Pre-K organizers from Texas at Santa Fe meeting say getting businesses’ support is key

From left, Richard Perez, president and CEO of the San Antonio, Texas, Chamber of Commerce, and Sarah Baray, CEO of San Antonio’s 6-year-old prekindergarten initiative — funded with a citywide sales tax — speak about the program to a crowd of business and community leaders and pre-K advocates who had gathered Wednesday in Santa FE. Photo courtesy Daniel Quat Photography LLC

As advocates of early childhood education in New Mexico continue to laud its potential to change lives — and debate how to fund it — leaders of a city-driven prekindergarten program in San Antonio, Texas, told a crowd in Santa Fe on Wednesday that proponents must first convince businesses to buy in.

Richard Perez, president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce — which for years has supported using a one-eighth percent sales tax to fund the 6-year-old Pre-K 4 San Antonio initiative — said educators and business leaders worked together to persuade residents that “it wasn’t about the tax. It was about investing in ourselves.”

Perez and Sarah Baray, the preschool program’s CEO, spoke about the initiative during a United Way of Santa Fe County fundraising breakfast at the Hotel Santa Fe. More than 100 business and community leaders attended the event, held in support of United Way’s new early childhood center at the former Kaune Elementary School building.

The facility is set to open in the fall.

Wednesday’s event comes about a year after Santa Fe voters widely rejected a city effort to launch a similar pre-K program through a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Officials estimated the tax would have raised $7 million a year and funded seats at local preschools for about 1,000 3- and 4-year-olds.

Perez said San Antonio leaders got behind the sales tax proposal fairly quickly in 2012, and voters approved the funding plan by 54 percent to 46 percent.

The city was able to leverage additional funding from federal and state governments.

After building four new facilities, Pre-K 4 SA began serving 2,000 4-year-olds a year at its own sites, as well as another 2,000 to 3,000 spots in existing private and public preschool programs, on a budget that now hovers around $48 million. Tuition is free for those with the greatest financial need and offered on a sliding scale for other families.

Pre-K for SA includes a garden-to-table component, in which kids learn how to grow vegetables and fruit, offers extended hours for working families and has low student-to-teacher ratios, Baray said.

Assessments show students in the program “are well ahead when they go into kindergarten,” she added. “They come in significantly below the national norm and leave significantly above the national norm.”

Still, Perez said, about 6,000 4-year-olds in San Antonio remain without access to pre-K. Organizers hope to find a way to expand the program to these children before offering classes for 3-year-olds.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

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