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A few years ago, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro – the Democratic Party’s first Hispanic keynote convention speaker – decided his city needed to expand its preschool opportunities for young children. To pay for it, Castro built a coalition of public-private partnerships and bipartisan support and convinced voters in 2012 to approve a new tax that would fund expanded preschool opportunities throughout the city. Known as “Pre-K 4 San Antonio,” the program launched in the fall and is expected to expand in the coming years.  Castro was the keynote speaker at EWA’s recent seminar for journalists on early childhood education, held at Tulane University in New Orleans. I had the opportunity to sit down with him for a Q&A. (You can also watch the replay of his keynote here.)

In his State of the Union address, President Obama said that instead of waiting for Congress to take action on funding preschool, he would build a coalition of public-private partners to help states and communities add more seats. Is there some freedom that comes with having more local control over the programs you create?

Julián Castro education
San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro talks to Carolina Astrain of the Victoria Advocate at EWA’s Feb. 2014 conference on early childhood education. (Photo: EWA)

It’s always good to be able to craft a policy initiative at the local level without too many things attached. However, the benefit to state or federal funding is the expansion – the ability to reach more families — even if sometimes there are a few hoops you have to jump through. I’m proud that in SA we’ve crafted a unique initiative. And I’m confident that in any state or federal analysis, we would be able to jump through the hoops that those levels of govt. would want because it’s a well-crafted initiative.

Your wife is a math specialist, working with students in grades 3-5. What is she observing when it comes to student readiness for learning?

What I’ve heard from Erica over the years is that there’s unevenness among the children. Some come to school well prepared, others are already behind at a very young age. A lot of them are moving around a lot in these urban districts. She and I agree we need to do something about the unevenness in their preparation.

The argument’s been made that preschool is available – provided a family is very poor or affluent. What has San Antonio done to help families that fall into the middle group?

In Texas, free half-day pre-kindergarten is limited to families who make less than 185 percent of the poverty level, which works out for a family of four to about $43,000. What we did was to say that at least 10 percent of our slots would go to families that make more than that on a very affordable sliding scale tuition basis.  They end up paying a lot less than they would for a private or parochial preschool. That actually ended up being closer to 20 percent of our student population in this first year. We’re trying to open it up to families that are middle class and not just low-income – and even above middle class, if they want their children to participate.

Are you hoping to build a culture where families see public schools as their first choice, rather than a last alternative simply because they can’t afford the private or parochial alternatives?

That would be a great auxiliary benefit and something I know that in San Antonio the school districts are encouraged by: the idea that families that might not have necessarily considered public schools will do so because Pre-K for SA is a public endeavor. If Pre-K can have the effect of strengthening our public schools, by both ensuring a stronger pipeline of students and also more families choosing public schools, that would be great.

What advice do you have for other cities that might want to try something like this?

The first part is to get the buy-in from the education and business communities. The business community has to work with the education community to craft a good model and to articulate the rationale to the voters as to why this is a good investment. For San Antonio, the challenge was to let our residents know the future we could have if we had a much more well-educated population and the future we could have if we don’t. Having the business community to help do that was indispensible.

Do you think San Antonio is now a model for the nation when it comes to preschool initiatives?

In some ways, I’d say yes. In some ways it’s different because we have 15 independent school districts, there’s not mayoral control. It’s clearly different from the New York situation. But there are elements of what San Antonio has done that are very much a model for the rest of the nation: how we structured the actual classroom learning, how we did the campaign to get Pre-K for SA enacted, and the coalition of support that we’ve built across the city for early childhood education.

We know there are long-term studies demonstrating a benefit to early childhood education. What are you hearing from your constituents about the short-term returns on this investment the city is making in their children’s lives?

We’ve had some very positive feedback in emails and Facebook messages from parents. I’ve heard from families who are impressed by the development of their child during this 4-year-old year. They see their children maturing before their eyes in a way they didn’t think would be happening if the kids had stayed home instead of going to school.

This story appears courtesy Education Writers Association. Reproduction is not permitted.

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