An experiment with national consequences
STARTING pre-school poses tests for any four-year-old: sitting still, the risk of a yucky lunch, missing home. The stakes are still higher for 700 small Texans due to enter pre-kindergarten centres being opened by the city of San Antonio on August 26th. They are pioneers who will be watched all the way to the White House.
Not so long ago there was broad, bipartisan support for government provision of pre-school (called “pre-K”, since it precedes kindergarten): a year of classes and play designed to ensure that children are ready for the serious business of learning. Alas, pre-K has joined the long list of issues capable of provoking partisan rage. Critics include shrink-the-government types growling about expensive “babysitting”, joined by social conservatives arguing that young children are best off when cared for by married mothers, at home.
Cash-strapped states have cut pre-K funding in recent years. The education secretary, Arne Duncan, notes that when it comes to enrolling four-year-olds in early learning, America ranks 28th in the OECD club of rich nations. Barack Obama used this year’s state-of-the-union message to unveil a $75 billion plan to use tobacco taxes to provide pre-K to all children from low- and middle-income families. Republicans in Congress have shown little interest. Mr Obama’s government has begun channelling funds for early education directly to states. Some governors are keen. But the national debate rages on.
San Antonio’s scheme has been crafted by the city’s mayor, Julián Castro, to secure the broadest possible support. Mr Castro, a centrist Democrat tipped for big things, asked a panel of business bosses to pinpoint one moment in the education cycle to be funded from a new sales tax. They looked at high-school graduation and college enrolment but finally chose pre-K, aiming at children, notably from poor and immigrant families, who reach school unready to learn and never catch up.
One of the bosses, Josue Robles—a former major-general who runs USAA, a financial firm that is San Antonio’s largest private employer—calls this not welfare but an investment in workers. He already struggles to find locals with skills in maths, hard sciences and “analytical thinking”.
To answer critics saying that pre-K’s benefits are exaggerated or fade quickly, the scheme will chart pupils’ progress for years to come. Staff are being recruited on special contracts: they will be paid better than most teachers, but can be fired at will. In time, nearly 4,000 city kids a year will benefit. To attract working parents the centres will offer full-day classes, unlike existing, state-funded schemes, which typically open for half a day. In return, parents must read to pupils and support their studies.
To get popular consent, the sales-tax-for-pre-K plan was put to a citywide vote. It passed fairly easily, despite opposition in richer, whiter districts. Ideally pre-K would be universal, serving poor and middle class alike, says Mr Castro: to thrive, policy innovations must be inclusive.
They must also be seen to pay off. Those tiny San Antonians have work to do.