersey, and Oklahoma showing children who receive high-quality services are better prepared to compete with their peers by 3rd grade.
“The best chance to ensure a child gets ahead is to make sure they never get behind in the first place,” said Mayor Castro, who is himself the parent of a 4-year-old daughter. “If we do this right, I’m confident it will be a model.”
The Pre-K 4 SA initiative is ramping up just as early-childhood education takes the national spotlight. President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget, for example, proposes that the federal government spend $75 billion over the next 10 years for the effort. Part of that money, if approved by Congress, would be allotted to states in the form of grants, which Texas could apply for and possibly parcel out to programs like Pre-K 4 SA.
Promoters of Pre-K 4 SA offer that San Antonio is trying something innovative by launching a city-school district partnership.
“I think for the nation, [Pre-K 4 SA] is a terrific model,” said San Antonio native Delia Pompa, who is also the senior vice president for programs at the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. “They’ve met the first challenge, … which is getting people talking to each other.”
“This is phenomenal,” added Iliana Alanis, an assistant professor of early-childhood and elementary education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “They’re not just doing the academic piece, they’re treating the whole child. It’s a huge undertaking.”
Selling the plan has been a challenge at every turn, said Ms. Russell, the mayor’s education adviser.
First, Mr. Castro—who took office in 2009—had to convince voters that the city should increase revenue to finance Pre-K 4 SA. San Antonio was entitled to a larger chunk of sales tax than it was collecting under Texas state law, but it had to seek voter approval to spend it.
The money—an eighth of a cent per $1 of taxable purchase—would cause the average tax bill to increase $7.81 a year.
The pitch made Bob Martin, a certified public accountant, livid. He is the president of the Homeowner-Taxpayer Association of Bexar County, in which San Antonio is located.
“People were questioning, ‘What is the city doing in the school business?’ ” he said. “We already had 15 school districts.”
Mr. Martin dismisses the program as an expensive duplication of services, one that doesn’t have enough research behind it to show it pays off. Moreover, he argued, a sales-tax hike hurts the poor.
“It’s a regressive tax,” he said.
The Castro administration disputes both points, citing information from Texas A&M and the New Jersey-based National Institute for Early Education Research saying that for every $1 spent on pre-K, research shows a $3 to $7 return on investment.
The service is also desperately needed, added Leslie Garza, the public-information officer for the 14,500-student Harlandale school district, which is located on the south side of San Antonio.
“We have 1,250 students in our preschool and another 200 on a waiting list not served because we … ran out of classrooms,” Ms. Garza said. “We have a waiting list every year. Those are kids who should be sitting in a classroom.”
To be eligible to receive free services for Pre-K 4 SA, children must be from families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line (about $42,000 for a family of four), be homeless or a one-time or current ward of foster care, use English as a second language, or be a child of a living or deceased member of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Ten percent of the seats will be reserved for families who belong to none of the designated categories, Mr. Castro said. They will be filled by lottery.
The mayor said his own daughter will continue her schooling at the building where his wife works as an elementary school mathematics specialist. He added that he didn’t want Carina to take a slot that could be used by another child.
In the end, the mayor didn’t convince all voters of Pre-K 4 SA’s worth, but he swayed enough opinion: The measure garnered nearly 53.6 percent of the vote on Nov. 6, according to the city’s records office. A little over 55 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
The tax money—$32.5 million a year—will pay 83 percent of the expenses of Pre-K 4 SA over the course of eight years. The state will add $5 million annually to the pot in per-pupil funding; the federal government will offer $1.5 million via nutrition programs. Tuition from families with higher incomes will provide $156,000.
“I’m confident that most folks, even if they opposed it, will give it an opportunity to prove itself,” Mr. Castro said. “We need to be held accountable to [taxpayers] for the excellent delivery of education that we promised. Their critique serves as a healthy reminder that the bright lights are on, and we need to get this right.”
Meanwhile, an arsenal of builders in hard hats is pounding away on a truncated schedule to ensure that two of the four schools are ready to open this August.
The first, located on S.E. Military Drive, is being built from the ground up. The second—a one-time Southwest Airlines call center located on Medical Drive—is being gutted and retrofitted, said Peter Zanoni, the deputy city manager. Together, they will accommodate 700 pupils.
Two other schools will be built late this summer, he said, although specific sites have yet to be announced.
Architects have considered the perspectives of all the constituencies, from children and parents to teachers receiving training and caregivers, Mr. Zanoni said.
For example, the four Pre-K 4 SA schools were plotted within four quadrants of the city near the intersections of busy highways to ensure accessibility, he said. While a majority of even poor families in San Antonio have cars, he added, the city is also designing a plan for a special Pre-K 4 SA bus system.
Workers at the S.E. Military Road Drive site have already laid down a footprint that includes 25 sunny classrooms with large observation windows for training teachers. Classes will have a 20-to-2 pupil-teacher ratio—one teacher and one aide in each classroom—and a curriculum that incorporates the use of play and technology, Mr. Zanoni said.
A parent-resource room will be staffed by family-service providers who can answer questions about everything from finding a doctor to paying utility bills; a meeting room is being built with capacity for 100 people in expectation of in-service training.
Furniture will be in soothing neutral tones, Mr. Zanoni said, so that children can better focus on their play or instruction. He added that the wires and pipes of a section of the building will be left exposed, but covered in a safe way, so that little scientists can see what’s inside the structure. Indoor play space will offer an arena for gross motor activities free from the Texas heat.
Outside, a tricycle track and garden are planned with views of a peaceful green pasture.
The 11-member Pre-K 4 SA board of directors is working to vet curricula and develop a transportation plan, among other projects. Ten members are appointed by the city council; one seat is awarded by the mayor.
Meanwhile, recruiters are holding job interviews in San Antonio as well as Austin, Dallas, and Houston to fill 160 staff positions, including 44 teachers and 36 aides, said Jaime Castillo, the mayor’s communication director. To date, more than 2,800 people have shown an interest, some from as far away as Maine and Alaska, he said.
The interest might stem from the salaries: Pre-K 4 SA is targeting teachers with at least three years’ experience, and they’ll earn between $60,057 and $90,086 a year. Typically, educators with such experience earn between $45,000 and $50,000 in other San Antonio schools, Mr. Zanoni said. With the higher salary also will come more hours, and they will be asked to train other teachers. They also can be terminated at will, Mr. Zanoni said.
Implementing the program in such a short time frame “is a bit of a high-wire act,” Ms. Russell said. Still, she said she’s confident the city can pull it off in time for the August opening.
In the end, it will be San Antonio voters who again decide Pre-K 4 SA’s fate: They’ll go to the polls again in 2020, when the city needs to ask for its reauthorization.
And by design, they should have a lot of information to decide whether the initiative is worth the investment. Independent auditors will assess Pre-K 4 SA pupils in preschool, then again as they bridge to kindergarten. The local school districts will also have an opportunity to assess pupils using their own measurement tools from kindergarten to 3rd grade.
The goals are lofty, Mayor Castro said, but within reach.
“What I’m most proud of,” he said, “is that voters chose to be aspirational. They looked past the boogeyman of raising taxes to make an investment in the brainpower of our community.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2013 edition of Education Week as In San Antonio, Pre-K Initiative Sets Steep Goals