San Antonio voters will get to decide in May whether Pre-K 4 SA deserves to maintain its eighth-of-a-cent sales tax funding for eight more years. City Council took the final step Thursday to put the funding reauthorization question to a vote.

Council members voted to ask voters to renew sales tax that has funded the bulk of the early childhood education entity’s budget since 2012. In fiscal year 2019, roughly 80 percent of Pre-K 4 SA’s revenue came from sales tax funds. Without voter approval to extend funding through 2029, the funding stream would expire in June 2021.

Pre-K 4 SA was created in 2012 when voters first approved the new sales tax. The organization serves 2,000 4-year-olds at four school locations. The organization spends $11,470 on average per student it serves. The average cost spent per student in the San Antonio area is $9,109.

It also awards grants to public and private child education programs to expand access to current programs by lengthening a school day, adding seats, or improving the quality of programs. Pre-K 4 SA also provides professional development for educators who work with kids from birth to third grade. Sarah Baray, the program’s CEO, estimated that the organization has impacted more than 450,000 students in eight years.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) was the lone dissenting vote Thursday, asking his fellow council members why they wouldn’t place the item on the November ballot, when turnout is expected to be much higher.

He also questioned the cost of the election – city staff estimated it will cost close to $900,000 for a May Pre-K 4 SA election. The money would be pulled from the Pre-K 4 SA budget, staff said. Baray told council members that the election cost had not been budgeted for, but Pre-K 4 SA would be able to find the money to fund the election.

Perry argued the cost would be less if the question was put on a November ballot when the City is likely to be putting up other ballot items.

The Pre-K 4 SA reauthorization vote comes after state lawmakers approved additional funding for school districts to expand public pre-K offerings from a half day to full day for eligible students.

Some Pre-K 4 SA skeptics cite this expansion of pre-K as a reason the city-run program is no longer needed.

While the new funding from House Bill 3 did not expand pre-K eligibility, it gave districts more money. Some districts opted to expand pre-K for both ineligible and eligible students, meaning more students will be served through school districts and won’t need to turn to private providers for early childhood education.

Baray estimates there is a large group of 4-year-olds who don’t qualify for free pre-K offered by school districts and whose families can’t afford to pay for private pre-K. If voters approve funding for Pre-K 4 SA for another eight years, Baray wants to focus in part on serving those students. At a City Council meeting earlier this year, she said she would reserve 500 seats for 4-year-olds in this category and work with partners to create another 2,500 seats for the same purpose.

“Expanding services for families who fall into this gap is critical because while the legislature increased funding for full day Pre-K last legislative session, eligibility criteria did not change,” Baray said. “So even though school districts had additional funds to move from half-day to full-day, they were not given funds to serve any more children, and 40 percent of San Antonio’s 4-year-olds do not qualify for free public pre-K.”

The results of the first Bexar Facts/KSAT/Rivard Report poll released earlier this week showed strong support for Pre-K 4 SA, with 68 percent of likely voters support reauthorizing the sales tax funding to sustain Pre-K 4 SA in future years.

The survey polled 651 individuals likely to vote in the November election. They were asked a range of questions about quality of life in the area, specific policies, and the performance of elected officials in addition to issues such as pre-K funding. The survey has a margin of error of +/-4 percent with a 95 percent confidence level.

The majority of Democrats polled, 86 percent, said they would support the issue, while 50 percent of Republicans indicated the same support.

In addition, 30 percent of the 651 people polled said they would prioritize Pre-K funding above sales tax revenue going to fund transportation, aquifer protection, all issues, or none.

The poll’s founder is Christian Archer, a longtime political consultant who led the initial campaign to pass the eighth-of-a-cent sales tax to fund Pre-K 4 SA.

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When Pre-K 4 SA was first on the ballot in November 2012 with a presidential election at the top of the ticket, San Antonians passed the issue by a narrow margin, with 53.6 percent of voters approving the sales-tax funding. Last month, council members indicated they thought May to be a better fit for the sales tax reauthorization question because the ballot comprises school board races. The thinking appears to be that Pre-K 4 SA would have a better chance of being passed by voters drawn to the polls by other education-related issues.

The November ballot is likely to include a potentially controversial sales tax initiative that would ask local voters to redirect a one-eighth-cent sales tax from a program funding Edwards Aquifer protection and greenway trail programs to fund mass transit.

On Thursday morning, Perry posited that putting two sales tax issues on two different ballots would not give voters a complete picture.

“I think it is more transparent to have them together on one ballot than splitting them out, one in May, one in November,” Perry said.

Early voting will run from April 20 to April 28 for the May election. Election day is Saturday, May 2. The ballot also will include several school board races and a bond issue in Southside ISD.

Christian Anderson will run the campaign to reauthorize funding for Pre-K 4 SA and lead the Keep Pre-K 4 SA political action committee.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.