Four-year-old children do not vote, and none were present Wednesday in City Council chambers to hear their futures debated, sometimes contentiously, by elected officials so clearly divided by class, ethnicity, and the disparate educational opportunities that come with where you happen to live.
None of the city’s 20,000, four-year-old preschoolers were there, but you could feel their presence as one of Mayor Julián Castro’s most ambitious undertakings reached the debate floor.
A blue ribbon Brainpower Task Force headed by USAA CEO and (ret.) Major General Joe Robles (task force co-chair and H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt was not present) made the case for an unprecedented new level of investment in the city’s at-risk children before they enter kindergarten. Robles was joined at the podium by the task force’s education consultant, Gillian Williams, the president of School Turnaround and co-author of the early childhood learning book, “Teaching Young Children.”
The task force, which includes a broad array of business and education leaders, is proposing a five-year, $146.5 million investment in two new early childhood learning centers and programs. That proposal would give 4,000 of the most at-risk children access to all-day learning and development opportunities they do not now enjoy.
Assistant City Manager Peter Zanoni outlined the numbers, noting the median household will pay less than $8 in annual sales taxes to fund the program, in part because 15-20% of the city’s sales tax revenues are collected from visitors, tourists and conventioneers. San Antonio has an uncommitted 1/8 cent of revenue before it reaches the state-mandated maximum 8.25% sales tax, a level already reached by every other major Texas city. City staff project the 1/8 cent tax will yield about $30 million a year.
Castro opened Wednesday’s meeting in the crowded chambers by saying, “Changing the trajectory of education achievement is, perhaps, the most important factor” in lifting children out of poverty. Julián and his twin brother, Joaquín, a state representative now running unopposed for a seat in the U.S. Congress, were the beneficiaries of strong support from their mother, Rosie Castro, a single parent and well-known civil rights advocate. The Castro twins emerged from this city’s Westside barrio to earn undergraduate degrees from Stanford and law degrees from Harvard.
Robles offered his own story: “I’ve been a passionate advocate for the value of a good education ever since I was a young man because a good education changed my life.”
Robles, who once told me he had been an indifferent student, came from a Midwest family of blue-collar workers. He seemed destined for the same life, but his enrollment in a military program for minorities that propelled him into officer’s training school and higher education opportunities led to highly successful leadership careers in the military and business.
Such compelling narratives are abundant on the current Council and give Castro a solid majority that was evident on Wednesday.
“We have to do something to right the wrong” done by state lawmakers, said District One Councilman Diego Bernal, referring to the $5.6 billion in cuts to education spending that were made in the last legislative session. “And it was a wrong. There is an element of social justice here.”
Bernal also was raised by a single mother and went on to earn undergraduate, graduate and law degrees at the University of Michigan.
District Four Councilman Rey Saldańa, a South San High School graduate, also attended Stanford, where he earned two undergraduate degrees and a master’s degree in the School of Education. He was the first to speak in support of the task force’s recommendation: “We are going to pay for these kids one way or the other,” he said, noting that some officeholders oppose an annual $6,500 education investment now, but support the cost of incarcerating failed students turned felons in state prisons at a cost to taxpayers of $30,000 a year.
Given Castro’s own strong mandate from voters and widespread support from community and business leaders, he seems all but certain to win approval of the Brainpower Initiative when it goes before voters on the Nov. 6 ballot. But the mayor probably will not win unanimous Council support for the program. Most of the four-year-old children who will benefit from the program will be found in seven of the city’s 10 council districts.
Council members in the three Northside districts, 8, 9 and 10, showed a distinct lack of support for the task force’s recommendations.
District 10 Councilman Carlton Soules led the opposition Wednesday with a now-familiar display of mind-numbing cross-examination that spared no insignificant minutia. At one point, Robles sprang from his seat to help Gillian Williams respond to a question, saying he felt like he “was sitting on a tack.”
There was an almost surreal quality to District Nine Councilwoman Elisa Chan’s persistent demands of Robles and Gillian Williams that they provide a likely outcome to the program. It’s almost impossible to predict such outcomes, they responded, but Chan insisted on at least an estimate, which was not forthcoming. At one point, Chan’s line of questioning prompted a chorus of simultaneous replies from Castro, Robles, and task force member Ana “Cha” Guzman, the outgoing president of Palo Alto College.
The accountability demanded by Chan is understandable, but her own experience and that of her husband, both successful small business owners, also is instructive. Both were born and raised in China and then pursued advanced educational opportunities in the United States thanks to government programs.
“From K-3 you learn to read, and from 4-12 you read to learn,” Guzman told Chan. “If you don’t learn to read by K-3, you’ll never read to learn.”
District 8 Councilman Reed Williams, who is leaving office after he completes his current term, remained unconvinced: “It could probably pass in this room. I doubt it could pass in our city.”
That assessment may prove wrong, even in District 8. USAA is in Williams’ district, where Northside ISD Superintendent John Folks, who recently retired, is a strong advocate of the proposal and a task force member. The city’s other highly recognized former superintendent, Richard Middleton, of the Northeast ISD, also served on the task force.
Castro’s initiative isn’t without its critics among his many supporters. Proponents of other successful, underfunded school programs are displeased they were excluded from the program because they do not serve pre-K children. Many question what will happen to the four-year-olds when they enter the first grade and lose the intensive pre-K support.
Other critics question vaguely defined plans to recruit an executive director for the Brainpower Initiative and how such an entity will be constructed. Two new early learning centers, one on the Northside and the other on the Southside, will be staffed by teachers who could be city employees operating outside the control of school boards. Reformists might welcome such an experiment, but others will question whether educators should be on the city’s payroll. The location of the two centers, still undetermined, also will generate disagreement.
An acting executive director will be appointed before the Nov. 6 election, and while no candidates have been publicly identified, Castro would be smart to consider his own on-staff education expert, Jeanne Russell. The former Express-News education reporter and editor also worked as a public school teacher. She has a master’s degree in education from the University of California-Davis along with a master’s in journalism and Latin American studies from New York University. She served as the mayor’s point person leading the task force as it studied best practices across the country and debated the best use of the 1/8 cent sales tax. I have a firsthand appreciation of her professional skills and passion for education reform, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a national search for a permanent director concluded with her appointment.
What wasn’t addressed by opponents Wednesday’s meeting was this: the status quo in San Antonio is unacceptable, and no credible alternative proposals have been put on the table. There is abundant data that shows current early childhood education investment is inadequate. There are growing demands across the city for improved schools that graduate more “college ready” students and reverse unacceptably high dropout rates.
Castro ran for office promising to address the city’s most pressing education challenges. His mandate from voters gives him the opportunity and authority — some would say moral imperative — to act. By all signs, the children who will turn four years old over the next five years will be the beneficiaries of Castro’s initiative. It won’t be difficult to measure outcomes a decade out, but for now, there are no guarantees, only opportunities.
For an earlier story on The Rivard Report looking at The Brainpower Initiative, click here.
*Top image: Pre-k class at the Blessed Sacrament Academy’s Child Development Center. Photo courtesy of Blessed Sacrament Academy.