San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro has proposed increasing the city’s sales tax to 8.25 percent to expand government-sponsored pre-kindergarten.
The proposal is estimated to spend $140 million over its first five years to offer taxpayer-paid, full-day programs to 4,000 children each year who, according to state and federal guidelines, are eligible based on low family income, home language, foster care, or being in a military family. These children currently either attend a taxpayer-paid, half-day program or don’t attend preschool. The program would fund two model pre-K centers and expand existing state- and federally funded pre-k from half- to full-day programs.
Castro’s proposal is “a well-intentioned, but top-down, one-size fits all preschool program,” said Vicki Alger, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. She said nearly all government preschool advocates promise wildly overblown benefits to children and the economy, but these promises have nearly never materialized.
The city sales tax is currently 8.125 percent. The proposed hike would likely cost the median San Antonio household approximately $7.81 a year, according to Castro. Voters will decide whether to approve the tax hike on the November 6 ballot.
Poor Track Record
In May, Castro formed the “Brainpower Initiative Task Force,” a committee of business and education leaders, to determine whether increased spending could help San Antonio’s education system.
Students who enter kindergarten already knowing basics such as vocabulary and counting perform better in their academic careers, task force member Gillian Williams wrote in the committee’s report.
However, Oklahoma and Georgia have attempted similar pre-K programs without success, said Lisa Snell, director of Education Studies at the Reason Foundation.
“Both [states] have had a lot of investment in early childhood education, but their reading scores for 4th graders have not improved in the [National Assessment for Educational Progress] long-term,” Snell said.
Positive Outcomes Fade
Positive outcomes tend to fade as students advance. It is usually impossible to tell the difference between students who attended preschool and those who didn’t, Snell said.
“In many cases, it’s just an empty promise that they’re going to raise student achievement based on preschool,” she said.
Castro could make no promises about a likely or estimated outcome of the program when pressed by District Nine Councilwoman Elisa Chan during a council meeting when the plan was presented June 20.
“If the mayor really wants San Antonians to control their own destinies, then he will let parents choose where their children go to school,” Alger said.
Universal pre-k forces nongovernment providers to conform to compete for funding, which detracts from their diversity, success, and overall benefits to students, Alger said.
“Schools can feel tremendous pressure to offer the full day instead of a half day in order to get more funding,” Alger said.
Snell said there’s much evidence negative behavioral outcomes occur when small children spend that many hours in school.
“Keep Uncle Sam Away from Toddlers,” Carrie Lukas, Independent Women’s Forum, June 2009: http://news.heartland.org/policy-documents/keep-uncle-sam-away-toddlers.
Image by Armine Grigoryan / World Bank.