Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Texas is taking a hard look at its preschool program. The Lone Star state serves some 225,000 children, making it the biggest program in the country. But progress on quality lags.

“Though the program continues to grow in size, efforts to improve funding and program quality have stalled,” according to a press release from NIEER’s State of Preschool 2013 report. “The state ranks 30th out of 41 states providing pre-K for state spending per child, and meets only two of NIEER’s 10 quality standards benchmarks.” They are:

• having comprehensive early learning standards, and,

• providing teachers with at least 15 hours per year of in-service training

“The state currently pays for half-day pre-kindergarten for students from low-income, English-language learning, military and foster families. That comes to about $800 million a year,” the Texas Tribune reports

“Texas has long suffered from under-funding and low standards, including no restriction on maximum class size,” according to Steve Barnett, NIEER’s director.

Researchers and Funders Make a Case

Last year, University of Virginia researchers Robert C. Pianta and Catherine Wolcott called on Texas “to create greater alignment between the research base and Texas pre-k policy and practice,” in a report released by the nonprofit organization Raise Your Hand Texas. The report’s recommendations:

• fund high-quality, targeted, full-day pre-K

• implement quality improvements, and,

• require uniform measurement, data collection, and oversight

Echoing the call for more data, a Houston Chronicle opinion piece written by Caroline Sabin, executive director of the Houston-based Powell Foundation, and Mary Jalonick, president of The Dallas Foundation, says there a “data black hole” when it comes to preschool in Texas. They add:

“Texas has very little information about the quality of the state’s current pre-kindergarten program. Taxpayers do not know how many students are in pre-kindergarten classrooms, where state law sets no class-size limit. Taxpayers do not know what assessments are being given to pre-kindergarten students. Taxpayers have minimal information about whether or not school districts offer full- or half-day pre-kindergarten.”

Sabin and Jalonick “urge lawmakers to prioritize transparency about all pre-kindergarten programs, regardless of whether they receive new state funds. Any pre-kindergarten legislation that passes this session must also include a requirement that school districts report – and that the Texas Education Agency make available to the public – data on pre-kindergarten class sizes, student-to-staff ratios, length of program day and assessments administered to students.

“Taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going. Legislators deserve to know how best to target scarce resources. Parents deserve to know the quality of the pre-kindergarten programs offered in their communities. Texas has a historic opportunity to improve the quality of pre-kindergarten in 2015. Let’s make sure we have good data to help us accomplish this objective.”

Policymakers Take Action

Last month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott focused on pre-K in his State of the State address, saying, “…my budget provides additional funding for schools that adopt high-quality Pre-K programs. My plan also provides pre-K-through-3rd-grade teachers with world-class literacy and math teacher training.

“I want to thank Senators Judith Zaffirini and Donna Campbell and Representatives Dan Huberty, Helen Giddings and Joe Deshotel for carrying my Pre-K legislation to improve early education.

“To begin the process of building a better education system in Texas, we must improve early education. This is why I’m declaring early education as my first emergency item as governor.”

Despite Abbott’s praise, an editorial in the San Antonio Express-News says Texas legislators have more work to do.

“We support legislative efforts to expand high quality prekindergarten in Texas, but doing it on the cheap is not adequate… HB 4, the legislation filed by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, does not go far enough. It does not expand pre-K eligibility or provide funding for full-day programs.”

“With a current pre-K enrollment of 250,000 students, if the state is going to put only $100 million in the pot, it would provide only about $400 per student if it was doled out in equal portions, and that is significantly less than the $1,500 maximum the legislation would allow. That will not go very far in revamping the state’s pre-K programs.

“It is time for the Legislature to stop shirking its duty on education funding. Even if Huberty’s legislation is approved, it will not restore funding to the level it was four years ago — before lawmakers slashed a similar $200-million grant program.”

Explaining different legislative options, the Texas Tribune points to several other pre-K bills including HB 1100, “which makes broader changes, including requirements that districts have regular teacher training, limit class sizes and offer full-day pre-K programs to receive additional funding. It also comes with a higher price tag — at $3,600 per student, providing more than twice as much to participating districts.”

A Role for Higher Education

This month, a Dallas Morning News editorial champions pre-K and suggests a role for higher education, noting:

“As we expand pre-K opportunities, how are we going to ensure it is quality pre-K? There’s a difference between just putting a kid in a classroom and putting her in a classroom where she is going to learn and be prepared for the years of schooling she has ahead.”

Arguing that teachers are the most crucial piece of the puzzle, the newspaper proposes a solution to “get more great teachers into pre-K classrooms where we need them so badly.”

“Our community colleges don’t offer many four-year degrees, but what if they could offer one for early-childhood education?

“A low-cost bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education could vastly expand the number of young people who decide to take a chance on a career in teaching.

“It should also increase the quality of instruction children get. Too many pre-K students are taught now by certified teachers who have not gotten enough training to prepare children to enter kindergarten.”

Focusing on Priorities

As Sabin and Jalonick write in their opinion piece, “All Texans should applaud the surging interest in pre-kindergarten in Texas.” In addition to political action, “The state’s largest chambers of commerce have come out strongly for increased funding for quality, full-day pre-kindergarten.

“The facts are clear and widely known: Pre-kindergarten works. Republicans and Democrats from big cities and small towns understand that investments in pre-kindergarten pay off. Not only are our children better prepared for success in school and life, our taxpayers maximize their dollars by preventing problems before they occur.”