San Antonio has received national accolades for collecting a special tax to fund a quality pre-school program called Pre-K 4 SA. But Pre-K 4 SA doesn’t accept all children, and many middle income families in Bexar County can’t afford other pre-kindergarten programs. That concerns some educators.
Jessica Ambris is a master teacher at Pre-K 4 SA. Today she and her class are in the school’s garden clustered around a guinea pig’s cage. The children lean into her and look curiously at the animal.
Students at Pre-K 4 SA learn lessons not always taught in daycare--literature, math, science, technology, and social and emotional development. Experts consider this high-quality pre-k because it’s a rich curriculum, a full-day program with certified teachers and fewer than 20 students in a classroom.
"When kids get a great start at school they’re much more likely to be successful at every level," says Sarah Baray, CEO of Pre-K 4 SA. "So there’s research that supports early childhood education at every stage of education, whether it’s third grade reading, whether it’s middle school accessing mathematics, and then high school graduation as well as college-going."
But more than half of 3- and 4-year-olds in Bexar County were not enrolled in pre-k programs in 2015. That’s according to researchers with the group P16 Plus of Greater Bexar County. One of the reasons is the availability of affordable programs.
To qualify for free education through Pre-k 4 SA or Pre-k programs available in some school districts, a 4-year-old must either be the child of a military parent, be unable to speak English, or be eligible for free and reduced lunch.
Bridget Green is a single mother of three children with a master’s degree in curriculum education. She could earn no more than $45,000 for her children to qualify for public pre-k. Green earned more than that in her job as an educator, but she says she couldn’t afford private pre-k.
So to qualify her four-year old son Trent for Pre-k 4 SA, Green did something that might seem drastic.
She quit her job and moved in with her parents. Now her only income is the $600 she receives each month in child support.
Green says she misses being able to work.
"This the first time I’ve ever done this—it’s always been me and my kids on my own. But I had no choice. It’s either go to work and not give my child this opportunity as he has at Pre-k 4 SA or stay home for this year and let him have this opportunity," she says.
Green says when she was able to send her older son, Trevor, who’s now 7, to a private pre-k, he was completely prepared when he entered kindergarten and first grade.
"Because I was able to do that now he’s top of his class, GT. He’s first grade, third-grade level reader. He’s excelling in all subjects. He loves school. Very good communicator," she says.
Kristen Hewitt didn’t have the same options as Green. She’s a business analyst for the city who makes too much to qualify her son Joshua for PreK4SA, but not enough to afford a private school. So she sent Joshua to daycare which cost less. Hewitt says her son wasn’t ready for kindergarten this year.
"I’m seeing some things now that he’s in kindergarten that he kind of would have learned in a more school-like setting than he did in daycare, just some social skills, success skills for being successful in a school. I think there was a big adjustment for him," Hewitt says.
Albert Wat, senior policy director at the Alliance for Early Success, says his organization works to get funding to improve policies affecting children.
"Middle income families, when they don’t qualify for state-funded or federal-funded programs, they could pay out of pocket and put their kids in some kind of private pre-school, however they are expensive," Wat says. "The cost of a pre-school program can be close to public college education."
Wat says the solution lies in providing more public pre-k programs or alternative funding. The state funds half-day pre-k right now, but experts say half-day programs don’t have the same benefits as full-day programs. And the programs are still unavailable to middle income parents.
"One strategy that states have used to expand access is to integrate preschool funding into their k-12 education funding formula," Wat says. "So in other words the way they would fund a pre-k child or slot would be the same way they would fund a fifth grader."
That isn’t something done in Texas. Wat says another option is for pre-k programs to ask parents to pay on a sliding scale based on their income.
Pre-K 4 SA accepts about 20 percent who enroll based on a sliding scale. Four hundred middle-income kids is all they have room for.