A panel of education and civic leaders on Friday called for San Antonians to vote yes for eight more years of Pre-K 4 SA funding and to support future efforts to expand early access to education for kids younger than 4, including infants.

The decision to continue a one-eighth-cent sales tax to fund the City’s full-day prekindergarten program will be the last item on local November ballots, but it’s arguably one of the most important, they said.

“Nothing can do more to elevate San Antonio’s prosperity than getting early childhood education right,” said Joe Straus, former speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and co-chair of Early Matters, an early education advocacy group.

Local foundations and Pre-K 4 SA officials are in talks with Chicago-based Start Early to possibly bring a birth-to-five EduCare facility to San Antonio that would be a “showroom” for high-quality daycare and educational programming, said Diana Rauner, president of Start Early, a national nonprofit focused on early education provider and advocacy that recently changed its name from Ounce of Prevention Fund.

“EduCares are hubs of quality for their communities and they’re connected to a national network now of 25 schools that are trying to develop and promote best practices for children who are most at risk for poor educational outcomes,” Rauner said.

Pre-K 4 SA has four centers for 4-year-olds in San Antonio and works with school districts and private providers to elevate their care. These EduCare centers would extend that daily care to infants and children as old as five who typically live at or below the federal poverty line.

“There are conversations going on. Hopefully, we’ll have some information to share soon,” Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray said when asked when San Antonio can expect an announcement on an EduCare facility.

Today Pre-K 4 SA directly serves 2,000 students. Families with students who don’t qualify for free pre-K pay tuition on a sliding scale.

Baray, Rauner, and Straus spoke during the San Antonio Report’s third virtual education forum. They were joined by Katherine Filut, director of ReadyKidSA at the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County; Adrian Lopez, CEO of Workforce Solutions Alamo; Annie Koppel Van Hanken, senior program manager for the George Kaiser Family Foundation; and Peter Holt, CEO of Holt Cat, who co-led the the Early Matters steering committee. SA Report Publisher and Editor Robert Rivard moderated the discussion.

Texas A&M-San Antonio is exploring the feasibility of placing a EduCare center adjacent to its Southside campus, said Kate Rogers, director of the Charles Butt Foundation, after the panel event. This event series is sponsored by the Charles Butt Foundation.

These centers are typically funded through a blend of public and philanthropic money, Rauner said.

Last year, state lawmakers approved funding for full-day pre-K, but Straus said cities shouldn’t assume that or any other education funding is safe from what could be a $10 billion budget shortfall over the next two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.

House Bill 3, approved by the 86th Texas Legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott last year, was supposed to provide more money for Texas classrooms and increase teacher compensation. It’s unclear how the pandemic’s strain on the budget will impact education or any other kind of spending, Straus said.

“There is a broad, bipartisan consensus that investments in education are important,” he said. “You get into the details, they kind of fall apart on that. … I do think that advocates for public education funding need to be on alert.”

The good news is that many politicians are using their support of HB 3 in their re-election campaigns, he added. “I don’t think you’re going to see a big divide over funding versus defunding education. The difficulty is going to be when they really sober up and look at the facts and the numbers and realize that there is a constitutional requirement to balance a budget when there is an enormous shortfall.”

HB 3 did not expand the number of children eligible for free pre-K, and about 40 percent of children don’t qualify, Baray said, so programs like Pre-K 4 SA will be needed regardless of state budgetary outcomes.

According to a national poll released Thursday by the First Five Years Fund, there is vast bipartisan support among Democrat, Republican, and Independents for high-quality child care, Rauner noted.

According to the First Five Years Fund’s website, 84 percent of all voters surveyed agreed that “high-quality, affordable child care for families with young children is an essential service — just like healthcare and education.” And a majority of voters said childcare “is at least very important to get the economy going again.”

At least 28 childcare centers across Bexar County have closed, said Lopez of Workforce Solutions Alamo. And 15 to 20 more are “walking a thin line.”

These businesses are struggling, as many others are, with decreased capacity due to social distancing guidelines, he said.

Only 11 percent of childcare centers in San Antonio are certified as quality programs by Texas Rising Star, the state’s quality rating system for early childhood education programs, said Filut of ReadyKidSA.

It’s important that these centers go beyond babysitting, she said. “When that child is in that center eight hours a day, the touch that that teacher could have – the impact that could have when we shift all of those centers over to being quality [is huge].”

ReadyKidSA is a community coalition of service providers that strives, alongside Pre-K 4 SA, to increase the number of quality programs.

There is broad support for pre-K because there are measurable results, Holt said. A 2019 study from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Urban Education Institute found that students who attended Pre-K 4 SA in its first year were more likely to perform better on state exams and attend class than those who did not attend public pre-K.

Pre-K 4 SA and the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation funded the study.

Despite that support, there are still lingering questions the community has about the cost and scalability of Pre-K 4 SA, Holt said.

“The dollars spent per kid is higher,” he said, but the quality is higher and Pre-K 4 SA pays their teachers a living wage. “How do we find ways to either accept that for a quality outcome, we’re going to have to pay more money per kid? Or is there a balance we can find [between cost and quality]?”

Expanding pre-K via another tax will be a tough sell for voters and politicians in this political climate, he said, but the community needs to find both short and long-term funding answers.

“The return on dollars for early education is very clear,” Holt said. “Education as a true way or path out of poverty is also known. … I’ll absolutely be an advocate for that [Pre-K 4 SA] vote. We’ve got to keep that going: it’s not a new tax … and there’s proven successful outcomes.”

The Charles Butt Foundation is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. Kate Rogers is a member of the San Antonio Report’s board of directors. For a full list of business and nonprofit members, click here.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...