How San Antonio Is Navigating the Tricky Politics of Pre-K

In its quest to address early-childhood education, this Texas city is struggling to get everyone to play along.

Playing and learning in a Pre-K 4 SA classroom (Juleyka Lantigu-Williams / The Atlantic)

SAN ANTONIO—In daring to rethink its children’s preschool experience, this Texas city has forged a fragile codependence with its natural adversaries—independently run school districts.

In what may seem like a mutual Faustian pact, the city-funded Pre-K for San Antonio initiative convinced seven of the city’s 15 independent school districts—which operate separately from local government entities since they are funded by the state and their own fundraising efforts—to partner in an ambitious tax-funded plan to provide high-quality pre-k to thousands of its youngest citizens. Seemingly aware that pre-k can be very political, the first thing they did was set some ground rules in writing, like who’s responsible for recruiting students and tracking attendance (Pre-K 4 SA); who certifies them as qualified and reports to the state (the districts); and how state pre-k funds are distributed (of $3,200 per student, districts keep 10 percent and hand over the rest to the program). They also set up regular meetings for superintendents and program administrators to share updates and discuss necessary adjustments.

A handful of districts were eager. “We’re huge advocates of early-childhood education for children, closing those achievement gaps. Anything that we can do in the city of San Antonio, whether it’s full-day or half-day [pre-k], will begin to close those achievement gaps that begin at age two,” said Colleen Bohrmann, the executive director of curriculum compliance at North East ISD, who oversees the district’s partnership with Pre-K 4 SA. In three years, North East ISD has sent 480 toddlers to the city-run alternative. Other districts were not as enthusiastic, judging by the number of people—teachers, administrators, elected officials, those working with affiliated non-profits—who were unwilling to speak critically about the program on the record.

The mixed response is not surprising given the politicized atmosphere around the program’s creation, lead by former mayor and current United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro. “I believe wholeheartedly that [politics] was a very major reason that it was done … In this state we have what I feel is an underperforming education system. So, as a politician, it would be a great badge of honor if I, as an elected or currently appointed person, can say, ‘I solved education problems.’ So yeah, a lot of politics in that, and I get it,” said Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, who was a vocal opponent of the proposal from the start. He went as far as participating in several debates with Castro as voters considered the merits of the proposal. He is among a dissenting chorus of people watching and waiting to see how the program carries out its mission.

What is already clear is that this level of institutional collaboration is a work in progress. A 32-page agreement drawn up by city and district lawyers captures as many rules as could possibly be defined and anticipated before unleashing 2,000 toddlers into four learning centers. Turns out, that exhaustive document did not account for human nature. “Have there been bumps on the road? Of course there are. Whenever you start something that large there are bound to be bumps,” Bohrmann said. On the district side there was a lot of apprehension. In some instances, districts were doing fine on their own, meeting and surpassing state standards for children in their half-day programs. In other cases, they saw the city as overstepping its role by getting into education, and shunned the opportunity to take part. Somewhere in the middle were seven districts who took a chance and partnered with Pre-K 4 SA to offer an alternative full-day option to qualified students in their area. “We’re a pretty active partner. We call, write, and we will go over there if we have anything to talk about. And they’ve appreciated this about us,” Bohrmann said.

One of the early pressure points surfaced as Pre-K 4 SA lured some of the best teachers out of districts with an instant minimum starting salary of $70,000 (considerably more than the $50,000 North East pays, for example). Granted, teachers would work longer days and for some part of the summer, and have additional programmatic responsibilities. But such starting base salary could make even the most dedicated district teacher think twice. “We’ve been able to attract the creme de la creme of public education; they’re master teachers,” Sheryl Sculley, who oversees the entire operation as city manager of San Antonio, said. “We pay more than they pay in the public-school system but teachers do not have collective-bargaining options; but they get credit through Texas Education Agency [the state governing body] for their years of teaching.” North East ISD was among those that lost some teachers. “You couldn’t blame anybody for hopping onboard. Eight years is a long time; you could become invested. Financially, it was a good deal for people,” Bohrmann said.

Pre-K 4 SA may have softened the initial tension by offering free professional development for teachers within and outside participating districts. This key component enabled some districts to quickly see potential benefits for all their teachers. According to the independent annual-evaluation report for the 2014–2015 academic year, nearly 400 people registered for about three-dozen training academies offered on Saturdays and during the summer, with about half of them returning for more professional development that same year. On average, participants attended two events, but some attended as many as 12.

Three years in, Pe-K 4 SA is ready to start quantifying some of the success it has had. For that, it will need data from districts for children who have gone through the program. Sculley describes the districts as “reluctant to share the information,” including student test records and other assessment tools. But there seems to be good news in the air. The Pre-K 4 SA independent assessment for the 2014–15 academic year shows that new children who enrolled in the two centers that opened in the program’s second year “began the fall significantly below the first-year center children on five of the six GOLD outcomes (cognitive, language, literacy, physical, and social-emotional).” By spring, those same children, on average, “scored statistically significantly greater” on all six outcomes, leading evaluators to surmise: “These findings suggest greater growth was found for children attending centers in their second year of implementation as compared to centers in their first year of implementation.”

Pre-K for SA will also likely want records for students in the districts who did not attend its centers, and that’s where the issue lies; the expectation is presumably that students who benefitted from the full-day program and its complementary enrichment activities would fair better in state measurements. “I don’t know if it would be better. But it will be a smooth transition because we have similar expectations for pre-k. Maybe socio-emotional behavior might be stronger because they have been in full-day program,” Bohrmann said. Sculley is convinced that transparency with the public-school system and access to data to evaluate student performance will be a key to knowing if the city’s experiment is really working. After welcoming back some 200 students to North East ISD kindergarten classes, Bohrmann is confident that the children transition well and perform as well as those who did not attend Pre-K 4 SA. Sculley still has some reservations.

“We believe that they’re worried about us demonstrating that our students are better performing than their own. That’s not the point. The point is to demonstrate that preparation starting at a pre-k experience is best suited to ensuring future success,” Sculley said. The next bump on the road will likely be bridging the instructional gap, if any, with participating districts so the 2,000 children who return to enter kindergarten each year have as smooth a transition as possible, in part by aligning curriculum.

Bohrmann, who attends regular meetings with Pre-K 4 SA program leaders and representatives from other participating districts, said “the relationship is stronger.” “In the last two years, we have felt that there have been no problems at all.”