Julián Castro Unveils Education Plan With Focus on Universal Pre-K

Julián Castro, whose campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has so far struggled to gain much momentum, unveiled a proposal Monday to create a national, federally funded prekindergarten program, eliminate tuition at public universities and community colleges and alter the student-debt repayment process, part of a sweeping policy plan that his campaign hopes could reshape public education.

Under the plan put forth by Mr. Castro, the former housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, borrowers would pay nothing until they earned at least 250 percent of the federal poverty level. The plan also includes investing $150 billion to update school facilities for pre-K through high school and imparting a federal tax credit that would increase teacher pay by up to $10,000 per year.

He is proposing paying for the plan, which his campaign estimates will cost upward of $1 trillion to implement, by repealing the Trump tax cuts and raising tax rates for corporations and high-income earners.

“Chronic underinvestment in our schools, teachers and students over many decades and at all levels has allowed our competitors to leave us behind, and made an already unequal system more inequitable,” Mr. Castro wrote in announcing the plan. “Our antiquated commitment to a K-12 system,” he said, “has left our students and nation at a disadvantage.”

The policy rollout is the second of Mr. Castro’s campaign, after his first proposal, on immigration, was released in April.

Though he is the only presidential candidate with cabinet experience, under President Barack Obama — and the only Latino candidate in the race — he has not yet managed to break through in national polls. His campaign is hoping this proposal, and one on housing policy he plans to introduce next month, will help him stand out.

With his education plan, Mr. Castro joins Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Senator Kamala Harris of California in calling for major changes to the education system. Among the many proposals Ms. Warren’s campaign has put forward is a plan to cancel most student loan debt. And in March, Ms. Harris introduced a plan to increase teacher pay.

The plans have pushed the political conversation around education beyond calling for tuition-free public college, which was considered an arch-progressive pillar of Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign but has now been embraced by other Democratic candidates. Mr. Castro’s plan would affect public school students at all stages of their education, from before kindergarten to after high school.

Ben Miller, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said it was clear the ambitions for higher education among Democrats were increasing, and noted the different approaches to student loans that have been put forward already.

“What’s interesting here,” he said about Mr. Castro’s plan, “is you see a proposal to improve upon and fix existing structures.”

But whether Mr. Castro’s plan and others are feasible, he said, largely depends on what a future president could get through Congress.

Mr. Castro’s universal prekindergarten proposal, which would apply to 3- and 4-year-olds, echoes one he introduced as mayor of San Antonio, known as “Pre-K for S.A.,” which greatly expanded high-quality pre-K programs in the city. That plan, among his signature initiatives, was financed by increasing the sales tax by an eighth of a cent, and has been considered successful.

Proponents of full-day prekindergarten programs say they not only benefit young children by establishing a lifelong education track but also help parents get back to work more quickly. A program in New York City that provides public pre-K for all 4-year-olds has been hailed as one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s clearest political victories.

Until now, Mr. Castro’s signature issue has been immigration. In April, just as President Trump was ramping up his attacks on the country’s immigration system, Mr. Castro was the first candidate to introduce an immigration plan. That plan included detailed proposals such as decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings, creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and establishing a “21st-Century Marshall Plan” to aid the Central American countries that are home to a high number of migrants who travel to the United States.

Maggie Astor contributed reporting.

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