When Gov. Greg Abbott announced during his State of the State address that early education would be his first emergency item — a designation placing related bills on the legislative fast track — it signaled a dramatic move in the state’s approach to pre-kindergarten programs.
Instead of questions about whether pre-kindergarten was worth funding at all, the discussion became how far the state’s program should go.
“This session there’s been a huge shift in how pre-K is perceived,” said Mandi Kimball, the director of public policy at Houston-based nonprofit Children at Risk. “We have Greg Abbott to thank for how the conversation has changed.”
But so far, the change has been mostly in tone. The legislative proposal Abbott favors has attracted mixed reactions from some pre-K advocates, who hope it can be strengthened. If not, the plan as it stands will barely change the status quo, they said.
“It’s just not enough,” said David Anthony, the CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, a research and advocacy group that is a major lobbying force at the Capitol on education issues.
The state currently pays for half-day pre-kindergarten for students from low-income, English-language learning, military and foster families, which comes to about $800 million a year for roughly 225,000 students.
House Bill 4 from state Rep. Dan Huberty — the Houston Republican Abbott cited in his State of the State address — would provide additional funding to school districts that choose to adopt certain curriculum and teacher-quality standards in their pre-kindergarten programs.
But it stops short of major reforms that early education proponents view as crucial to high-quality programs. It does not, for instance, expand state funding to make half-day programs full-day, limit class size or set student-teacher ratios. The bill is a “great starting point,” Andrea Brauer, an early education policy associate at the Austin-based nonprofit Texans Care for Children, said in a statement, but it should include class size and student-teacher ratio requirements
“The research is clear that taxpayers don't maximize the return on their investment and children don't get fully prepared for kindergarten when students are in low-quality programs, with 25 or 30 four-year-olds competing for the attention of an under-qualified teacher,” she said.
The legislation also does not build the funding into the state budget, instead requiring lawmakers to appropriate it each legislative session as grants.
“We all know what happens to grant money any time there is a hint of budget reductions,” Anthony said. “There isn’t a dollar amount specified in the bill. We have no idea how far it will go.”
The final amount is likely to be less than the $300 million the Legislature cut from grants that helped districts expand their pre-kindergarten programs in 2011.
When he announced HB 4 last week, Huberty said the lower chamber intended to put $100 million into the program, with districts standing to receive up to $1,500 per student. But that figure is far from final — it depends on the Senate, where lawmakers have moved more slowly on their pre-K proposals.
Even if the funding remains at $1,500 per child, Anthony said that would likely only be enough to reward school districts that already have strong pre-K programs. But he said he remains optimistic that the bill will get better as it progresses.
"We were very appreciative that the governor designated early childhood as his first emergency item. That says something about his level of importance to him,” he said.
Huberty’s legislation competes with another pre-K proposal in the House, from state Reps. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, and Eric Johnson, D-Dallas.
That legislation, HB 1100, lays out a much broader overhaul of pre-kindergarten policy. In addition to the curriculum and parental involvement requirements set forth in Huberty’s plan, HB 1100 asks districts to do regular teacher training, put limits on class size and offer full-day programs.
Providing more than twice as much funding per student to districts that choose to participate, it also comes with a higher price tag. That money would be included directly in school funding formulas instead of a biennial grant in an amount determined by the Legislature.