Blog: The Educated Reporter

Early Ed Keynote: San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro

Earlier this month EWA hosted a seminar in New Orleans on early childhood education. We’ll be sharing video and podcasts from the event in the coming weeks. We also asked some of the journalists who attended  to contribute posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Joy Resmovits of the Huffington Post. You can also find out more about early childhood education on EWA’s Topics page.

What does it take to build a new pre-school program from the ground up in a major American city?

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (D) provided his recipe for initial pre-school success in a keynote speech that pushed outward: Castro’s words on marketing pre-K could be useful advice for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who is trying to do something similar; and his remarks about his state’s alleged failure to value early childhood education blamed Texas Gov. Rick Perry ®.

But Castro started his tale from the beginning. In September 2010 he convened a task force known as “SA 2020,” with the goal of outlining a vision for San Antonio’s next decade. After 5,000 stakeholders participated, Castro said, a singular goal emerged: to “engineer the greatest turnaround that any big city had done within a decade in terms of student achievement.”

So Castro and his task force set out to narrow the policy tools at their disposal that could make that happen. Specifically, they were working with the one-eighth of one cent in sales tax left over before the city reached the statewide sales tax cap. The city considered targeting three areas: early childhood education, the “no man’s land” of middle school, and high school graduation. Castro’s so-called “brain power task force” ultimately came to the conclusion that the greatest return on investment in education comes when a child is still young, when his or her brain is most malleable.

“The best way to make sure that a child gets ahead is to see to it that they never get behind in the first place,” Castro said.

Then came the hard work. Castro and his staff visited early childhood education programs in cities such as Seattle and Houston, and came up with a plan. They would use the sales tax gains — expected to bring in $41 million a year — to serve about 22,400 four-year-olds in two ways. They would build four “centers of excellence” to serve 2,000 children, and, more broadly, provide competitive matching grants to public and charter schools that wanted to expand their pre-K offerings.

Castro, seeking to maximize his new investment, decided the plan would also expand professional development for all teachers to ensure that students maintained the gains made in preschool. He would ask parents to sign an agreement that they were responsible for being a part of their students’ pre-school education. He wanted all the new preschool programs to remain open until 6 p.m., and to only use teachers certified in early childhood education.

Perhaps the hardest part, though, was community buy-in for a tax increase. “We had the task of convincing the community to do something it had never done before: that is, to use part of its sales tax to invest in people, as opposed to investing in things,” he said. “We currently believe that brain power is the new currency of success … that those communities that create it will be the communities that thrive and those that don’t will fall behind.”

The initiative ultimately passed in November 2012 with 53.5 percent of the vote. “It became, I hope, part of a model that other cities can use in the future,” he said.
Here’s how Castro says he made his case.

  • A Lumina Foundation study found that San Antonio, the country’s seventh largest city, came in at 84th on a ranking of 100 metro areas listed in order of the percentage of degree-holding adults. That study helped him drive home “the evolving necessity of having a smart well-prepared community to take on the jobs of the 21st-century,” he said.
  • Castro also found a simple way to explain the cost of paying for “Pre-K 4 SA,” as his program became known. “We said it would cost the median household seven dollars and 81 cents a year,” Castro said. “Often times when you talk about a tax, people have a vision of having to take hundreds of dollars or thousands of dollars from their wallets and pay that.” He wanted to show that because of economies of scale, “we can actually achieve these things with much less investment than most people expect.”
  • Castro touted a marketing technique that could prove helpful to both de Blasio and the Obama administration: universalizing pre-school. Most existing state pre-school programs, he said, serve particular populations — such as low-income children, students with disabilities and homeless children — but not others. That type of cutoff makes it harder to sell a plan to the general public. “Even among constituencies that would normally be supportive of an effort like this we would hear, well, why am I going to pay for somebody else’s child to have the opportunity, and statutorily, my child doesn’t even have a chance of participating?” So Castro said that at least 10 percent of Pre-K 4 SA slots would be available on a “subsidized very affordable sliding scale tuition basis” to families above the income cutoff. “It gave more folks a stake in the game,” he said.

The Obama administration, Castro said, “ought to look at working more closely with districts” as they do in Race to the Top’s district level competitions. And then, in a not-quite-veiled critique of Perry, he said, “some of us are locked in states that don’t fully understand the value of investing in early childhood education.”

When asked to elaborate on that statement, Castro called Perry out explicitly, saying that Texas cut education funding, and that the governor vetoed an early childhood education expansion bill. “His veto statement didn’t seem to make sense to me,” he said. 

Castro worries that even if the Obama pre-school plan were to become a reality, having the federal government work with states and not districts could limit its reach because “in certain circles, working with the administration is completely unacceptable,” he said. “There’s an immaturity and a reactionism that isn’t … in the best interest of children across the United States.”


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