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The State Capitol this time of year faces no shortage of experts on a wide range of issues. And that’s certainly true for the debates swirling around public education.
This legislative session, like many before it, includes a debate over the state’s investment in early childhood education and pre-kindergarten. The difference this time is that there seems to be major momentum in both chambers to make significant investment in full-day quality pre-K programs for eligible Texas students.
Currently, the state funds half-day pre-K for a small portion of our state’s eligible children, primarily low-income and English language learners. Many districts must rely on local tax dollars to offer full-day pre-K options. That’s a start, but the research and case studies show we’d be smart to expand the offerings and ensure the state invests in pre-K.
For several years now, the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium (TEGAC), a collaboration of close to 50 Texas foundations and philanthropists that supports effective Texas public education policies, has partnered with research groups to collect and analyze pre-K data from school districts to develop a comprehensive picture of the state of pre-K in Texas in the last decade. In fact, data on Texas pre-K programs wasn’t even collected by the state until the Legislature passed a law in 2015 as part of the HB 4 pre-K grant program that mandated schools to collect data around class size, curricula, student-adult ratios and assessments.
In 2014, Children at Risk, through a TEGAC grant, surveyed districts to determine what their pre-K programs looked like across the state. “The State of Pre-K: Realities and Opportunities in Texas” found that while school districts were making pre-K a priority, there were hurdles that were difficult to overcome without further financial support and legislative guidance from the state. The research found that higher quality pre-K, including small classes and full-day programs, produces higher returns on taxpayer money.
In 2015, with strong support from the governor, the Legislature passed HB 4, creating the High-Quality Pre-K Grant Program. Funding in the amount of $118 million for that grant program enrolled some 190,000 Texas children in pre-K, but two years later in 2017, the Legislature decided to cut the program. This “yo-yo” approach to funding is to the detriment of both the students and pre-K’s efficacy.
Most recently, in 2018 TEGAC-commissioned-research by Texans Care for Children looked at how districts fared as a result of the cuts. “Next Steps for Texas Pre-K: A Survey of School Districts’ Pre-K Priorities and Challenges” found that the Legislature’s 2017 pre-K cuts and new unfunded mandates were harmful to school districts’ pre-K programs. The loss of state funding led school districts to cut back on important investments, such as professional, early-childhood-focused personnel, technology and instructional materials.
TEGAC also partnered with Texans Care to produce a final report, “The Research is Clear: High-Quality Pre-K Pays Off,” released in January 2019. This research concluded that Texas legislators should harness the power of early childhood education by funding full-day pre-K and taking other steps as they address school finance during the 2019 legislative session.
There are so many reasons for the Legislature to address and invest in early childhood education, including full-day pre-K, in a meaningful and sustained way. And, should there be any doubts about the efficacy and return on investment in pre-K education — even in light of all of the state and national research conducted to date — we believe collecting and analyzing data on Texas’ pre-K programs will not only demonstrate that money matters in public education, but that it’s money well spent.
Esterline is Executive Director of Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium.