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(An Eighth of) A Penny for Your Thoughts?

I find it funny that in the United States, tutoring and other forms of supplemental education are considered a luxury. The norm seems to be that students get instruction inside the classroom, go home to handle their out-of-class work by themselves (or possibly the occasional collaboration with buddies, with or without the teacher's consent), and are expected to have absorbed all that there is to know. Despite all of the evidence clearly demonstrating the impact of individualized review and attention, this activity is still deemed a perk instead of simply a piece of the learning experience.

The danger, of course, is that not only does this practice leave a whole lot of productivity on the table in the way of untapped potential in the future workforce, but also that this concept of tutoring as a luxury necessarily implies that it is an activity exclusively reserved for the wealthy and informed, further widening an already troubling gap in education level across the population.

It is often discussed that Asian nations like South Korea and China are way ahead of the United States in testing and academic metrics--thus, it's no surprise that these countries are far more adept at adding tutoring to the equation for nearly all of their students. According to a report released in July by the Asian Development Bank and the Comparative Education Research Center at the University of Hong Kong, 97% of all Singaporean students, nearly 90% of South Korean primary students and about 85% of Hong Kong senior secondary students receive tutoring. The average South Korean family spends roughly $1,000 per month on private education for their child. Even a poorer nation like Kazakhstan provides over half of its senior secondary students with outside tutoring.

What I see in America is a psychology that is simply different from the viewpoint of much of the rest of the developed (and developing) world, an assumption that the classroom is enough, when there is much evidence to the contrary. It is difficult to get a population of 300 million to collectively shift from this psychology given the investment generally has a very long tail on return. It is difficult to see the direct result of something like two hours of extra tutoring a week, or of beginning to educate a child a few months earlier in their lives, but the reality is the return on investment for these "supplemental" endeavors is grand and influential.

This is where the Government can step in.

Last week saw a remarkable transition in America's social mindset (and for a liberal Yankee like myself, as my southern college buddies would say, it was quite a week indeed!), but of all the new initiatives, nothing to me was quite as powerful as San Antonio's new sales tax, led by mayor Julian Castro.

The tax is called Pre-K 4 SA, and was passed with 54% of the vote. The program will prepare students for school, pointing to evidence of higher performance among elementary school students that did attend pre-K programs vs. those who didn't, as well as a lower instance of special education placement and grade retention. For just an eighth of a penny, San Antonio will generate $31 million a year to support the growth of its next generation. The city staff will ask the City Council to approve a pair of eight-year leases for facilities in Northwest and Southeast San Antonio to use as Pre-K centers that would open in August.

Early childhood education is a hot topic, and its importance and benefits are widely acknowledged, yet it rarely seems to be of serious concern to policy makers. I would argue there is nothing more influential to the future prospects of our economy.

With the rise of the tea party, the discussion around taxes has taken on such a negative tone, and those fighting in their favor have done a very poor job of laying out the rationale behind them. Taxes are, by definition, a group of residents getting together and pooling funds for programs that better everyone: roads, medical facilities, education--these are systems that have far-reaching implications and create synergies for the partnership known as "citizenship." A targeted tax raise with a built-in project is not the heavy hand of big brother; it's an entity taking charge and gathering payments from a collective group of citizens to make direct improvements for the future of the very society they want to live in. A healthy society is beneficial for all parties involved, from the blue-collar worker to the bank executive. After all, if corporations rise on the backs of their customers, would they not rise taller with a stronger society?

An eighth of a penny is really an incredibly small investment to transform a generation of San Antonians. Perhaps next time Mr. Castro could shoot for a quarter of a penny? Gosh, imagine if he went all out and asked for a whole penny!

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