Education

Texas’ Less Than ‘Gold Star’ Pre-K Proposal Is Still Much Better Than Many States

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has focused on enhancing Texas' pre-K program.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has focused on enhancing Texas' pre-K program.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has focused on enhancing Texas’ pre-K program.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) made pre-K a priority since he gave his first state of the state address as governor in February.

“I’m declaring early education as my first emergency item as governor of Texas … We can be number one in education if we apply the same tenacity to education as we do to job creation,” Abbott said in his address.

Abbott said he would make Texas’ pre-K initiative “the gold standard” for pre-K. The Texas legislature passed legislation that would add $130 million to grant funding over the next two years to incentivize school districts to get more certified teachers and improve program evaluations.

It would require programs to keep student achievement data and make it available to parents, as well as focus on small class sizes.

It only funds existing pre-K programs, however, and does not provide funding that would create new pre-K programs. The pre-K program would be a half day-program, not a full day-program, and wouldn’t be universal. The program targets children who are either low-income, aren’t proficient in speaking English, are homeless, or come from military families.

Despite the fact that it is not a universal pre-K program, Sara Mead, a principal with Bellwether Education Partners in the policy and thought leadership practice, says that Texas’ program is more efficient than other state programs that don’t help as many low-income students.

“The state pretty broadly provides service to kids. You enroll low-income, eligible kids in the pre-K program and they get money automatically from the state,” she said. “That is a way better approach than a lot of states where, rather than creating a system that ensures at-risk kids get access, they appropriate money and determine slots based on that and are serving a much lower percentage of kids, and only a subset of some low-income kids. In a lot of ways, Texas is doing a better job than a lot of states.”

School district officials in Austin and Dallas said they were unhappy about the legislation’s requirement that teachers get an early childhood certificate, according to the Austin-American Statesman.

“There are a lot of programs that produce great results, but there are a lot of programs out there that aren’t of the same level of quality but receive public funding, and a lot of them don’t have evaluations,” Mead said. “A harder piece to implement is how to support and train teachers that are tied to assessments and use a developmentally appropriate practice. Texas is making progress on that but the state in general is better on pre-K access than most states.”

Studies from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and National Institute for Early Education Research show early childhood programs have the greatest effect on disadvantaged children, helping them make significant literacy gains. A new study by Duke University of two early childhood education programs showed pre-K programs may play a role in preventing students from being placed in special education programs or from falling behind a grade.

Texas’ pre-K program will focus on disadvantaged children, who are most in need of support, but its biggest weakness is its half-day status, because low-income and at-risk kids need more time in the classroom to make up for the barriers they face and prepare them for elementary school.

“Before the recession there was a program that was a separate pot of money that districts could apply for that was supposed to improve quality and extend to a full day program, because we know that a half day can be a big barrier to a lot of kids whose parents work,” Mead says. “We know that low-income kids need more dosage, rather less, and they get a bigger impact with a full-day program.”

According to National Institute of Early Education Research, total program enrollment in 2013 was 227,555 children and 22 percent of Texas school districts offer the three-hour day, five-day a week state pre-K program. It only met two of 10 quality standards by the NIEER.

Texas isn’t the only state to be meet few of those standards, however. Forty percent of kids in pre-K had programs that met less than half of NIEER’s quality standards.

Pre-K funding has risen slightly but many states’ pre-K programs still aren’t funding at pre-recession levels. State pre-K funding per child rose by $61 from 2013, to $4,125, according to NIEER’s report, “The State of Preschool 2014,” and 4 percent of 3-year-olds and 29 percent of 4-year-olds were served in state-funded pre-K programs.

Mead says that because pre-K gets cut much more easily than other programs, in part because they’re not an entitlement like other areas of public education.

“In general we have underinvested in pre-K programs. Pre-K and early education are often treated like a second class of education. They’re not an entitlement and they get cut much more easily. State policies treat it more like a social service program than treat it like an important part of how we prepare for kids for life,” Mead said. “There’s a cultural attitude issue that we have the consensus that kids have a right to education, and we may not always provide quality public education, but it’s also embedded in state constitutions and we don’t have that for early education.