Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children

“Access to preschool programs — and their quality — varies widely across Texas,” according to a Houston Chronicle article, “Broad coalition pushes anew for expanded pre-K.”

These variations play out within and across school districts. Some schools offer full-day programs, others only run for a half a day. So children in programs that are only 10 miles apart can have vastly different experiences.

“Currently, Texas only pays for half day pre-kindergarten for at-risk 4 year-olds. There are no limits on those class sizes. And child-care providers don’t have to have a college degree,” an article on Houston Public Media’s website says.

The Chronicle says that NIEER (the National Institute for Early Education Research) estimates that “52 percent of 4-year-olds in Texas were enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs last year, and another 9 percent attended federal Head Start pre-K. Enrollment in private programs isn’t tracked.”

“According to data from the Texas Education Agency, 690 districts offered full-day pre-K programs – lasting four or more hours – and 347 districts had only half-day classes.

W. Steve Barnett, the director of NIEER “said he’s seen big cities increasingly take the lead in pushing states to improve pre-K. He said the benefits of a longer day depend on the effectiveness of the instruction. Texas’ pre-K program meets only two of the institute’s 10 benchmarks of quality, but it ranked in the top fifth in terms of access.”

A Coalition Comes to the Rescue

Instead of living with these disparities and limitations, a “broad coalition of Houston-area executives, educators, and nonprofit groups assembled by Houston’s premier business organization” is working to increase program quality and access. Although “a major hurdle remains: securing funding in a state that ranks toward the bottom in pre-K spending per pupil,” the Chronicle says.

The coalition, called Early Matters, has an ambitious 10-year, $700 million plan that would offer preschool to all of the state’s disadvantaged 4 year-olds. According to the Chronicle, the plan asks wealthier families to pay tuition and has “lower student-to-teacher ratios; higher standards for private child care providers; and parent education to help ready their toddlers for school.”

The need is considerable. As Early Matters explains in a fact sheet, “Only 1 of 5 children in our region are graduating from high school and completing some form of post high school credential. However, Houston’s rapidly growing employers in the petrochemical, medical, and manufacturing fields desperately need employees with the post high school education.”

Early Matters envisions a future that features “a greater Houston region where young children are a part of supportive and nurturing families and are able to participate in high quality early education, knowing that intentional early investments significantly improve kindergarten readiness, 3rd grade reading mastery, high school graduation rates, post high school education/credentialing, and workforce readiness.”

To achieve this vision, Early Matters says:

• “Parents should have access to a range of resources to become the best parents they can be for their growing child.”

• “Child care programs should maintain high quality standards and be accessible to working families,” and

• “Pre-K Programs must be of high quality and accessible.”

Early Matters also calls for engaging healthcare professionals to support families, applying research- and evidence-based quality standards, and professional development for teachers.

But how can Early Matters raise $700 million for this work?

“This is really going to be the job of the Legislature, to really understand that this early investment has a big return,” Jim Postl, chairman of the coalition, organized by the Greater Houston Partnership, told the Chronicle.

And like Massachusetts, Texas will be affected by whoever becomes the next governor.

“Both gubernatorial candidates, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, have declared preschool education a priority, though they differ on the details. Abbott has focused on improving quality; Davis has championed expansion,” the Chronicle book

Early Matters is an active advocate. Its website features infographics – including one that says only one book is available for every 300 children in low-income areas, a statistic that comes from the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation.

And an Early Matters report soundly concludes: “As taxpayers, we must invest earlier in a child’s life and leverage our investment where it can make the most difference to educational outcomes. This, in essence, will also reduce the costs of retention (repeating grades), interventions, special education services, and the juvenile and adult criminal justice system. Changing the regional outlook for our young children from their earliest years is a system change that will make a difference for generations to come.”