Twain Dual Language Students walk off stage after saying the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance in multiple languages before the SAISD 2018 State of the District.
Mark Twain Dual Language Academy students walk off stage after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in multiple languages before the SAISD 2018 State of the District address. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The single biggest step the people and leaders of San Antonio can take to make the coming years more equitable and prosperous for everyone is to expand early childhood education and social services in the city and county.

Bringing a newfound focus to the critically important development of children from birth to age 5, when brains develop most rapidly, or fail to develop, comes with a price tag. That so-called “cost” is actually human capital investment. The real “cost” is what taxpayers pay to be the state with the highest prison population in the country, that consistently ranks in the bottom fifth of spending on public schools, and that suffers some of the poorest education outcomes.

As San Antonio celebrates its Tricentennial, I find myself most interested in the focus on the kind of city we want to become rather than the city we are. It’s hardly news that San Antonio’s historic formation along racially and economically segregated lines has left this 300-year-old city with epic 21st-century challenges.

Many of us who love living here, who are educated, and who can afford to take advantage of San Antonio’s many amenities and attractions realize there are hundreds of thousands of others in the city whose lives are night-and-day different than our own. That is why we are eager – no, impatient – to see the pace of change accelerate.

City and county leaders brought the San Antonio River back to life with little outside help, and that two-decade-long undertaking has redefined the city. Now we should invest in the city’s most vulnerable children so that it no longer matters where you live along or near that river. Opportunity should be found along its entire length.

Do we want to be a city and county known for its smart-jobs economy, great lifestyle, unique history and culture, and unlimited opportunity? The only path forward is to give inner-city, predominantly minority children equal access to a good public education and the family social services needed to address poverty and its many manifestations.

Continue on our current path of underfunding public education and educating our children according to the zip code of their birth and we will remain a city with one in five of families living below the federal poverty threshold, a city with its own perpetually overcrowded jail.

Bexar County’s population will soon surpass 2 million people, yet less than half of the 4-year-olds here and throughout Texas are enrolled in all-day preschool programs, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. The State limits its funding to half-day programs, even though research demonstrates the inadequacy of such an approach.

San Antonio is nationally recognized for its City-managed Pre-K 4 SA program, started under then-Mayor Julián Castro, but the program only enrolls 2,000 students at its four centers, although more are reached through its outreach programs with area public school districts.

Pre-K 4 SA students hop on board the school bus as the driver extends his hand. Photo by Scott Ball.
A driver lends a helping hand as Pre-K 4 SA students board the school bus. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“We need to create universal full-day care for 25,000 children in our county,” said Sarah Baray, the Pre-K 4 SA’s chief executive officer, when I asked her last week what it would take to give every 4-year-old in Bexar County, regardless of family income, access to all-day preschool.

Too many of those 25,000 children are in working-class families and cannot afford quality preschool, yet they are not poor enough to qualify for free Pre-K 4 SA or Head Start, available in the San Antonio and Edgewood Independent School Districts.

All of this will come into focus when the Rivard Report and more than 40 local education nonprofits stage the city’s third annual Education Forum Tuesday, March 6, at the Witte Museum’s Mays Family Center. (Click here for tickets or more information.)

The program will bring together an array of early childhood education experts. Steve Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey, will deliver the keynote speech.

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Kate Rogers, executive vice president of the recently established Holdsworth Center, and Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, executive director of P16 Plus Council of Greater Bexar County, will speak on their work before the panel discussion.

I will moderate a panel discussion with Baray; Cynthia Osborne, the director of the Child and Family Research Partnership and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin; Alejandra Barraza, the principal at SAISD’s Carroll Early Childhood Education Center located on the city’s Eastside; and Kelsey Clark, a principle at the Boston Consulting Group and expert on early childhood education.

Charles Butt, the longtime Chairman and CEO of H-E-B and the largest individual philanthropist to public education in Texas, will receive the Education Champion Award at the event.

Last week, SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez delivered his annual State of the District address at the Pearl Stable before a full house of community leaders, educators, and engaged citizens. Inner-city children have a one in 10 chance of graduating from college, while nearly eight of 10 young people in the city’s more prosperous neighborhoods graduate from college.

San Antonio is at a crossroads as we celebrate our long history, good and bad. The opportunity we create now for children in this city will determine the future trajectory of the city.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez waits to be introduced at the SAISD 2018 State of the District at the Pearl Stable.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez waits to be introduced at the SAISD 2018 State of the District at the Pearl Stable. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.