Will the Lege Pony Up for Pre-K Expansion?
Thousands of 3- and 4-year-old Texans would get free, full-day pre-K, under a proposal from Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown).
Their House Bill 1100 would offer state funding for school districts to expand their pre-K programs if they agree to meet curriculum standards and follow best practices for instructional day length, classroom size, teacher development and parental involvement.
Texas currently funds half-day pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds who are English-language learners, eligible for free or reduced lunch, homeless, in foster care, or the child of an armed services member on active duty or who’s been disabled or killed in action. Johnson and Farney’s bill would provide full-day pre-K to those same students—an extension that would help working parents. Today, districts that offer full-day pre-K must pay the difference from their own budgets or outside grants.
In an announcement about the proposal, Johnson cites research showing that quality pre-K can cut the achievement gap in half for children in poverty, the equivalent of a 4-year-old jumping from the 30th percentile to the 50th in one year. Johnson and Farney point to research from Dallas showing that students who attended DISD’s full-day pre-K program were 3.5 times more likely to be kindergarten-ready than those students who didn’t.
Other studies have shown that for every dollar invested in high-quality, full-day pre-K, there’s a return to society of $3.50 in increased earnings, reduced need for remedial or special education, lower incarceration rates and less reliance on public assistance.
“Many of our children never have the opportunity to excel in school because even by the time they enter kindergarten, they are so far behind that they never catch up,” Johnson said in a press release. “This proposal is aimed at improving outcomes where we can get the most bang for the buck—children in poverty and English language learners.”
To receive additional funding, schools would have to follow the Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines in their curriculum, and assess students with kindergarten readiness tools and reports on the students’ skills. The proposal pointedly does not include standardized tests—a particularly unpopular proposal Gov. Greg Abbott floated during his campaign last year. Participating school districts must also publicly report classroom and student progress data and implement program improvements if they fail to demonstrate adequate student progress.
“The children of Texas deserve a first-class education, but the taxpayers of Texas deserve to know their dollars are being well spent,” said Farney. The current system of half-day, state-funded pre-K does not include any of these requirements. Today, kindergarten readiness tests are only voluntary.
The bipartisan measure comes as momentum builds to improve early education in the state. Gov. Abbott has said such reforms are a top priority this legislative session. As the Quorum Report’s Kimberly Reeves noted last week, the Johnson-Farney proposal is a greatly expanded version of Abbott’s plan, providing more money and a faster timeline for the program.
Johnson said the framework has support from business associations, school districts, children’s advocacy groups, private schools and city leaders. Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings have also endorsed the bill.
“We are optimistic that it will get a hearing and a fair shot because there are many people that will support it and testify for the bill. I feel good about it,” Johnson told the Observer.
Andrea Brauer, the early education policy associate for Texans Care for Children, said there’s a strong possibility that early childhood education will see increased funding this session, but she can’t make predictions about HB 1100.
“I know there are a lot of pre-K bills,” Brauer told the Observer, “but I do think it’s a great thing our governor supports it. I am optimistic that we will get increased funding.”
The program would cost an estimated $318 million and serve 87,000 students, according to Johnson. (Abbott’s plan would cost an estimated $118 million.)
Several advocacy groups are supporting expanded pre-K this session. The education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas has made expanding pre-K its top priority this year.
The group’s CEO, David Anthony, said he’d like to see the Legislature budget for pre-K programs using per-student formulas as it does for K-12 education, rather than grant funding, which is generally less stable.
For now, though, Anthony told the Observer that the expansion Johnson and Farney proposed is an important step.
“Let’s stop doing what looks or feels good,” Anthony said, “and let’s start implementing what the research shows is working.”