A few elected officials looking to redirect sales tax revenues here and there have suggested that San Antonio end its funding of the city’s Pre-K 4 SA program. So far, that’s the worst idea to surface in 2020.

In a metropolitan area with the nation’s highest percentage of residents living in poverty – 3 in 10 children age 18 or younger – and 275,000 adults who started but did not finish college, this is no time to disinvest in San Antonio’s nationally recognized early childhood education initiative, which provides free prekindergarten education to economically disadvantaged 4-year-olds.

It’s one of the things San Antonio is really doing right.

In fact, in a city where public education outcomes have been dismal for decades, Pre-K 4 SA is one of the brightest stars in a constellation of reform initiatives showing real promise.

I challenge the elected officials doubting Pre-K 4 SA’s merits to dive deeply into early childhood education research. A little self-education will turn them into advocates. The data is overwhelming in support of such investments, which is why cities across the country are adopting their own programs to give 4-year-old children a head start on brain development, learning, and socializing.

The most common misperception I am hearing these days is that the Texas Legislature finally funded quality, full-day pre-K in 2019, so the city’s program is redundant. That is simply not true. I turned to the Rivard Report‘s Education Reporter Emily Donaldson to help me sort the facts from the chaff.

Under House Bill 3, lawmakers did allocate funds to help districts offering half-day Pre-K to move to full-day programs. Notably, eligibility requirements didn’t change, so the same students who were ineligible to get free pre-K remain ineligible. But school districts are working to expand their offerings and access to students.

The city’s biggest district, Northside Independent School District, is offering sliding-scale tuition for families. Southwest Independent School District announced it will provide free pre-K to all students, regardless of eligibility. Given the district’s demographics, it’s likely a small number were ineligible in the first place.

Judson Independent School District recently announced it would begin offering pre-K to 3 year-olds, free for some, tuition-based for others.

Districts are using the new funding to try to serve more of the city’s unserved population of 4-year-olds because many families earn too much income to qualify for free Pre-K but not enough income to afford to pay for it themselves.

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The state funding and the attention now being paid within the districts would not have happened without the establishment of Pre-K 4 SA in 2013, which has since served to educate adults, including elected officials, on the importance of early childhood education. Before then, efforts were mediocre at best in the districts. Legislators have acted only after years of efforts by early childhood education advocates here and in other Texas cities.

Pre-K 4 SA directly serves 2,000 students who attend one of the program’s four geographic centers. Not all of those students qualify for free pre-K, either. Some families pay a sliding scale of tuition.

Pre-K 4 SA also operates the Professional Learning Program, which trains other educators teaching pre-K to third grade. Each year more than 10,000 hours of free instruction is provided to 2,000 district teachers. The Competitive Grants Program, meanwhile, has provided $16.8 million in cash allocations to public school districts, charter schools, child development centers, and parochial schools. Pre-K 4 SA has served more than 200,000 students through its outreach programs since its inception. The notion that all of the one-eighth cent sales tax is spent on the 2,000 students at the four centers has always been wrong.

Pre-K 4 SA set a whole new standard for early childhood education in San Antonio, and that high standard is one that city voters should uphold if City Council, as expected, places renewal of the program on the May ballot.

There are 25,000 or more 4-year-olds in San Antonio, according to Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sara Baray. A quarter of them are not enrolled in quality, full-day Pre-K programs. Renewal of the one-eighth cent sales tax will allow Baray and other educators to continue working to close that gap until all 4-year-olds are enrolled, giving students the best possible chance of gaining a meaningful education and leading a purpose-driven life.


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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.