For many, 2020 will be the year of politics and what promises to be the most contentious presidential election since, well, the last one. Here in San Antonio, however, voters should see 2020 as the year of education opportunity.

This week brings into focus two key education initiatives. Each one holds the promise of elevating San Antonio’s low education outcomes and helping lift the city from its U.S. Census ranking as having the highest percentage of people living in poverty among the nation’s 25 most populous metropolitan areas.

First is the 2020 election to renew the one-eighth-cent sales tax that has funded Pre-K 4 SA, San Antonio’s nationally-recognized early childhood education program, since its launch in 2013. With additional full-day, quality pre-K funded in 2019 by the Texas Legislature, Bexar County’s public schools are moving closer to offering all 4-year-olds the opportunity to develop a strong foundation in math, science, language and art – and to learn vital social skills essential to maximizing their potential.

Pre-K is where young children learn by playing, and gain a definitive advantage over children not afforded the same opportunity.

City Council will meet Wednesday and receive a briefing on the logic of an expedited election that would bring the Pre-K 4 SA renewal to voters in May instead of the general election in November. Time matters here since Council has only until Feb. 13 to place initiatives on the May ballot.

The campaign to renew the one-eighth-cent sales tax, which generates almost $40 million a year, already had a head start with the September launch of Early Matters San Antonio, co-chaired by former Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus and Spurs Sports & Entertainment Chairman and co-CEO Peter J. Holt.

Giving voters a clear path to the renewal in May is a smart alternative to seeing it buried at the bottom of a lengthy general election ballot in November. It gives advocates less time to energize voters, but the same can be said for organized opposition, if there is any.

There is a second reason to opt for a May election. The November ballot will include a City proposal to assign another one-eighth-cent sales tax to the underfunded VIA Metropolitan Transit and its VIA  Reimagined plan. The challenge will be convincing voters that the sales tax should be shifted from the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP) that has helped limit development over the sensitive recharge zone and funded construction of San Antonio’s popular, 69-mile Howard Peak Greenway Trails System.

Students board a bus at Northwest Vista College in District 6.
Students board a VIA bus at Northwest Vista College that connects to the Ingram Transit Center.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have said the trailway funding, estimated to cost $12 million a year, can be absorbed into the City and County’s general fund budgets.

Nirenberg told the Rivard Report’s Brendan Gibbons on Friday that the EAPP, which has reached $19 million a year, could be paid for with an annual contribution from the SAWS budget that would allow the utility to borrow more to finance the program.

Nirenberg and others who support the tax shift believe the program will eventually wind down as less and less undeveloped acreage remains available to protect. Those who oppose shifting the tax disagree with that premise.

The ballot measure is bound to be a hard fought one, and thus a strong argument for removing the Pre-K 4 SA renewal from the arena. 

The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce will host a members luncheon Thursday in advance of the scheduled fall 2020 rollout of the Alamo Promise initiative, the “last dollar scholarship” that will allow students who graduate from Bexar County high schools to pursue the first two years of higher education tuition free at any Alamo College campus.

Students who are enrolled at one of the system’s five campuses already can ride VIA buses for free. Each financial roadblock removed from a student’s path increases the likelihood that individual will complete their education and enjoy greater opportunity in life.

The chamber program will feature a keynote by Alamo Colleges District Chancellor Mike Flores, followed by a panel I will moderate with Flores; Kate Rogers, vice president, community outreach and engagement at the Charles Butt Foundation; Jeanette Ball, superintendent of Judson ISD; and Aaliyah Muriel, a student at Judson ISD’s Wagner High School.

A new report commissioned by Alamo Colleges on the anticipated financial impact of the first five years of the Alamo Promise is being finalized this week, but the 70 percent enrollment Flores hopes to achieve by the end of the program’s first five years, if achieved, would deliver an exponential return of $1.69 billion in economic input with more than 12,000 new jobs contributing $728 million in overall growth in labor income

There are 275,000 adults with some college and no degree living in Bexar County, a measure of how many students start but fail to complete a two-year degree, much less a four-year degree or higher. College enrollment of high school seniors has actually fallen, according to the draft report, from 51 to 45 percent in Bexar County between 2010 and 2017, although the percentage of adults 25 and older with at least a two-year degree has improved from 30 to 33 percent.

Local graduate rates at the Alamo Colleges would have to improve by nearly 50 percent for Bexar County to reach the national average of 45 percent of adults with a two-year degree or higher. The need to grow Bexar County’s talent pool, everyone agrees, is stark.

Alamo Promise will roll out in the fall with enrollment limited to the nearly 10,000 students expected to graduate from the 25 Bexar County high schools with the lowest college-going rates. Nearly 6,000 of those students, including all attending Judson ISD high schools, have taken the Alamo Promise Pledge. District officials hope at least 3,300 of the students actually enroll, which would represent 33 percent of eligible students compared to the current enrollment rate of 22 percent.

The program will expand in the 2021-22 academic year to reach graduates at 20 additional area high schools.

Together the two programs, one well-established, the other a still-developing plan, represent transformative initiatives at both ends of the education spectrum in Bexar County. Both are key to lifting future generations of San Antonians out of poverty and into lives of productivity, opportunity, and fulfillment.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.