The San Antonio City Council voted unanimously on Thursday evening to place the Pre-K 4 SA sales tax initiative on the November ballot.
The 11-0 vote took place at 7 p.m. after five hours of testimony from citizens, local leaders and teachers -- both in favor and against the proposed education initiative.
Former Mayor Lila Cockrell was the first to step up to the podium, flanked by former Mayors Henry Cisneros and Ed Garza.
In reference to those who believe expanding early childhood education should be done by school districts, not city government, Cockrell said many felt the same about promoting economic development when she first became mayor in the early 1960s.
“We’ve come to a different time,” Cockrell said. “We cannot be complacent at all about the state of education in our city.”
Cockrell referred to the report issued by the Texas Education Agency that said 13 of the city’s 16 school districts failed to meet federal standards.
Other speakers also pointed to the city’s persistent struggle with illiteracy and drop-out rates.
“Our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren are what we live for today,” said Virginia Carrillo, with COPS/Metro Alliance.
Carrillo said early childhood education has long been an issue for the organization and it laid the groundwork over the years for today’s city council vote.
Mayor Julian Castro said the Pre-K 4 SA proposal would be largely funded by increasing the city’s sales tax by 1/8-cent over the next eight years, raising an estimated $31 million annually.
Castro said it would amount to $7.81 a year for the median household. City staff said the proposed increase would raise the sales tax of 8.125 percent to 8.25 percent, the maximum allowed under state law and the current rate in most major Texas cities.
However, Bob Martin, president of the Homeowner-Taxpayer Association, said it may not sound like much to most people, but it will be hardship for others.
“Unlike income taxes that go up with your income, sales taxes fall mostly on the poor and senior citizens on a fixed income,” Martin said.
The mayor said the public will be asked to decide on whether to provide full day Pre-K classes to an estimated 5,700 eligible four year olds.
City staff said the students would have to meet at least one of the state’s criteria -- if they’re eligible for a free or reduced lunch, have limited English skills, are homeless or have been in foster care, as well children of active duty military or of those who have been wounded or killed in the service.
Larry Anthis, 2012 chair of the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said his members are still vetting the proposal, however he is “hopeful for its success.”
Yet Anthis said many question the level of accountability.
He said they are asking, “Where is this going long term? How do we measure success?”
City staff earlier had told city council the children’s standardized test scores when they reach third grade will be a significant milestone. They said the focus of the program will be developing word and number skills at an earlier age.
“If this changes the tide culturally in our city, we’re not going to be against that,” Anthis said. “We want to be supportive of whatever works.”