Tea Party Lawmakers Fight Modest Increase to Pre-K Funding

Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston)
Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston)

Update: House Bill 4 got final approval in the House on Thursday, 128-17-2, and is headed to the Senate.

Original: Debate over funding for pre-K programs heated up the House today as legislators preliminarily passed House Bill 4 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston).

Huberty’s bill would provide additional funding to school districts that choose to offer high-quality pre-K programs. Texas currently requires districts to offer half-day pre-K to English-language learners as well as homeless, foster and low-income students—about 225,000 students at a cost of $800 million.

The Legislature cut nearly $300 million from pre-K programs in 2011, but restored $30 million of that in 2013. Huberty’s bill would increase pre-K funding by an estimated $130 million—still well below 2011 funding levels.

State funding of pre-K programs has not polled well with conservative GOP voters, and Huberty tried to assuage criticism from tea party-affiliated representatives.

“This bill does not expand pre-K. This is not universal pre-K. This is creating a high quality gold star standard program for educating our most vulnerable children,” Huberty said.

House tea party caucus member Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) tried to kill the bill by calling points of order, a legislative tactic. Stickland called three consecutive points of order before Huberty could finish introducing his bill.

Other tea party Republicans, including freshman Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington), voiced concerns that Huberty’s bill would further expand an already too-large state government.

“I don’t agree that government should always come forward and take responsibility, especially when it comes to children,” Tinderholt said.

“Parents should parent,” he said later.

Some Democratic critics, in contrast, argued that that Huberty’s bill doesn’t go far enough.

Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) pleaded with lawmakers to provide enough funding for school districts to offer full-day pre-K programs.

“I’ve got reams of paper from stakeholders that tell us that full-day pre-K is better than half-day pre-K,” Johnson said.

During several impassioned exchanges Huberty defended his bill.

“We should not be beholden to a conservative group, or some group, or any outside interest group. We should make these decisions,” Huberty said. Dozens of representatives cheered his comments.

In January Gov. Greg Abbott named expanding pre-K funding an emergency legislative item. “I applaud the Texas House of Representatives for recognizing the critical importance of providing high-quality pre-k,” Abbott said in a press release today.

HB 4 bill passed on second reading on a 129-18 vote. It will have to pass one more House vote before moving to the Senate.

John Savage is a writer based in Austin.

Published at 6:26 pm CST