Congressman Joaquin Castro (D20) responds to a question from Atlantic Senior Editor Ron Brownstein. Photo by Scott Ball.
Congressman Joaquin Castro (D20) responds to a question from Atlantic Senior Editor Ron Brownstein. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Atlantic brought its “Next America” forum to San Antonio on Wednesday to discuss the success, challenges and future of public early childhood education programs. U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro (via teleconference) and his twin brother U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro joined two panels of experts and policy makers at the Sheraton Gunther Hotel to discuss their experience with Pre-K 4 SA, San Antonio’s public pre-K initiative and other relevant policy.

The success of Pre-K 4 SA has placed the city and its leadership at the center of a national discussion about the value of early childhood education.

“San Antonio really spearheaded the conversation,” said Joaquín. 

Representatives from several ISDs, city council, and area nonprofits were in attendance as well, representing the strong network of support surrounding early childhood education in San Antonio.

Atlantic editors Ron Brownstein and Emily DeRuy moderated the panel discussions, which largely discussed the process of starting, developing, and assessing public pre-K models, with many references to the success of Pre-K 4 SA throughout.

Brownstein began with a theoretical question he often poses to policy makers: “If you had a dollar to spend, and your goal was to close the opportunity gaps in society, where would you spend it?”

For former mayor Julián and city manager Sheryl Sculley, that question became for more than theoretical when they sat down to decide what to do with the 1/8 cent sales tax left over from a failed program years before. They wanted to spend it on improving education outcomes in San Antonio, but that doesn’t narrow down the options by much. Should they invest in the middle school years? Drop out prevention programs?

Panelists (left to right) Councilman Ray Lopez (D6), San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Richard Perez, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning Libby Doggett, Texas State Rep Dan Huberty (D127), and Atlantic Senior Associate Editor Emily DuRuy meet to discuss success in education. Photo by Scott Ball.
Panelists (left to right) Councilman Ray Lopez (D6), San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Richard Perez, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning Libby Doggett, Texas State Rep Dan Huberty (D127), and Atlantic Senior Associate Editor Emily DuRuy meet to discuss success in education. Photo by Scott Ball.

They formed the Brainpower Initiative to investigate the best indicators of student success. 

“What we found, and what other cities have found, is that if you have that dollar to spend, its best to spend it on children when they are young,” he said.

Not everyone immediately agreed.

“There was a debate on whether to spend it on PreK or higher ed…I think it turns out to have been a great decision,” said Joaquín.

The next step was to convince the San Antonio business community, school districts, and eventually the voters to back such an initiative. Ultimately, the same compelling data won the support of the business community, according to Richard Perez, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

Perez now sits on the board of Pre-K 4 SA, representing the business community.

“I’m even more convinced now that the work we’re doing as a board and the education these young ones are getting is the best,” said Perez.

The voters will decide in 2020 whether they share that conclusion, and whether the program should continue. The pressure is high for the program to demonstrate its results, even though many of the outcomes won’t be fully realized until students matriculate into higher education and the workforce.

Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) said that he hopes the voters will keep in mind not only the longterm nature of the investment, but also the complexity of the issues.

“This didn’t happen overnight. We can’t fix it overnight,” said Lopez.

Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) replies to a question during the panel titled "Measuring Success". Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) replies to a question during the panel titled “Measuring Success”. Photo by Scott Ball.

Several panelists and audience members brought up the issue of students who graduate from a quality pre-K program like Pre-K 4 SA into a broken education system where their gains are lost.

“This is one piece. There’s an education pipline. Each piece has to be successful,” said Joaquín.

From here, the discussion gets even more complex. Issues of economic disparity and parental engagement influence the quality education that children receive during their K-12 career. While those issues need to be addressed, the panel focused on early childhood education as a necessary component of the solution. By narrowing the achievement gap for kids entering school, we make it easier to keep the gap from widening, or maybe even close it.

Libby Doggett, U.S. Department of Education deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning, said that the education pipeline doesn’t go back far enough. Education needs to be extended backwards, and begin at birth. 

“We need to do more for infants, toddlers, and 3-years-olds,” said Doggett.

Studies have shown that education, intended to be one of the great equalizers in our society, has actually become a major contributor to economic inequality. More educated and affluent parents put their children in higher quality, and often more expensive, early childhood programs at an earlier age than their less educated neighbors.

Rebecca Cervantez, executive director of AVANCE- San Antonio said that it is never too early to place a child in a high-quality learning situations whether inside or outside the home. Quality, at this age, means something entirely unique, that cannot be seen as simply a simplified version of traditional primary school. 

“They all need stimulating, exciting, active learning environments from birth on,” said Doggett, who later stressed the need for innovative curriculum. “And I don’t mean worksheets. We mean hands on, active, deep, learning.”

Pre-K 4 SA teacher Ileana Garza said that her former job at Northside ISD’s half day program, she always felt rushed with the kids.

“When they left for the day I always felt like, “If I only had a little more time with them…’” she said.

Garza would like to see all pre-K programs become full day, allowing students to make use of play-based learning.  This kind of age appropriate curriculum and full time service is a long way off for many areas.

Both Castros stressed the importance of state and local government in the expansion of these programs across the city and nation. Not every city has a 1/8 sales tax burning a hole in their pocket, Julián pointed out, while Joaquín has proposed legislation that would make it possible for local governments to circumvent the state in order to access public funds for early education programs. This would revolutionize a state like Texas, where the public never sees many of the federal dollars that could be available if state government would accept funding for certain government programs. 

Panelists also stressed the importance of ISD and parental engagement to the success of the programs. In San Antonio, Pre-K 4 SA CEO Kathy Bruck was a major asset to engaging ISDs. Bruck came from Halandale ISD herself, so she was able to assure wary administrations that Pre-K 4 SA was a partner, not a competitor.

The parent engagement piece has been trickier.

“That first year we didn’t quite hit the mark,” said Julián.

Now, however, the schools are filled to capacity, with waiting lists. Parent Jesse Quesada said that he feels like he has the opportunity to talk to teachers whenever he needs to. Teachers are there to greet children at drop off, and parents are able to chat about their children.

“It’s almost like we had a mini parent conference every day,” said Quesada.

While the program needs to continue to evolve, and expansion faces serious opposition in Texas and across the country, all panelists agreed that it is a crucial and worthwhile cause.

“We’ve got to be committed to this work, because this is what creates a strong foundation for these kids later on,” said Joaquín.

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*Top Image: Congressman Joaquín Castro (D20) responds to a question from Atlantic Senior Editor Ron Brownstein during The Atlantic’s Next America Early Childhood Education: The San Antonio Experience.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.