Jill C. Thrift PhD

Why I Oppose San Antonio’s Pre-K Plan As an Early Childhood Educator

I was born and raised in San Antonio and have always carried in my heart the sense that our unique history and culture has the makings of a city whose exceptional qualities will benefit many, even those far outside of our boundaries. In every sphere of society we see significant changes taking place, and as an educator of 40 years, I long to see changes in education that build on our strengths, on who we are and what we know is true. I believe that one of our strengths is our love of family and children.

It is with interest that I have been following, and now participating, in the debate over whether to give the city increased sales tax revenue to start four new city-run pre-kindergarten schools. It’s a bit of déjà vu for me because my initiation into education in 1971 was as a teacher of four-year-olds in Edgewood ISD’s federally funded bilingual Early Childhood Program.

Photo from Edgewood Independent School District.

It was through this teaching experience that I was impressed by the profound impact that a child’s early family experiences have on his learning and development. The teachers in Edgewood’s ECE program highly valued and respected the role of parents. We saw ourselves as their assistants in the child’s preparation for school, not as the professionals who would be their child’s primary educators. We listened to the parents and learned from one another. The children lived nearby, and we visited them and their parents at home.

From Edgewood, I went to the University of Texas at Austin where I studied mothers and infants for my doctoral dissertation in Early Childhood Education. I wanted to understand better how parents influence their very young child’s later intellectual, social, and emotional development. Simultaneously, I was supervising kindergarten teachers in the Austin schools. Thus, I had a window into the child’s learning both at home and at school as I considered the whole concept of early childhood education.

Allow me to contrast what I have learned with the current Pre-K4SA proposal:

While some studies have found that preschool can improve academic performance in disadvantaged students, the interventions that make a lasting difference are those that provide highly intensive services to the family and child in their own neighborhoods over a period of four to six years. But the City’s proposal targets only one year of intervention focused on child instruction at centers 30 minutes or more away from home by bus.

In the case of children from disadvantaged homes, transformation must take place in the parents and family in order for enduring changes to occur in the child, and in future generations. We’ve all heard of the “cycle of poverty.” Child poverty cannot be changed without changes in the family generational cycle. Research shows that parents are the key ingredients to their children’s school achievement. The City’s pre-K proposal ostensibly includes yet-to-be-defined elements of parental instruction, but the emphasis is on “master teachers” and classroom instruction – not on parents.

The city’s pre-K program is entirely city-appointed and city-directed. If the tax increase is approved, the city will essentially have a blank check to make all decisions without parental voice or recourse. Both the executive director and the 11-member governing board would be appointed by the City Council. They would choose the curriculum, teacher training, location for the four new schools, testing and assessments, student progress tracking, program evaluation, bus transportation, and so forth.

Signs for (“Invest In Our Kids”) and against (“Pre-K Tax? You gotta be KIDDING, Vote No!”) the Pre-K 4 SA initiative at an intersection in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Leaving parents out of decision-making altogether implies that they are not the ones who are primarily responsible for their children’s education. Removing the voice of parents and physically removing children from their neighborhoods undermines the sense of responsibility and value that parents have as their children’s primary teachers. This strategy actually discourages parents as educational decision-makers. Instead, it consolidates education in the hands of government.

Since the City’s goal is to provide a year of education that will improve academic readiness and higher performance in kindergarten through grade three, it is necessary to know whether current pre-K programs are effective in meeting those outcomes. Have children in our city who have participated in pre-K performed significantly better on the third grade reading and math tests in the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills than children who do not? Have children who attended full-day pre-K performed significantly better than those who attended half-day? The City of San Antonio has not evaluated the effectiveness of current pre-K programs. How can we propose to expand a program of unknown impact?

The City of San Antonio contracts the education of young children eligible for Head Start to other providers. Are the children in these programs performing significantly better in school than those not in Head Start? Again, there is an absence of local data to answer this question. However, nationally the U.S. government’s own report shows the program has failed. U.S. taxpayers have spent $150 billion on preparing preschoolers for kindergarten through Head Start, only to find that Head Start makes no difference in a child’s later school achievement.

Graphic courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

Knowing this, San Antonio has expanded Head Start to include two schools that serve children beginning in infancy, and has 16 new birth-to-3 centers in planning this year. Unfortunately, many excellent-sounding educational programs are being funded despite a demonstrated lack of effectiveness and without public dialogue and agreement on the long-term goals and strategies. The proposed City-run pre-K plan follows this trend. In addition, the City’s pre-K plan would duplicate a level of education that heretofore belonged to the school districts. This represents a major shift in educational policy that citizens will want to consider carefully without being rushed.

Based on the preschool research, and on the role of parents in the early years, it is my conviction that the more urgent need is educational reformation in grades kindergarten through 12.

Furthermore, there is strong and clear research evidence that promoting marriage is an equal if not greater need for those who desire improved student achievement. Considerable research, including an exceptionally large study published this fall by Robert Rector, points to marriage as America’s greatest weapon against child poverty. According to an in-depth analysis of U.S. Census data, the principal cause of child poverty is the absence of married fathers in the home.

marriage-and-child-poverty Heritage.org
Graphic from Heritage.org, study by Robert Rector.

Marriage reduces the poverty rate by 82 percent among families with the same level of education. For example, married-parent families in which the head of the household is a high school dropout are less likely to be poor than a single-parent family in which the head of household has had some college.

Other studies show that children of single parents are twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school, and a third more likely to drop out before completing high school. City policies and public education need to emphasize the critical role of marriage in the educational and life success of children.

It may surprise you to know that most out-of-wedlock mothers are not teenagers but adult women who desire the fulfillment and purpose that motherhood brings. Tragically, they are the product of a generational pattern in which childbearing has become disassociated from marriage. Adolescent students need to be taught, coached, and encouraged throughout their youth about the benefits of delaying childbearing until they have found a lifelong marriage partner who will join them in teaching and providing for their children.

Preschool instructional programs can be beneficial to disadvantaged children under highly controlled and designed conditions, but they are not a silver bullet for society’s ills. The far greater influence on children is the presence of a mother and father in their lives, and the wisdom and income that parents can best provide together.

If we are serious about fighting poverty and helping children out of generational cycles of academic and social impoverishment, I believe that we must teach them the true causes of their suffering, and show them how they can attain more prosperous and fulfilling lives for themselves.

San Antonio is rooted in cultures that value family and children. I believe that as we dialogue about this strength, the whole community, both public and private, will come up with some creative ways to build up the walls of education in our beloved City

Read Thrift’s policy brief about the Pre-K 4 SA initiative here at the Heartland Institute.

Jill Thrift has a doctoral degree in Early Childhood Education from the University of Texas-Austin and has served as faculty at the University of Houston, the University of Texas-San Antonio, and the University of Texas Health Science Center- San Antonio. Currently, she is an early childhood education consultant in San Antonio.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org