This summer has been a blast for those of us contemplating the future of politics in America. The past few weeks have afforded the distinct pleasure of learning about the life and career of Julian Castro, the second term mayor of San Antonio, Texas, who was selected to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte, North Carolina. Mayor Castro has recently taken on a bold initiative to fund pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) education through a sales tax increase. Why, you may ask, is he doing this? It’s actually pretty straightforward. Mayor Castro will not allow a bright future for San Antonio to be contingent upon the trends and whims of American politics.
In May 2011, Mayor Castro convened the Brainpower Initiative Task Force, a group representing San Antonio’s business community and its primary and secondary education intuitions. He asked the Task Force to determine how significant targeted investment might improve the city’s educational trajectory. The Task Force spent a year studying three areas of high priority to the city – early childhood education, dropout prevention, and college attainment. After reviewing best practices and evidence-based outcomes from cities across the country the group determined that a large investment in full-day pre-k would yield the array of long-term educational and economic outcomes they are after.
Enter Pre-K 4 SA, the plan put forth by the Task Force to provide high quality full-day pre-k to 22,400 four-year-olds over an eight year period. Pre-K 4 SA calls for the establishment of four Educational Excellence Centers, one in each quadrant of the city, and a professional development program geared specifically to pre-k through 3rd grade educators. The nod to infrastructure and human capital development suggests that the Task Force understands the scope of what they are proposing and the opportunity this holds to build long-term, city-wide capacity for early childhood education.
Study after study demonstrates that high quality pre-k can have strong, positive impacts on educational, life, and societal outcomes. In their report to Mayor Castro, the Task Force points to a study from the University of Wisconsin which found that an average of $6,730 invested in the early education of a child saved $47,759 in the long run by eliminating or reducing expenses associated with remediation, unemployment and incarceration. Some of the most profound findings on pre-k to date were published last summer in the journal Science. In a study titled ‘School-Based Early Childhood Education and Age-28 Well-Being: Effects by Timing, Dosage, and Subgroups’, researchers zeroed in on what, if any, impact participation in pre-k at the age of 3 or 4 years might have on economic, health and family outcomes during ones adult years. By age 28, study participants who were enrolled in pre-k had, on average, higher educational levels, incomes, socioeconomic status, and rates of health coverage as well as lower rates of substance abuse and involvement with the criminal justice system than students who began their schooling in kindergarten.
Early childhood education has even made its way into the Obama Administration’s place-based policy agenda. In addition to its presence in the Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods cradle-to-career approach, early learning resources are framed as an important neighborhood asset in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhoods program as well as the Bryne Criminal Justice Innovation Program under the Department of Justice.
While there is a pretty solid consensus that more education beginning earlier in life is a good idea, we are far from agreement on who should pick up the tab for four-year-olds. Thankfully, the state of Texas has provided half-day pre-k to children from low income, English-language learning, military, and foster families since 1984. Until 2011, the state also provided an additional $200 million in grants, which allowed districts to offer full-day services. Working on the premise that half-day pre-k is good but not sufficient, cities across the state have scrambled to fill this massive gap. Some have resorted to charging tuition. Mayor Castro and the Task Force have spotted a workaround that could make Pre-K 4 SA possible – the 1/8 of a cent in sales tax that the city is not yet collecting.
What will an extra eighth of a cent buy you? Apparently a lot. The Brainpower Task Force calculated that bumping up the sales tax from 8.125% to the 8.25% maximum allowed by the state, which every other major Texas city reached between 1978 and 2003, will bring in an estimated $31 million in annual revenue to support Pre-K 4 SA. The city would use this revenue, along with up to $11 million in annual matching funds from the state for at-risk students, to roll out Pre-K 4 SA over eight years. The projected annual contribution is $7.81 per household.
In addition to the support of San Antonio’s business and education communities, the initiative has the backing of seven former mayors who span 30 years of city leadership, namely Henry Cisneros, Lila Cockrell, Ed Garza, Phil Hardberger, Howard Peak, Bill Thornton and Nelson Wolff. The mayors penned a letter of support to city council articulating the significant impact pre-k plan could have on SA’s future economic prosperity.
The momentum doesn’t stop here. On August 9, San Antonio’s City Council reached a unanimous decision to put the pre-k plan on the November 6 ballot. Now it is up to the city’s voters. Based on polling data from early August, 64% of likely voters support the initiative. Not bad at all for a new sales tax in uncertain economic times. Pollster David Metz warns, though, that “much of the support for the measure is concentrated among Democrats, younger voters, Latinos and lower-income voters, some segments of the local electorate whose turnout is most uncertain in November.” Uncertainty aside, let’s hope that those who are fortunate enough to make it to the polls will approach the decision before them as an opportunity. To be precise, an opportunity to make a large, collective investment in the city’s future by equipping children with the tools they will need to create it.
Anne Schwieger is an urban planner working at the nexus of university, school, and community in Philadelphia.