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[First published in the San Antonio Express-News.]
With the reassignment of his chief of staff to the Pre-K 4 SA campaign, Mayor Julián Castro has obviously learned about the collapse of public support for his idea to create the 17th school district, run by city government.
Even I have been amazed, as I speak all around the city, to see that no one in the audience, other than the mayor’s campaign staff, supports his pre-K idea. These citizens have figured out that this plan is about politics, not children — or more aptly, politics at the expense of children. (See “21 Reasons Why the Pre-K Tax Plan Is a Bad Idea” at the Pre-K page at The Heartland Institute. And listen to a podcast on this issue here.)
The mayor’s pre-K plan spends $15,500 per child at four huge “model” centers, each housing several hundred 4-year-olds. Starting salaries for teachers will be $64,500, increasing to almost $80,000 after eight years.
Many of the kids who enroll (and the state and federal funds) will likely come from existing public school pre-K programs, which means the added value will be small or even negative. The city is basing this plan on 2,300 “unserved” children they have discovered in U.S. census data. They don’t know the names of these children or where they live, or whether they are enrolled in private programs or are homeschooled. For whatever reason, the parents of these children have chosen not to enroll their children in all-day pre-K. The city is assuming these same parents will now drive across town, or put their 4-year-old on a bus, to attend one of the city mega centers.
With 678 existing pre-K providers in town, there are lots of better options for parents.
The mayor’s scheme will cost more than $300 million over eight years, and it won’t deliver much for the money. The difference between half-day and full-day pre-K is lunch, recess, a nap, and one hour of instruction. Predicated upon a goal of “improving the workforce,” do we honestly think that in a single year of instruction this program will prevent a child from dropping out of school after 10 more years in the public school system?
This program establishes the city as the premier expert in pre-K, a title no one recognizes but the city. As such, it will re-educate existing pre-K teachers in the latest methods, since these teachers have somehow missed all the research about how to teach 4-year-olds.
Voters are being asked to approve not a pre-K plan but a new tax and the creation of a “municipal development corporation” that can reinvent itself according to the political whims of its unelected board. In addition to teaching pre-K, state law authorizes such corporations to give scholarships, make grants to colleges and universities or fund “any other undertaking that the corporation’s board determines will directly facilitate the development of a skilled workforce.” This is a politician’s dream slush fund.
It is unknown which school districts will participate in the program. If a district declines to participate, it gets to keep the state and federal money it is currently receiving for pre-K. Residents of that district will be paying the tax, but kids within its boundaries will be ineligible for the city program.
Let’s improve pre-K if it needs improving, but not create another government bureau to do what existing providers are perfectly capable of doing.