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San Antonio Considers Tax for Pre-K Initiative

An eighth-of-a-cent sales tax increase is being proposed in San Antonio to fund full-day pre-kindergarten for primarily low-income children in the city.

Teacher Silvia Corado works with students in her pre-kindergarten class as they learn syllables and word identification, part of the Summer Bilingual Academy at Wilson Elementary School in San Antonio.

Since Texas lawmakers cut over $200 million in grants that supported full-day public prekindergarten in 2011, school districts have worked to fill in where the state left off.

They have started to charge tuition or to eliminate other programs in favor of keeping the full-day programs alive. Now, in what appears to be an unprecedented move in the state, a Texas city is looking to take direct action to support such pre-K programs.

Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio is asking voters for a sales tax increase of one-eighth of a cent to fund full-day pre-K, primarily for low-income 4-year-olds in the city.

“The need for this type of investment has been there for a long period of time, but the severe cuts in 2011 made it even more urgent,” he said.

The proposal has the support of local business and education leaders, including Joe Robles, the president and chief executive of USAA; Charles Butt, the chairman and chief executive of H-E-B; John Folks, the superintendent of the Northside Independent School District, and Ana Guzmán, the president of Palo Alto College.

The sales tax would raise an estimated $29 million annually and draw an additional state match of at least $10 million. The state currently offers financing for half-day pre-K for children who cannot speak English or are from homeless, low-income, foster or military families. Many schools choose to expand the standard half-day program to a full-day program, which they previously did with the help of state grants.

Proponents say full-day programs increase the benefits of early childhood learning. Studies like a 2006 report from Texas A&M University suggest that high quality pre-K lowers juvenile crime rates and make students less likely to drop out or to need remedial course work.

Within two years, San Antonio’s initiative would serve about 4,500 of the city’s 4-year-olds who are eligible for state-funded pre-K but do not attend a full-day program. It would also fund training for teachers at two early childhood education centers.

Castro acknowledged the challenge in persuading voters to approve a new tax.

“Nobody likes a tax — there’s no way to sugarcoat it,” he said. But he added that it would amount only to an estimated $7.81 a year for the average household, which he said was a small price to pay “for a profound difference in the lives of thousands of 4-year-olds.”

Before the proposal goes to voters, though, it must clear the City Council. It has already attracted scrutiny by some members in terms of how the city would finance the construction of the training centers and exactly which children it is intended to serve.

“I don’t think anybody is saying it’s not a good idea,” said Reed Williams, a councilman who represents the city’s North Side. “But the program that is being laid out, we just have to understand how it’s going to be done.”

Criticism of the proposal should not be viewed as a “knee-jerk reaction against taxes,” Mr. Williams said, adding that San Antonio voters have approved taxes when they have understood what they were receiving in return.

Castro said some questions were to be expected as the details of a policy recommendation are hammered out.

The council votes in August on whether to place the tax on the November ballot.

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