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Bipartisan Full-Day Pre-K Bill Won't Increase Standardized Tests

Alex Train's first grade classroom only had 22 students at the beginning of the year, but has added two more since at Wanke Elementary School in north San Antonio, Friday, March 9, 2012.
Jennifer Whitney/Texas Tribune
A new bipartisan bill would increase funding for full-day prekindergarten programs in public schools.

Two members of the Texas House have filed a bipartisan bill that would help school districts fund full day pre-kindergarten programs as long as they fulfill a variety of requirements – and can wait until third grade to assess if the pre-kindergarten program helped students learn. 

Right now, the state funds half-day pre-K programs for students who qualify, who are usually low-income, English Language Learner or special education students.

Under this new bill, written by Representatives Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Marsha Furney (R-Georgetown), public school districts could either continue to offer a half-day program or choose to operate a full-day program.

Paying For Pre-K

The full-day program, called the ‘gold standard pre-kindergarten program’ would double the amount of funding school districts receive per child for pre-K, which is about $7,300 per child, according to Johnson. 

“Most of these districts are having to raid other funds that they have to get close now to what they think they need to run [a full day pre-K program],” says Johnson. Right now, many urban ISDs, including Austin ISD, supplement state money to offer full-day pre-K. Austin School Board President Gina Hinojosa says the district welcomes the legislation. AISD pays for full-day pre-K with money from its reserves.

The incentive payment program would be part of the education code formula, which would make it more difficult for lawmakers to get rid of the funding or cut it in future years. In 2011, the state cut $200 million from the state’s Pre-K Early Start Grant program. It restored $30 million in 2013.

But school districts would have to abide by a list of rules to receive funding. Districts would have to use state approved curriculum, keep class sizes under 25 students, keep a 10:1 student to teacher ratio, only hire certified teachers and teacher aides, provide professional development for teacher and teacher aides and develop a plan to involve parents.

No New Standardized Testing

The bill aligns itself with some of Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign proposals for more transparency and accountability in pre-K programs. The bill would require school districts to report data about pre-K students, including class sizes and student demographics. Right now, school districts don’t have to report that information to the state.

But Johnson says it would assess students without creating any new standardized tests.

“There’s just a lot of heart burn surrounding testing kids, especially that young,” Johnson says.

The bill requires “diagnostic assessments,” which Johnson describes as verbal assessments by teachers to see if students are grasping concepts throughout the year. Any of these diagnostic assessments cannot be tied to teacher compensation or district funding. 

Instead of adding tests, the pre-K program’s effectiveness would be judged by existing tests in kindergarten and third grade.  The state would compare third grade test results of students who attended pre-K to students who did not.

“You’d get your first glimpse at their performance on their kindergarten-ready assessment, and then you get your most robust look at the third grade,” Johnson explains.

Johnson acknowledges some people might not want to wait until third grade to measure the pre-K program’s effectiveness, but he says it’s necessary.

“I think people, including the governor, are committed to wait a little longer than we necessarily would like,” Johnson says. “But these kids are so young, the third grade assessment is going to probably be the first time we’re going to be able to take a look.”

Looking Forward

At this point, the bill doesn’t specify if and how it would fund pre-kindergarten programs at public charter schools. Johnson says that’s something lawmakers would have to discuss. 

Plus, Johnson and Furney’s bill isn’t the only pre-kindergarten bill filed so far this session. Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer (D-San Antonio) filed a bill that would require public school districts to offer free pre-K to all four year olds and pre-kindergarten to certain three year olds who qualify. But districts could offer half- or full-day programs.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) filed a bill that offers universal full-day pre-kindergarten classes to all students in public schools. More than half a dozen similar bills have also been filed. 

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