Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Local communities are taking up the challenge of funding and implementing early learning programs. We recently wrote about several examples, including the Denver Public Preschool program, which uses a local sales tax to pay for early education vouchers for parents of young children. Denver also helps programs improve their quality.

And last month, the city of San Antonio launched its new, local-sales-tax-funded Pre-K 4 SA program.

Some two hundred miles east of San Antonio, business and civic leaders in Harris County, Texas, tried to follow suit by launching a new early education effort, the Early to Rise initiative, a public/private partnership that had hoped to use a small property tax hike to improve early education. Early to Rise is part of the nonprofit Harris County School Readiness Corporation, which seeks to provide or procure early education services so that more of the county’s children are kindergarten-ready.

As Early to Rise explained on its website, “This November, we are working to get an item placed on the ballot that would ask voters to approve a one penny increase per $100 of assessed home value. This tiny increase would average out to about $18 a year for a $180,000 home. This means that for $1.50 a month we can provide our area’s youngest kids with intensive early education and get them ready for Kindergarten and beyond.”

This would have given the county “between $25 and $30 million in new revenue,” according to an article in the American Prospect. The money would have been used “to increase education at daycare facilities. Instead of just focusing on four-year-olds, the program would help infants and toddlers as well—all the ages that attend daycare. If successful, this would be the largest locally funded childcare initiative in the country. “

Specifically, Early to Rise organizers planned to:

“Currently, Texas only pays for half-day pre-K programs for four-year-olds who are low-income, non-English-speaking, or whose parents are active in the military,” according to the American Prospect. The latest NIEER State Preschool Yearbook report ranks Texas 28th on per-student spending ($3,238 state funding per child) out of the 40 states that fund pre-k. The American Prospect article continues “While public education in Texas is highly standardized, childcare centers in the state, as in most others, must meet very few standards and facilities vary tremendously from ritzy establishments that implement the latest pedagogical approaches to child development to those that look like warehouses filled with cribs.”

Support for Early to Rise was strong. Educators, clergy, and civic and business leaders backed the proposal. The effort also had the support of Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia who said, “This is truly an issue of pay me now, or pay me later. We either need to pay for better early childhood education now, or we will end up paying for more inmates later, we either help our youngsters succeed when they’re four or we have to pay for the consequences when they’re 24.”

Garcia added, “There is a well established link in criminal justice research that shows children who participate in high quality early childhood programs are better able to cope, learn and lead productive lives. This means they are far less likely to end up in the criminal justice system.”

Unfortunately, on August 26th, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett opted not to place the initiative on the ballot, citing “concerns about the applicability of the decades-old state law on which the group based its petition drive, as well as oversight on how the tax revenue would be spent,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

The Harris County School Readiness Corporation filed a lawsuit to challenge the judge’s decision.

On August 28th, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Early to Rise posted this statement on its Facebook page:

“We have a dream that all children, regardless of their economic background, have the opportunity to attend high-quality early education programs. We have a dream that all early education teachers have access to resources to help them improve. We have a dream that all parents have access to resources, enabling them to be the very best. We have a dream for an even better Houston.”

James Calaway, the chair of the Harris County School Readiness Corporation board, told the Chronicle early last week, “There’s been a great deal of brain research done over the past ten to 15 years.” He added, “It shows that a three-year-old is absolutely peaking in language acquisition. For us to know that, and have three-year-olds in environments that are not language rich, is a crime.”

But at the end of last week, as a Chronicle story reports, a state appeals court struck down the lawsuit.

Early to Rise conceded the fight on Facebook, saying in part that it “respectfully accepts the opinion of the 14th Court of Appeals. As this chapter in our region’s education policy comes to a close, we are deeply saddened by the impact this decision will have on thousands of pre-school children in Harris County.”