San Antonio, Texas has recently put itself on the population health map with a program led by its new mayor, Julian Castro. During the 2012 elections, San Antonio voters approved a referendum for a 1/8th cent sales tax increase to fund an expansion of Pre-K education to address a gap in citywide enrollment.
Faced with a city performing well below the national mean, with achievement gaps for many education metrics, Mayor Castro assembled a taskforce to address the challenge, which resulted in the creation of Pre-K 4 San Antonio. The program will establish four model centers to provide preschool education for the estimated one quarter of the city’s four year olds not participating in full day pre-k programming. These centers specifically target those most likely to not be receiving pre-K education, such as those living in poverty, those who are homeless, and English language learners. The program also involves parents, who will be required to take part in parenting classes. Within three years, the program aims to add 3,700 pre-K slots in San Antonio in the four centers and through contracts with schools.
Educational attainment has an established link to health outcomes and is a strong predictor of employment, income, and health knowledge. With a growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating the long-term impact of early childhood education, policymakers like Mayor Castro have started pushing for investments in this area. Pre K 4 San Antonio sets ambiguous goals, including reducing kindergarten achievement gaps in language, math, and literacy by 25, 33, and 90% respectively and closing third grade gaps in standardized test scores.
The funding for this effort is noteworthy. As with our previous piece on Florida taxation districts, this 1/8th cent tax represents a viable, long-term funding mechanism that amounts to an estimated increase of just $8/family per year. San Antonio is expecting this tax to generate $31 million annually, which will cover over 80% of the projected costs. To strengthen and sustain our social programs -- whether in health or education -- we must continue to innovate on funding as we move away from grants and toward more constant and reliable financing. Taxes are just one possible approach: Pre-K 4 San Antonio illustrates the population-level impact that even a small levy can drive.
Erik Bakken, BA is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin's La Follette School of Public Affairs.