After working their way down a long general election ballot, San Antonio voters can weigh in on City-funded prekindergarten, an early education initiative that has attracted national attention since it was proposed eight years ago.

San Antonians narrowly authorized the one-eighth-cent sales tax that funds Pre-K 4 SA in 2012. The 2020 ballot question asks voters to renew the tax for another eight years. Without voter approval, Pre-K 4 SA’s four early childhood centers, parent engagement program, competitive grants, and professional development opportunities would cease to exist at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

If the tax initiative doesn’t pass, “we imagine there will be a lot of families who are left without options, that are left without the opportunity to have full-day pre-K with extended care until 6 p.m.,” said Elaine Mendoza, the chair of Pre-K 4 SA’s board. “The other side is that San Antonio loses its unique posture in the state and in the country of demonstrating our commitment to workforce development by investing in early childhood development. So the community suffers.”

Pre-K 4 SA estimates it has impacted more than 450,000 4-year-olds, awarded $21 million in grants to early education partners, and provided more than 10,000 hours of free professional learning annually for early childhood educators.

City Council voted in February to add the question to the May 2020 ballot but had to change plans when the growing public health crisis created new challenges to voting. When Council discussed the election, Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) often was the lone dissenting voice, questioning the need for the program, its cost, and whether cities should be involved in education.

But members of Pre-K 4 SA’s campaign team say polling data indicate broad support throughout the community, citing nearly 70 percent of voters in favor of a tax renewal.

A September Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll showed 66 percent of registered voters would definitely, probably, or lean toward voting in favor of reauthorizing funding for Pre-K 4 SA. A quarter said they would definitely, probably, or lean toward voting no, and 9 percent of respondents said they were undecided.

“Eight years ago, the voters of San Antonio took a bit of a leap of faith based on national data around the return on early investments in early childhood, but now eight years later, we have a proven program with real children and families who have benefited from that program,” said Kate Rogers, an adviser to the Keep Pre-K 4 SA campaign.

Pre-K 4 SA opened its first two educational centers in 2013. The organization follows State eligibility guidelines, which grants students free prekindergarten if they are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the child of an active duty military service member, homeless, part of the foster care system, or an English language learner. Students not meeting these criteria can attend Pre-K 4 SA, but their families pay tuition on a sliding scale.

The question of the pandemic’s impact on the proposition remains, even with no tax increase. There are two other sales tax issues on the ballot that would not increase taxes and a $1.3 billion bond issue in San Antonio Independent School District. Amid a coronavirus-caused economic downturn, voters might be wary of another tax initiative.

Evaluations of Pre-K 4 SA’s success

Pre-K 4 SA proponents say the program has proven itself a good investment, pointing to several studies conducted on its efficacy.

Mendoza cited a 2019 evaluation of the program’s return on investment. In the study, Maryland-based research firm Westat, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University’s Teachers College found that Pre-K 4 SA’s cost-benefit was 1.56, meaning for every $100 invested, there is a return of $156.

“The return on investment is significant – of course the Brainpower Task Force [that devised Pre-K 4 SA] identified early learning as having a 7-to-10 multiple, or having a $7 in, $10 out,” Mendoza said. “We’re doing even better than that. That’s ROI, that’s demonstrable.”

Mendoza said the economic impact of early learning comes from the program’s improved academic outcomes. She referenced a 2019 study by the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Urban Education Institute.

The study reviewed the success of the first 400 students who attended Pre-K 4 SA. By 2019, those students had taken the third grade State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exams. The institute found that former Pre-K 4 SA students were more likely to perform better on the tests and attend class than those who did not attend public prekindergarten.

The study also showed former Pre-K 4 SA students were less likely to need special education services. The study suggested that the first cohort of students “fared slightly better” than children in other public prekindergarten programs.

Pre-K 4 SA and the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation, which invested $2 million in the institute, funded the study.

City’s role in early education questioned

For some, it is not about the outcomes of the program but whether the City should be involved in educating students in the first place. Council critic Perry asked this question of CEO Sarah Baray when she appeared before Council in January.

“It’s really the question whether this should continue to be a City-funded function or a State-funded function, just like our public schools,” Perry said. “That’s the overall question. Money has to come from somewhere. Should the City provide something that the State should be doing?”

In a recent interview, Baray said the City is the right entity to oversee Pre-K 4 SA’s efforts, citing its focus on developing the future of San Antonio.

“It’s changing the landscape of not only our education system but our workforce through high quality early learning,” Baray said. “In 2012, it was an innovative thought … but we’re now a proven model.”

In January, Perry noted that the State appropriated millions toward early childhood education through House Bill 3, passed in the 2019 legislative session. With that money in hand, many districts pledged to expand their programs to full-day offerings open to more students. At the time, Perry said he hoped lawmakers would sustain that investment into the future.

But as January 2021 and a new legislative session approach, education leaders across Texas fear that lawmakers might slash some of the investments from House Bill 3 to make a budget work amid tough economic limitations.

Baray believes the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn have created more need for the program.

“We think there’s going to be not only more eligible children, but we think the funding some of the districts relied on is in danger,” Baray said. “Districts are expecting huge budget cuts, the State is going to have huge budget cuts. … We’re going to have to take a look at and say, ‘How quickly can we ramp up to serve even more children based on what the context looks like post-pandemic?'”

Pre-K after the public health crisis

Should voters reauthorize the organization’s funding, Pre-K 4 SA will adjust its model to educate students in a world shaped by the pandemic, Baray said.

At the beginning of 2020, Baray told City Council she hoped her entity’s next phase would include a greater focus on serving students who aren’t eligible for free prekindergarten but whose families can’t afford private education options.

Baray estimated about 3,000 San Antonio families fall into this group. Her goal is to reserve 500 of the 2,000 seats in Pre-K 4 SA’s four education centers for this demographic and work with partner school systems to develop the additional 2,500 needed seats.

Pre-K 4 SA partners with Edgewood ISD to operate Gardendale Elementary for students in prekindergarten through second grade. These kinds of partnerships could allow the early childhood education organization to develop more seats for students ineligible under State rules, but if Pre-K 4 SA’s funding extension doesn’t pass, the partnership would dissolve.

With the pandemic’s economic downturn and widespread layoffs, Pre-K 4 SA’s CEO suspects the need for these spots may have increased. The entity’s current enrollment might not support that belief though – as of last week, only 1,500 of the 2,000 available seats were filled. However, Baray said this reflects a national trend that has parents keeping the youngest students at home throughout the pandemic. The need is even more present for a safe way to educate young students, she emphasized.

“With reauthorization, San Antonio could be the first city in Texas to have accessible pre-K for all families that either can afford it or that want it,” Baray said.

Disclosure: Kate Rogers is a member of the San Antonio Report’s board of directors.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.