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In the years since Pre-K 4 SA was approved by San Antonio voters, it has garnered praise from across the nation. The show piece initiative of his administration, former Mayor Julián Castro has taken the program’s successes on the road to Washington, D.C., touting the City-run pre-K program as a viable model for universal, high-quality pre-kindergarten education.
Pre-K 4 SA critics have pointed to the high cost of the program, which is funded by revenue from a one-eighth cent sales tax. In 2012, the City had to decide what to do with the revenue from this tax. Castro commissioned the Brainpower Task Force, co-chaired by Charles Butt and Joe Robles Jr., to figure out where money has the highest return on investment in education. Pre-K 4 SA Board Chair Elaine Mendoza was also on the original task force.
A recent study by Children at Risk and the Meadows Foundation, as well as a statement by Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Robert Kaplan confirm that the investment in pre-K programs matter. While any investment is good, funding high-quality programs has proven to be a worthwhile expenditure. Smaller classes, full day programs, and professional development matter when it comes to setting kids on successful trajectories.
The Brainpower Task Force reached the same conclusion. Based on the research, the best “bang for your buck” in education outcomes is early childhood education. Rather than leading with a target cost per student, the task force committed to a high-quality program for students most in need, with a ripple effect that would benefit students citywide.
“I really think San Antonio has done this right,” Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray said. “I say that as someone who has spent the last 15 years of my life looking at schools across the nation.”
In Fiscal Year 2016, Pre-K 4 SA received $37 million in revenue from the sales tax revenue, state funds, and grants.
Many figures have been floated for the per pupil cost of the program, some as high as $30,000. The real figure is closer to $13,600 per student per year, according to Pre-K 4 SA.
Its four brick and mortar centers spent $24,248,713 serving its combined 1,783 students, averaging around $13,600 per student. This is on par with costs estimated by the National Institute for Early Education Research and Institute for Women’s Policy Research for low teacher-student ratios in a program that operates at the highest quality standards.
If this still sounds expensive, that’s because it is almost two or three times the cost of need-based pre-K programs in San Antonio, North East, and Northside ISDs.
Comparing to ISDs is tricky because ISD reporting on pre-K is not standardized. Some report only the amount received from the State for each student, not counting alternate funding sources. Some report the district budget for dedicated pre-K staff and curriculum. Some report total program costs. Nonetheless, Baray concedes that however you measure it, Pre-K 4 SA is spending more. Trying to match public school spending, however, is not the point for Baray and the architects of the program.
“Clearly Pre K-4 SA is spending more per pupil,” Baray said. “We are spending what it takes to have a high-quality program.”
Currently, NISD’s reported cost per student for pre-K is $4,160.50, with an enrollment of 2,367. The program is half-day – students can attend morning or afternoon. A grant from Pre-K 4 SA expanded the programs at Cody, Myers, and Timberwilde Elementary Schools to full day.
Three of NEISD’s 17 pre-K campuses are also full day, made possible by grants from Pre-K 4 SA. They receive $4,064 per student from the State for pre-K, and currently serve 1,232 students.
SAISD spends $7,257 per student on pre-K for their 4,691 pre-K students. As a Title I district, most 4-year-olds in SAISD qualify for state pre-K.
Alamo Heights ISD, a smaller district with a smaller percentage of students qualifying for state pre-K, spends $7,596 per student.
In Texas, Baray pointed out, what should be spent on education is not always the same as what is spent.
Texas’ constitution only guarantees adequacy in education, and there’s general agreement among educators that current funding doesn’t even cover that.
“It’s hard in Texas because we kind of pride ourselves on low funding for education,” Baray said. “There’s a relationship between that and why we’re 48th and 49th around lots of measures of quality of life and education for families.”
New York State spends $12,000 per student, but even they do not match the quality of Pre-K 4 SA, Baray said.
So why, when they were investigating the best way to use the tax revenue, did the Brainpower Initiative executives not simply put the money toward expanding or improving programs in the public school system?
According to Mendoza, this was one of the most robust areas of debate for the task force. Ultimately the decision boiled down to access, focus, and flexibility.
“There’s a pretty strong consensus that traditional public schools work better for some kids than other kids,” Baray said.
Having centers in four quadrants of the city was a priority in order to increase the choices parents have for where to send their children. If the half-day, traditional school model was keeping them from enrolling, Mendoza said, then Pre-K 4 SA wanted to remove that barrier.
The districts do not have a way of tracking how many eligible 4-year-olds are not enrolled in ISD programs.
However, NISD has approximately three times as many kindergarteners as it does pre-K students. Assuming that each grade should be roughly the same size, it means that two-thirds of NISD 4-year-olds are attending pre-K elsewhere or are not attending at all.
Along with increased access, Pre-K 4 SA was designed to be a focused incubator for best practices, which could then serve public schools through training and professional development.
“(Pre-K 4 SA) was a project to see if we can do something that is not tied to that big, cumbersome system, but that will show quality and how we can build (public school) programs,” Baray said. “Pre-K 4 SA really is much more agile.”
The intention was to make the centers a sort of research and development facility for best practices tailored to San Antonio families. Funds for educational research of this sort are lacking, Mendoza explained. Pre-K 4 SA benefits from a single focus that keeps dollars and energy from getting redirected.
“If this is all we did, then we could apply our resources to these areas,” Mendoza said. “It’s very intently focused around results.”
Some have argued that in a city with as critical a need as San Antonio’s, the aim should have been breadth over depth. More specifically, a citywide program should enroll as many children as possible, stretching its dollars to their limits.
While Mendoza and Baray do stretch each dollar, they are committed to doing so without compromising quality.
“If these programs are mediocre, all you’ve done is provide universal access to programs that are mediocre, or program with wide variances in them,” Baray said.
Each dollar that flows into Pre-K 4 SA from tax revenue, additional grants, and the State is put to work. Some go to the brick and mortar facilities, some to professional development for teachers around the city and surrounding regions, some to grants.
This is where Pre-K 4 SA’s citywide focus plays out, Mendoza said. Its creators envisioned a regional reach through professional development and grants to local pre-K providers, including ISDs.
“The question becomes how do we learn from that and try to raise quality across the board,” Baray said.
A full day program is essential to high-quality pre-K, according to experts. Pre-K 4 SA’s grant program has allowed local ISDs to pilot full-day programs at some campuses.
“It’s not only ISDs, but private sector early childhood centers sprinkled throughout the community,” Mendoza said. “This is being leveraged throughout the community at large.”
Pre-K 4 SA’s third benefit, its flexibility, captures some of the advantages of the charter school movement. They are free to recruit and reallocate talent as needed, and change whatever is necessary to improve outcomes. Baray has only been at the helm for less than a year, but has already made some changes to help the program move toward the goals it has not yet achieved.
Given that the program only had eight years before it has to go back to the taxpayers with its results, Pre-K 4 SA needed to be nimble. It needed to have the ability to maximize its effectiveness.
“We need to demonstrate that we are leveraging the taxpayers investment well,” Mendoza said.
The city’s commitment speaks volumes about San Antonio and its priorities, Baray said. “San Antonio is leading with quality.”