San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro lacks the direct control over his community’s schools afforded to some of his peers in other major cities. But despite the limitations of his office, he’s sought to press his education agenda where he can.
Castro, 37, will give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, a showcase role that will immediately brand him as one of the party’s most important young voices.
The mayor’s speech will come on the same night that a number of other party notables, including first lady Michelle Obama, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Newark Mayor Corey Booker take to the podium. Castro’s address will help frame the party’s overall message for the rest of three-day event—and to some extent, for the rest of the 2012 presidential campaign, particularly among Latino voters.
Since winning election three years ago, and getting re-elected last year, Castro has used his office to push improved college access and preparation and expanded prekindergarten, among other priorities, in his city, where public education is overseen by more than an dozen different school districts.
In an interview before the convention, Castro, whose wife is a teacher, said he’s tried to identify education priorities that can work across all of San Antonio’s schools. (You can listen to an audio clip of the mayor talking about school issues with Education Week, below.)
“There’s no question that the fragmented districts that we have makes it a challenge across the board for the city to make overall improvements in education,” said Castro. Yet at the same time, “there’s no one better positioned than the mayor of a city ... to speak with one voice about what we can do in education.”
The mayor went to Stanford University as an undergraduate and received a law degree from Harvard University. Before entering the mayor’s office, he was elected to San Antonio’s city council at age 26, making him the youngest person ever to hold that post at that time.
He said his experiences, and his frustration that other San Antonio students weren’t given the same opportunities, sparked his interest in education, and college access in particular.
Castro’s most visible step into education issues might be Cafe College, a one-stop center offering students throughout the city counseling on college admissions, financial aid, and test preparation. City officials say the center served more than 5,000 students in its first year, 2010, leading to its expansion last year.
“I was always struck by the difference between the potential that many of these high school students had, and where they ended up,” he said, “and also the number of folks who didn’t even try to go to college because they thought they couldn’t afford it.”
Access to reliable information about college is made worse by the shortage of counselors in publc schools, said Castro, who estimated the student-to-counselor ratio in much of his state is 400-to-1.
“The old idea that [students] sit down with a counselor and get this sagacious advice about the future that’s thorough, that’s just not the picture in Texas much anymore,” Castro said. “We wanted to fill that gap.”
The mayor is also pushing for expanded access to prekindergarten in the city, an effort he says is supported not only by research on what will help students, but also by San Antonio’s business and civic leaders, who have identified early education as a priority.
He’s asking San Antonio residents to support those efforts financially, through a sales tax increase on the November ballot that Castro supports.
“There’s no question that anytime you say the word tax, it comes out like a four-letter word,” Castro said.
But he argues that the average price per household of the tax is small, compared with the rewards. When you consider “the great benefit that high-quality full-day pre-K can make in the lives of children,” he said, “it’s not even close.”
Castro said he plans to use his speech to emphasize that the Obama administration’s spending in education and other areas, Republican criticism notwithstanding, is paying off across the country.
“My speech will be about America’s unique ability to create opportunity for folks,” he said. “President Obama is making the right investments to sustain opportunity and to expand it.”
Photo: San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, left, who will be the convention keynote speaker, and his twin brother, state Rep. Joaquin Castro, who is running for U.S. Congress, are interviewed at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday. (Charles Dharapak/AP)