The early vote is in now. Only Tuesday remains for the procrastinators and those who still cherish the traditional Election Day trip to the polls. I foolishly waited until Friday to drop by the Lion’s Field on Broadway. The line snaking outside the door was 25 people long when I arrived and more than 40 deep by the time I departed around 11 a.m.
The electronic ballot was a long one, and the first computer screen offered voters an easy straight ticket option without having to consider the various candidates and races. Party loyalty is fine, but it’s also a smart way to throw out an outstanding district judge and usher in an undeserving winner. Too bad voters didn’t have to scroll through the ballot page by page before reaching the Pick your Party buttons.
It was the end of the ballot where the one decision remained that officially had no party affiliation. The ballot spelled out a For or Against choice to allocate a one-eighth cent of the city’s sales tax collections to support an early childhood education initiative that is the centerpiece of Mayor Julián Castro education agenda. It once was called the Brainpower Initiative and then morphed into Pre-K 4 SA, which makes for a better bumper sticker. By now everyone knows whether they are for or against it, although many thoughtful voters I have spoken with struggled to make up their minds.
I voted for it without hesitation, and see my vote as a vote for early childhood education and as a vote for Castro. I believe the two-term Mayor has earned a mandate from city voters and ought to be allowed to put his ideas to the test. The Castro twins, who went from Jefferson High School in SAISD on to Stanford University and then Harvard Law, are Exhibit A for how education transforms socio-economically challenged minorities from one generation to the next. Castro has been preaching such investment since he first ran as mayor. He knows the cycle of poverty is broken with a college degree. Thus the Mayor’s memorable line in his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, “Instead of a mop…I hold this microphone.”
Castro held his monthly Mayor’s Box Lunch at inner city Fox Tech High School on Friday, a departure from the usual Witte Museum venue, and one laden with symbolism. Fox Tech is the only school in San Antonio this year to earn a coveted U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon Award recognizing its academic improvement from its status five years ago as the lowest-ranked high school in the state. This year’s graduating class will be the last with students studying a general curriculum. Starting next year, all students will be enrolled in the more challenging magnet program for Health, Law and Public Policy Careers. Fox Tech was once known mainly for its Buffaloes football team facing off against the Lanier Voks in the Chili Bowl rivalry that was staged at Alamo Stadium from 1942 to 2009. Fox Tech gave up the football program when it transitioned into a magnet school and now will serve a much smaller, college-bound student body.
Fox Tech typifies the more ambitious academic agenda that has taken shape in recent years in the San Antonio Independent School District, an evolution that has not yet registered with the public outside the district.
Addressing about 100 educators, business leaders, citizens and alumni, Castro surveyed the room and found that all but a few attendees already had voted.
“The facts about SAISD, we are building great neighborhoods by building great schools. People want a great urban core,” Castro said. “The challenge we face is that the urban core cannot be truly great without great schools.”
Full disclosure: I recently joined the SAISD Foundation Board to play a more active role in public education reform, a position I could not take when I was editor of the Express-News. The Foundation raises funds to support innovative teachers and classroom initiatives that otherwise would go unfunded. The Foundation operates independently of the SAISD board of trustees, but works closely with Interim Superintendent Dr. Sylvester “Syl” Perez.
As someone who has studied arguments for and against the initiative, including those published here in recent weeks, I am most impressed by Castro’s willingness to expend political capital on an unpopular idea. Pre-K 4 SA seemed destined for easy passage a month ago, despite the opposition, but opponents have picked up momentum in the closing days. That and an early voting turnout that skewers heavily toward the more conservative Northside precincts points to a closer outcome.
Either way, people are divided. One, it’s a tax, however miniscule. Two, it’s the City of San Antonio getting directly involved in public school education. Three, it benefits those families in the inner city who do not vote with the same frequency as suburban voters whose children enjoy far better education opportunities and outcomes.
The bottom line for me and many others supporting Castro is that city leaders must address head-on San Antonio’s epidemic of dropouts and school children who stand no chance of attending or graduating from college. Even now, far more students who start college in San Antonio give up and quit before they earn a degree. That has to change, and if not Castro’s plan, then what? And if our education failings are, indeed, a community illness of epidemic proportions, why wouldn’t the Mayor and City Council get involved?
“It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s a strong plan,” Castro said Friday.
Opponents have marshaled their reasons for finding fault with Pre-K 4 SA, but they have offered little in the way of alternatives. Most political leaders opposing Castro were not proposing significant alternatives to the status quo earlier in the debate. It simply wasn’t their issue. Many of us have had all the status quo we can stomach. We want change. We want every inner city student to have a greater opportunity to succeed, and we are willing to vote for an imperfect plan that can be fine-tuned as it is implemented.
“It’s everyone’s business how well our city’s school children do,” Castro said Friday. “We can make a profound difference in the future trajectories of our school children.”
Castro said the early childhood education investment was more important than ever as the Texas Legislature prepares to convene again in January. Two years ago state lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from education spending, and even an improved economy and tax collections are unlikely to lead to a reversal of the cuts.
“Voucherizing public education is on the horizon in the coming session of the Legislature,” Castro predicted, echoing a growing concern among educators and others that the Republican-dominated Legislature’s two biggest education initiatives in 2013 will be a push to fund vouchers with tax dollars and a renewed effort to pass a law allowing students and others over the age of 21 to carry hidden handguns on college campuses.
Castro, a national co-chairman of the Re-elect Obama Campaign, said he declined invitations from Democratic Party leaders to travel to Colorado in the closing days of the presidential campaign and instead will stay in San Antonio and campaign for Pre-K 4 SA.