While city government has no formal role in the K-12 school system, its ground-level connection to citizens makes it a crucial factor in educational opportunities and outcomes. On Monday night Mayor Ivy Taylor and Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), who is running to unseat Taylor in the May 6 Municipal Election, took the stage at the KIPP San Antonio Cevallos Campus for a town hall debate focused exclusively on the topic of education.

The Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard moderated the discussion, taking questions from the audience. Students from KIPP and the University of Texas at San Antonio addressed the candidates, as did parents and educational leaders from the public and private sector. The questions reflected elevated expectations of local leaders, as many citizens despair over state and federal support for public education.

Throughout the evening, candidates referred to the work begun by past and current San Antonio City Councils as the foundation for a collaborative future. Because the City does not directly allocate funds or direct policy in public schools, which are regulated by the state government, the candidates spoke primarily on other issues that influence education including safety, security, poverty, and equity.

“Clearly [City officials] have an extraordinary role to play in a thriving public school system,” Nirenberg said. 

Taylor referenced her background in urban planning, which gave her a deep understanding of the interconnected systems. While she began her career believing that affordable housing was the silver bullet to end poverty, she eventually realized that “education really is the great equalizer.”

With the debate hosted by KIPP San Antonio, the topic of charter schools was inevitable. KIPP students greeted attendees upon arrival and assisted in the production of the event. Alyssa Cadena, who scored in the top 2.5% nationally on the PSAT, kept time and her identical triplet Brianna Cadena ran the live stream on Facebook.

Throughout the evening, both candidates spoke as parents who had decided where to live based on the schools in the area. Both said they wanted to live near early childhood education centers certified by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

In the audience was former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, who, as mayor of San Antonio, led the efforts to pass the tax-funded and nationally lauded Pre-K 4 SA. While the program has seen great success in the 1,700 students in its centers and has awarded more than $4 million in grants to other early childhood education programs annually, it still faces skepticism.

16th United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro.
Former San Antonio Mayor and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Laura Vaccaro, executive director of leadership, education, and development for Valero, one of the debate sponsors, asked about the metrics that would determine Pre-K 4 SA’s success. Rivard followed by asking if the City would accept responsibility for any outcomes that fell short of what it had aimed to achieve.

Both candidates agreed that outcomes are critical for a quality-based initiative. In 2017-18, the first group of Pre-K 4 SA graduates will complete third grade, a critical year to see if the program produces lasting gains. Nirenberg expressed confidence in the program and the City’s ability to adjust course in the remaining years of the program before it goes before voters again in 2020.

Taylor was more cautious. She asked rhetorically if one amazing year could offset the numerous challenges kids in high-poverty situations face. “There’s no way I can sit here and confidently tell you that the answer is ‘yes,’” she said.

Dina Serrano, a kindergarten teacher in North East ISD agreed that Pre-K 4 SA was an asset for families who get to take advantage of it, but asked the candidates how they would expand access to high-quality early childhood education.

For Taylor, the issue boiled down to quality options in every sector of the city and state funding for full-day programs. Without full-day services, even public programs are not an option for families, she said.

“Our goal needs to be that every child in San Antonio needs to be enrolled in some form of pre-K or early childhood education,” Nirenberg agreed. He added that support for after-school activities was necessary as well. 

M’Lissa Chumbley, a trustee with Northside ISD, broached the issue of charter schools.

Taylor’s experience living in District 2 has given her personal exposure to charter and private schools and the role they play in creating opportunities in the inner city. They played a role in her own decision to move to the Eastside.

When Taylor and her husband considered moving into the area, the neighborhood schools did not offer the kind of education they wanted for their daughter.

“Yes I could have moved to Stone Oak, because I could afford to do that, but I wanted to make a difference on the Eastside of San Antonio and the presence of IDEA schools there allowed me to do that,” Taylor said.

She also acknowledged the strides being made by San Antonio ISD to become a high-performing inner city district.

Nirenberg’s stance on charters was pragmatic. “Charters are here to stay,” he said.

As part of an array of quality options for San Antonio, he wants to see charters function as complements to, not replacements for, traditional public schools. While those schools are not being adequately funded by the state, Nirenberg and Taylor both spoke about the need for public-private partnerships to ensure that districts have the resources they need.

“I believe very strongly in the power of collaboration,” Taylor said. 

Nirenberg would like to see local district superintendents, many of whom were in attendance, involved in city planning. Decisions that impact infrastructure, jobs, and quality of life ultimately impact the learning environment of students, and city government should take that into account, he said.

Municipal governments can also allocate funds to nonprofits that support districts, such as Communities in Schools.

“We could be more strategic in deploying those dollars,” Taylor said. 

When KIPP University Prep senior Kristy Flores posed a question about high-paying jobs as incentives for students like her to return to San Antonio after college, both candidates found themselves on their home turf.

Taylor and Nirenberg pledged to work with the business community and nonprofit sector to create a diverse landscape of career opportunities. SA Works, an internship and workforce development initiative, was one of the programs both candidates cited as a direct link between City government and education.

Both candidates also lauded the philanthropy of Harvey Najim, and the Najim Family Foundation. Najim, who was in the audience at the forum, has given money to expand the operations of IDEA Public Schools, which named a campus in his honor. The Alamo Colleges Harvey Najim Pathways Scholarship, funded by a $1 million personal gift from Najim targets local students who might otherwise face difficulties furthering their  education.

Helping students get into and succeed in college, particularly first-generation college students, is another area in which City-sponsored initiatives can make a difference.

Molly Cox, CEO of SA2020, brought up the digital divide, which is linked with the city’s lagging 45% college enrollment rate. ConnectHome is one of the initiatives bringing not just internet access, but internet devices to San Antonio homes. Taylor spoke of strengthening that program through community ambassadors.

SA2020 President Molly Cox asks candidates on the topic of tech equity in and throughout San Antonio.
SA2020 President Molly Cox asks candidates about tech equity in and throughout San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Nirenberg suggested enlisting “dark fiber” channels being developed by CPS Energy. Taylor noted that she had prioritized connectivity through her Mayor’s Digital Inclusion Initiative.

Early-college high schools have another role to play in helping students prepare for college, and cutting the costs once they get there. Through the Promise Neighborhood Grant, Taylor witnessed the opening of an early-college high school at St. Philip’s College on the Eastside. Before that pathway opened, neighbors of the college rarely were able to take advantage of that higher education opportunity even though they were “literally in the backyard.”

“I almost get emotional thinking about those kids who are going to high school on a college campus and their families are being exposed to college pathways,” Taylor said. 

Rivard offered the candidates extra time to speak on the subject of immigration, which was raised by Dalia Rodriguez, a parent leader from COPS/Metro Alliance. She asked if the candidates had considered City-issued ID cards for immigrant students and their families. Many teachers around the city have noted that students are worried about and distracted by insecurity over their immigration status.

Neither candidate addressed the issue of the ID cards directly, but both pledged to prioritize the security of all who live in San Antonio. Recent changes at the state and federal level have City officials concerned, Taylor said. While she does not want to see San Antonio police responsible for immigration enforcement, she recognized that cities will have to make difficult decisions in the future. Rivard pointed out that some of those decisions may be spurred by laws that threaten federal funding for failure to comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests.

“It’s difficult to know how we should move forward at the local level,” Taylor said. “I do feel strongly that we need to work closely with our elected officials in Congress to ensure laws are not passed that jeopardize our population.” 

Nirenberg also spoke against the use of local law enforcement for federal immigration enforcement. It would discourage people from reporting crimes and make them afraid to go to work, he said. It is not the role of the City to “modernize” immigration policy, he added. “It is our job to protect all residents who are here.”

This story was originally published on March 27. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.