Bipartisan Support for Better Early Childhood Education in Texas

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who made early childhood education a key part of his campaign, signed a bill last month to increase the quality of preschool throughout the state.

While some are lauding the bill as a step in the right direction, others argue that it doesn’t go far enough in making tougher standards compulsory across Texas — or in helping a larger number of families.

Authored by Rep. Dan Huberty, House Bill 4 (HB 4) originally planned to set aside $130 million over two years for schools that met certain standards: aligning the curriculum with state guidelines, requiring preschool teachers to be certified in early childhood education, and developing a parental engagement plan. The final budget approved by lawmakers allocated $118 million toward HB 4.

Under the existing program, Texas 4-year-olds qualify for preschool if English is not their first language, they come from low-income households, are in foster care, are homeless, or have active-duty military parents. Under HB 4, schools could receive up to an additional $1,500 per student through the optional grant program for 4-year-olds who already qualify for the current preschool program. (The state now gives schools $3,650 per student to implement a half-day preschool program.)

Slow Progress on Accountability

Andrea Brauer, an early education policy associate with Texans Care for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said she welcomes the fact that the bill encourages increased data collection and requires participating school districts to enact “quality standards.”

But Brauer explained that the bill won’t help the state get closer to reaching benchmarks recommended by the National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER), which requires states to adopt guidelines on class sizes, site visits, and more.

“Texas only meets two out of ten benchmarks, and after Gov. Abbott’s bill, it will still only meet two out of ten standards because this is an opt-in program,” she said.

Move Toward Widespread Preschool Access

Many involved see pre-K as a way to help children — some of whom may begin school behind the curve — catch up before kindergarten. Because full-day programs are thought to deliver greater educational outcomes, and because working parents often can't send their kids to a program that ends in the middle of the day, school districts have in the past tried to cobble together federal pre-K funds to offer kids a full-day program. Some school districts have even dipped into their own pockets to pay for the second half of the day.

Humble Independent School District Superintendent Guy Sconzo, whose district is represented by Huberty, said he was grateful that state leaders have prioritized early childhood education. While it’s a far cry from full-day, universal preschool — a reality in states like Oklahoma and cities like Seattle, Boston, and Denver — he called the bill a “very good thing” and “a step in the right direction.”

“It will be on [the Texas Education Agency] to further develop the rules and to further define what those standards will be [and] to determine whether a district is offering high-quality pre-K. So the really important work is yet ahead,” Sconzo added.

Need for More Staffing

Sconzo noted that the education agency — which saw a 32 percent reduction in staff when the Republican-controlled legislature slashed $5.4 billion from public education in 2011 — only has one person in charge of overseeing the state preschool program. Sconzo expressed concerns about placing more work on an “already overtaxed system” and said he wanted to work closely with agency officials to create rules for the pre-K grant program.

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe confirmed that there’s just one person “who is really dedicated to early childhood education." She said the agency will begin crafting rules to implement HB 4 and will accept public input during the process.

Funding Constraints

The preschool program served more than 200,000 children last year, Ratcliffe added. The agency doesn’t have an estimate of how many children the bill could reach.

If schools sought the additional funds for every student who qualifies for the state program, the grant amount could shrink from $1,500 to $600 a child, Sconzo said. Despite the dramatic decline, he would still "accept it with a genuine smile."

Northside Independent School District Superintendent Brian Woods, who runs the largest school district in San Antonio, was more critical of the bill.

“I’m probably going to line up with the group that [says] pre-K almost universally is believed to be a good investment and we didn’t do a lot of investing in it [this session],” Woods said.

He called the bill a "missed opportunity," and calls such projects educational "infrastructure" that he thinks are as important as key transportation and water projects. And he noted that state lawmakers left $6 billion on the table, money that could have been spent without exceeding a constitutional spending cap.

Monty Exter, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, agrees that the bill falls short. Along with other education cuts (which are now the basis of a school finance lawsuit awaiting a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court), lawmakers slashed $209 million from pre-K in 2011.

“From a funding standpoint, this only gets us back to about halfway where we were about four years ago,” he said.

Still, the additional funding will help school districts “minimally [move] the needle forward” in terms of increasing the quality of pre-K programs.

Growing Base of Bipartisan Support

But the silver lining could be growing support for preschool. Just a decade ago, state legislators were split along party lines on the issue. Today, a Republican governor has made it part of his signature education plan and it passed with bipartisan support.

Woods said the emphasis on pre-K this legislative session “may signal some willingness” to support early education in the future in a more comprehensive way.

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