SAN ANTONIO—It’s hardly self-evident that you can transform a city’s workforce by teaching 4-year-olds how to count to 10. But that’s what a mayoral task force here concluded last year. And voters found its argument so convincing they opted in November to raise taxes by an eighth of a cent to pay for it. Just three months later, President Obama pitched the same idea—universal prekindergarten education—in his State of the Union address. Now this city is about to become a national proving ground.
Ask San Antonio’s leaders what’s holding the city’s economy back and you’ll get a one-word answer: education. The South Texas city weathered the recession well, but its population of 1.4 million has less education and a higher dropout rate than similarly sized cities. Civic leaders have worried openly about workforce development and the school system since 2009, when a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas pointed out that only 24 percent of San Antonians 25 and older had a college degree, compared with 27.1 percent in Phoenix and 38.8 percent in Austin. So when Mayor Julian Castro empaneled his task force and instructed it to find the best use for the fractional tax hike, it recommended all-day preschool. Plenty of families, Castro tells National Journal, “don’t make enough to write a check for good pre-K, but they don’t make so little that they can get it for free, either.”
Studies show that students who have better early-childhood learning experiences are more likely to graduate from high school, and that early interventions have the biggest impact on a child’s cognitive growth. Obama and Castro both point to a decades-long Chicago study begun in 1985, which found that every dollar invested in pre-K resulted in a roughly $7 return on investment. But the data aren’t airtight: The Chicago survey compares children enrolled in a high-quality program with those who would otherwise have had no preschool; newer studies make comparisons with a population much likelier to get at least some pre-K, and these show much less dramatic results. Investments for disadvantaged children go much further than for those already up to speed, and a high-quality program makes a much bigger difference than the average pre-K offering.
San Antonio is convinced that high-quality pre-K is worth the investment: Its plan, which launches this fall, emphasizes teacher training, parental involvement, and top-flight academics. The majority of its children are already enrolled in some kind of pre-K program—whether it’s half-day, full-day, or home-schooling—but, according to City Hall, 5,700 children eligible for state-funded pre-K aren’t enrolled in a full-day program. There is money to help improve their lifetime potential, and it’s not being used.
To capitalize, Castro put his panel’s recommendation up for a vote. The ballot initiative passed with 53 percent, thanks in part to a joint lobbying effort by municipal and business leaders. It lifts the city’s sales tax to the maximum allowed by the state, 8.25 percent, for eight years to serve 22,000 4-year-olds during that period. It targets both families who meet Texas pre-K eligibility criteria—including those living at or below 185 percent of the poverty level; those learning English as a second language; those in foster care; those without homes; and those with military parents—and middle-class families, who will pay income-based tuition. The aim is to reduce the achievement gap in language by 25 percent, math by 33 percent, and literacy by 90 percent compared with eligible children who don’t attend the centers. Full-day pre-K could also jump-start the city’s economy by allowing more parents to return to work.
Obama, who also cited the economic imperative, won’t have such an easy time with pre-K access. The president would expand full-day eligibility to all families at or below 200 percent of the poverty level, and the Education Department would push states to means-test it for middle-class families. Obama has yet to say how much his plan would cost, but in a political moment so focused on deficit-cutting, House Republicans are not likely to find the cash.
And even if they could, critics say the Chicago Longitudinal Study is no longer reliable. A range of studies shows a range of results. But doubters especially cite a Health and Human Services Department report last December in which Head Start, the major federal preschool program, does almost nothing to improve a low-income child’s educational trajectory. Head Start students displayed initial gains in language and literacy, but those all but vanished by the end of third grade. Things look worse now partly because most of today’s control group is enrolled in pre-K, too, unlike in 1985 Chicago, meaning the education quality in Head Start is no longer superior to what children elsewhere receive. (Head Start defenders note that the program’s funding dropped 13 percent from 2002 to 2008, during the period of study.)
It’s unlikely that expanded pre-K in San Antonio (let alone a national version) would return 700 percent of the investment, as the Chicago study found. Even reaping a $3 return for every dollar spent would be hard in a city where preschool enrollment is common. That’s why this city’s commitment to high-quality schools over more middle-of-the-road ones will shape the outcome. As for President Obama, he has yet to put his money where his mouth is.
This article appears in the March 23, 2013, edition of National Journal as Lab School.