After about an hour of debate, the Senate passed legislation Thursday that would modestly increase funding for pre-K programs. House Bill 4, a priority of Gov. Greg Abbott, passed on a 25-6 vote, with a handful of GOP senators voting no.
That group included Konni Burton (R-Fort Worth), Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), Don Huffines (R-Dallas), Van Taylor (R-Plano) and Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe).
HB 4, by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), would provide $130 million in grants to school districts that adopt new standards for curriculum and teacher qualifications. The pre-K expansion, although well below funding levels as recently as 2011, had drawn the ire of tea party leaders appointed to a grassroots advisory board by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. In April, the activists branded pre-K “godless” and “socialistic” in an impassioned letter to the Senate.
On Thursday, Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), the bill’s Senate sponsor, took pains to frame the measure in terms of accountability rather than increased funding.
“I want to send a clear message that these dollars are for quality, not expansion,” Campbell said, an overture to conservative groups that have argued vehemently against bringing new students into the state’s limited pre-K program, which primarily serves low-income and at-risk students.
The Legislature cut nearly $300 million from pre-K programs in 2011 but restored $30 million two years later. HB 4 would increase funding for pre-K programs by about $130 million—still below 2011 levels.
During debate today, Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) referenced the 2011 cuts. “We had taken a giant step backward and this is a little step forward,” Zaffirini said. Pre-K advocates have lobbied for more ambitious pre-K improvements, such as funding full-day pre-K, limiting teacher-student ratios, or providing new money through the relatively stable funding formulas rather than grants.
Despite the relatively modest increase in HB 4, the bill has grown into a major point of contention during the legislative session.
Gov. Abbott named increased pre-K funding a legislative priority in January, and HB 4 passed the House on a 129-18 vote in April. But two weeks later, the tea party letter threatened to derail things.
“The early removal of children from parents’ care is historically promoted in socialistic countries,” Patrick’s advisory board wrote.
The letter contributed to tension between the state’s top three officials, and prompted newspaper stories with headlines fit for The Onion. In an editorial titled, “Texas View: Pre-K isn’t Satanic or Socialist,” the Corpus Christi Caller-Times wondered, “How can God be everywhere except pre-kindergarten?”
Some observers speculated that Patrick would try to advance his pet school voucher legislation with a Senate amendment to HB 4, but no such amendment was offered.
The Senate did pass several amendments to the bill, including one to prevent Common Core curriculum standards from being taught in pre-K programs (there are no Common Core standards for pre-K), and an amendment creating pre-K teacher guidelines.
If the House agrees on the Senate’s amendments to the bill, it will be sent to the governor for final approval.