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Education

If Renewed, Pre-K 4 SA Plans To Expand Access To Middle Income Families

Pre-K 4 SA teacher Jaclyn Castillo reads to her class on March 2, 2018.
File Photo | Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
Pre-K 4 SA teacher Jaclyn Castillo reads to her class on March 2, 2018.

The early childhood education landscape has changed significantly since San Antonio voters approved a dedicated sales tax to support a city-run preschool in 2012.

If voters renew the dedicated sales tax in May, city officials say they will use the $36-$38 million it generates each year to make sure all San Antonio families have access to affordable pre-k.

Texas Public Radio’s Camille Phillips sat down with Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray to ask how the money will be spent if it’s renewed for another eight years. Here’s their conversation, edited for length and clarity.

CP: “If you've been watching education news in Texas, you know there's this additional funding that lawmakers passed last year for early childhood education. Given that context, is there still a need for Pre-K 4 SA?”

SB: “While the investment from the early learning allotment is great, and it helps, it doesn't cover all the costs. First of all, it doesn't cover all the costs of high quality pre-k… But most importantly, it doesn't increase the number of children who are eligible for pre-k under the state guidelines. So in San Antonio, that means about 40% of our 4-year-olds are not eligible to benefit from this increase in funding. And this is where Pre-K 4 SA comes in, because we help to fill in that gap for those that are not eligible.”

 “A few years ago, we commissioned a demographic study to understand the number of 4-year-olds in San Antonio and what their characteristics were. And what we discovered from that was that we have about 3,000 families who are in this — what we call ‘the gap.’…. “If you make $45,000 a year, you don't qualify for free pre-k under the state criteria. And yet we estimate it would take at least $65,000 a year for a family of four to be able to afford high quality pre-k in the private sector, because that can be anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000 a year.”

CP: “Basically up to now Pre-K 4 SA has primarily served families that qualify for state pre-k, correct? How will that change going forward? Do you have plans for that to change going forward?”

SB: “We've always served primarily children who were eligible for state pre-k, and then we've served a small percentage of the children who fell in the gap through a sliding-scale tuition program. What we'll do with reauthorization (is) we’ll continue to serve some of those who are eligible, but we'll be able to increase the number that we can serve who fall into this gap.”

CP: “Can you help me square that? Because there's 2,000 seats in the four centers. And there are 3,000 kids that you say fall in the gap? How do you serve those 3,000 if you still only have 2,000 seats?  Does that mean no kids who qualify for state funded pre-k will go to Pre-K 4 SA going forward?

SB: “No. We anticipate that we'll have about 1,500 of our seats will be reserved for children who are eligible and 500 for the children that fall in the gap. And then what we'll do is work with our partners. Because as districts are able to serve more of the eligible children, we can build these mutually beneficial partnerships where we say, ‘If we serve 500 of your eligible children here at a Pre-K 4 SA center, then can you make 500 seats available for the children that fall in the gap?’”

CP: “Is this a process that is going to take a while? Do you envision this happening over several years?”

SB: “Yeah. We anticipate a ramp up period… It’ll take a few years to figure out what all these partnerships look like. And of course, they have to be agreed upon by different districts and different partners.”

CP:  “Part of the way you use the local sales taxes is to provide grants to school districts and some to some private centers as well, right, to train and to just provide scholarships…. You had some measurements where you had doubled the seats if you counted the grants before. So there were 4,000 Pre-K 4 SA funded seats. Is that right?”

SB: “That is correct. That's correct. And we were actually able to increase that to almost 5,000 in the last grant cycle.”

CP: “If it's 5,000 now, then if you are serving all of the children that meet the qualifications for being unable to afford it on their own, that would be what, 8,000 or so seats?

SB: “Well, the difference is that these will be free seats. So we'll have the 5,000. Some of the seats that we have now are not necessarily free seats; they've been on a sliding scale. And what we're looking to (do) is to be able to serve all of the children who are eligible in San Antonio, plus these 3,000 that are in the gap and serve them by offering them free pre-k rather than on a sliding-scale tuition.”

CP: “Oh, okay, I didn't get that before. That's a big change if it's completely free for those 3,000 or so families. So then would you theoretically have more grants than you have currently that you give out?”

SB: “Well, sometimes it’s grants, direct dollars, but sometimes it's other ways of providing support, again, through professional learning or through infrastructure, technical support. So it remains to be seen. It might be.”

CP: “Got it. So families can't expect a change overnight, but that's your goal over the next few years?”

SB: “Absolutely. Yes.”

CP: You talk a lot about high-quality pre-k. Is your definition of high quality the same as the National Institute for Early Education Research from Rutgers? 

SB: “Correct. And it's really important that people understand there is, you know, there is a way to measure the quality… It's very clear criteria that have been tied to research and that show that if you do these things, then you can have long-lasting impact. It's really, when we see some of the studies on early learning, there has been what they call a fade-out effect where you don't see the results after a few years. And most of that is attributable to two things: One is that the impact is actually very long lasting, and that you see the most powerful results actually when people are in their teens and early adult years. But also, variations in quality. When you don't have quality early-learning programs you don't get the long-term results.”

CP: “And quality is defined as having highly-educated teachers, having a smaller 10:1 class ratio, full day pre-k? Any others that I missed?

SB: “Yeah. And evidence-based curriculum, and really most importantly, and the one that is often hardest to implement is continuous improvement, where teachers are getting feedback on their instruction all the time.”

CP: “Pre-K 4 SA spends more per child than what the state allots, right? Without that extra funding could you do the high-quality standards that you set for yourself?

SB: “The majority of the extra funding that we spend in our centers is around salaries. One of the biggest issues in early learning and care is the wages. The wages are notoriously low. Pre-K 4 SA was designed to actually pay a living wage to both the teacher as well as the assistant teacher, and to pay them for the time that they spend in professional learning.”

CP: “Got it. Well, thank you so much for your time.”

SB: “I appreciate it. Thanks for the opportunity to share with you.”

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille.