What San Antonio Has to Teach Washington

The city is trying a small-scale version of Obama’s pre-K plan. If politicians want to send more 4-year-olds to school, they should pay attention.

In this photo made Thursday, March 10, 2011 Dolly Miller, local director of the New Horizon Academy is shown in St. Paul, Minn., alongside a cardboard castle, right. The highly rated inner-city pre-school would never have opened without the scholarships granted to families by the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Sophie Quinton
March 21, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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.