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Building a brainpower city: A Q&A with San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro

The plan is to increase achievement at every stage of education, with at least 50 percent of the city’s adults attaining a two- or four-year degree by 2020.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro: "Cities don’t have to wait for the state government or the federal government to control their educational destiny."
Courtesy of AchieveMpls

A year ago, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro achieved the seemingly impossible. He persuaded voters in his city — Texans, it must be stressed — to tax themselves to pay for early-childhood education.

That’s right: Texans, who pay no income tax, spend 27 percent less than the national average on education and have the lowest high-school graduation rates in the country to show for it, are willing to pay for preschool — for other people’s kids.

Credit Castro, at 38 in his third term as the youngest mayor of a major American city. Three years ago, with the backing of his community’s business and civic leaders, he launched a campaign to make San Antonio a “Brainpower City” capable of competing in the new economy. The plan is to increase achievement at every stage with at least 50 percent of the city’s adults attaining a two- or four-year degree by 2020.

It’s ambitious — and it’s also not unlike some of the programs operated by Minneapolis Public Schools’ nonprofit partner, AchieveMpls. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Castro will deliver the keynote address at AchieveMpls’ annual Education Partners luncheon. A marquee event in Twin Cities education circles, the fundraiser will be held Tuesday, Nov. 12, from 11:30-1:00 p.m. at The Depot, 225 S. 3rd Ave., Minneapolis. Individual tickets are $100.

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(Here we must pause for an Atypical Kramer Disclaimer: MinnPost CEO and Editor Joel Kramer will emcee the event. Kramer is a former AchieveMpls board chair. He was not involved in assigning or editing this piece.)

Castro talked to MinnPost earlier this week about his initiative and “Pre-K for SA,” as San Antonio’s unprecedented early-ed program is called.  An edited transcript of that conversation follows:

MinnPost: You’re going to be talking about Brainpower Cities. Can you give us a little preview?

Julian Castro: I am absolutely convinced that brainpower is the new currency of success in the 21st century global economy that a community can have to help ensure prosperity and competitiveness.

Here in San Antonio three years ago we launched a process called SA2020. More than 5,000 San Antonians took part in a visioning process that asked, “What kind of city do we want to see on Friday, September 25, 2020?” which was 10 years after we launched it. And folks set goals in 11 different issue areas.

The No. 1 issue area was education. And so the goal we set out was to engineer the biggest turnaround that any major city has done on educational achievement in a decade. The overall vision that I set from that has been to build a brainpower community that is the liveliest city in the United States.

We’ve taken on several measures to try to build up the brainpower and the credentials of our community. The one that has gotten the most attention has been Pre-K for SA, which was on the ballot a year ago. It’s a 1/8-cent sales tax increase for the purpose of expanding high-quality, full-day pre-K to 22,400 4-year-olds over the next eight years. We did that with a coalition of the business community and educators because the research is very compelling that the highest return you can get on your education dollars is from investing early, while someone’s mind is developing and before they ever get behind in the first place.

We also started something called Café College, which is a one-stop center in downtown San Antonio where public-school students, private-school students, home-schooled students can get free one-on-one advice on financial aid, admissions and SAT and ACT preparation courses. We did that because we found that our ratio of students to counselors in our high schools was 420 students to one counselor.

We’ve also worked on increasing the number of mentors, especially for middle-school students in our city. And along with the Chamber of Commerce and other nonprofits and our school districts we’ve led a drive to increase the number of folks who fill out their free application for federal student aid, the FAFSA form. Because we found that that FAFSA form is actually a gateway instrument. People who fill out the FAFSA are 350 percent more likely to actually enroll in college than somebody who doesn’t fill it out.

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MP: How did you persuade voters to tax themselves for pre-K?

JC: First, we started with articulating a strong vision for what we are trying to accomplish: higher educational achievement. Secondly, we had a broad-based coalition that included the business community. I set up a brainpower task force beforehand and the two co-chairs were the CEO of the big insurance giant USAA, which is headquartered here, and the CEO of AGB Grocery Co., which is actually the largest private-sector employer in the state of Texas, with about 75,000 employees, which is headquartered in San Antonio. They teamed up with other business leaders and educators and they recommended that if we were going to take that 1/8 of a cent the best way to invest it would be in early childhood education.

The third thing was to put it in real terms to people how much it would cost. A lot of times when people hear the word “tax,” you can imagine — especially in Texas — they recoil and they think you are going to try to get $1,000 from their pocket. So one of the first things I said was, ‘Are you willing to pay $7.81 a year so that we can make this investment?’ That was the calculation for the median household of a 1/8 of a cent sales tax increase.

Fourth would be the research that was very compelling about the value of early childhood education investments.

MP: In our mayoral contest here this year there was a lot of back and forth between the candidates about the role of the mayor in education. Our outgoing mayor has been categorical that as the city’s most visible elected official he had a vital role to play in pressing for educational change. Is there anything in your experience that would speak to that? Could this have happened had you not stepped in?

JC: I won’t say that it could never have happened. But there is very clear value in having a mayor who is active on education driving a collaborative agenda, using the bully pulpit, keeping the issue front and center on people’s radar screens and reminding them of the importance of it.

In San Antonio there are 15 independent school districts that operate within the city’s bounds. With that kind of fractured educational ecosystem there’s a diffusion of responsibility for academic achievement citywide, community-wide. That’s where a mayor can step in, bring people together and be that single figure pushing for educational improvement.

MP: You are touring with some other mayors and talking about best practices in your respective cities. What are some of the things you are talking about on the campaign?

JC: We haven’t gotten to San Antonio yet, but I’m going to be sharing a couple of things. First, the experience I had in making possible Pre-K for SA, which was twofold. First, by asking the community what was important to the community about launching SA2020 so that it’s a bottom-up and not a top-down identification of education as important.

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And secondly, pursuing a collaborative model of pushing for educational improvement. A lot of press has centered around the divisiveness that has been created between reformers and traditionalists in the education spectrum. Our experience was that people from across the spectrum came together, whether they were business leaders or education leaders, people who were pro-labor, people who were pro-charter, people worked together to pass Pre-K for SA.

With the gridlock and the dysfunction that we see in Washington it’s clear that cities are more relevant than ever. Cities don’t have to wait for the state government or the federal government to control their educational destiny. San Antonio is one of many examples of cities that have taken it upon themselves to improve educational achievement without waiting for Washington or the state government to do something about it. Each community just has to find the right approach and the right projects, and that’s what we’re trying to do in San Antonio.