An initiative from San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro that would direct a portion of sales tax revenue to fund full-day pre-kindergarten unanimously passed the City Council, leaving it for voters to approve in November.
The pre-K funding initiative, which has the support of the education community and prominent business leaders in the city like Charles Butt of H-E-B and Joe Robles of USAA, is a major policy proposal for the San Antonio mayor, who was thrust into the national spotlight last week when he was chosen to keynote this year’s Democratic National Convention on Sept. 4.
The state currently covers half-day pre-K for children from low-income, English-language-learning, military and foster families. Many districts opt to offer a full-day program, which they did with the help of additional state grants before the Legislature in 2011 slashed more than $200 million allocated for that purpose.
Districts have tried various methods, including charging tuition, to keep full-day pre-K programs alive since the state funding was eliminated. But San Antonio's is the first such effort initiated at the city level.
A coalition of business and education leaders, led by Castro, presented a proposal in June that would raise the sales tax in San Antonio by one-eighth of a cent to fund full-day kindergarten for about 4,000 children per year who aren't currently served. The tax would raise an estimated $29 million annually, with an additional state match of at least $10 million. It is estimated to cost the average San Antonio household $7.81 per year.
Though all of the council's 11 members voted for it, the initiative that must also clear the ballot in November is not without opposition. On Monday, two local Republicans — Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff and state Rep. Lyle Larson — registered their disapproval of the plan in a letter to Castro. They argued that the initiative would grow government bureaucracy and duplicate services that school districts already provide.
Both former City Council members, Wolff and Larson said Castro should ask voters to amend the City Charter before he asks them to approve a sales tax increase. They argued that parents' failure to avail themselves of existing programs was a bigger problem than lack of opportunity, and that funding would be better directed towards areas like law enforcement, libraries or transportation.
Nine San Antonio legislators — all Democrats — announced their backing for the initiative today in a press release. “Research definitively shows that investing in high quality Pre-K for four-year-olds is proven to improve educational outcomes,” they said in their letter. Noting that San Antonio has the 48th-lowest educational attainment rate of the top 50 cities in the country, they argued that the city’s kindergarteners can’t afford to keep falling behind.
Speaking with The Texas Tribune in June, Castro acknowledged that even if the initiative passed the City Council, it could be a tough sell to voters in November.
“Nobody likes a tax — there’s no way to sugarcoat it,” he said.
But he added that the slight annual increase per household was a small price to pay for “for a profound difference in the lives of thousands of 4-year-olds.”