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Advocates Seeking More State Pre-K Funding Worry Budget-Minded Lawmakers Won't Budge

Robert W. Hart
Texas Tribune

The Texas Education Agency wants lawmakers to double the money they approved to expand pre-K programs last legislative session, but some worry that might be a difficult ask.

Governor Greg Abbott’s pre-K grant program allocated $118 million to districts across Texas to create high quality programs. Those programs demand qualified teachers and a parent engagement program to prepare kids for kindergarten. Scott Willie with Del Valle ISD says the curriculum for those programs – which typically include basic counting, shape identification and numeral recognition lessons – more fully prepare children for kindergarten.

“A child that comes to school kindergarten ready is so much more prepared to understand and interact with kindergarten environment, the kindergarten curriculum,” Willie said.

Del Valle received more than $386,000 over two years to boost its pre-K program. Districts that qualified for the money were supposed to receive up to $15,000 per student, but because so many districts applied, districts ended up getting around $730 dollars per student. Some districts rejected the money because it wasn’t enough to meet the grant requirements.

Now, the Texas Education Agency wants the state to approve $118 million annually instead of over two years.  But at a Senate Education hearing in August, it was clear some lawmakers are questioning if pre-K programs really work. That includes Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who cited a Vanderbilt University study that suggests the benefits of pre-K often dwindle by the end of kindergarten.

“If the gains had evaporated at end of kindergarten, then we’ve just spent $118 million dollars for what?” he asked. “There may be other bodies of work to look at, but it’s an eye opening study to me.”

That doesn’t bode well for advocates who think the state should spend even more money to fund full day pre-K programs, instead of the current half-day model. Advocates like Austin Chamber of Commerce Vice President Drew Scheberle are wary state lawmakers won’t back that spending boost.

“The state is looking at a significant potential deficit in funds going into the next two-year budget cycle,” he said. “That’ll make any new kind of spending difficult.”

Scheberle says the state currently depends too much on local property taxes to fund education.

“We think the goal for this session to include pre-K students in funding formulas but the real goal is to stop the reliance, the state’s reliance on local property taxes,” he said.

Some school districts – like Austin ISD – spend their own money to offer full-day pre-K programs, but they only receive state funding for half of the day. At the Austin Monitor’s City Summit panel earlier this month, Republican State Rep. Dan Huberty of Humble echoed that idea.

“If you do full-day pre-K, let’s give you credit for that. I think we really should. We look at that and say, ‘You’re paying for that, you’re willing to do that, let’s give you credit for that in recapture,’” he said. “There’s certain things if we do it right, they’ll help school districts.”

The state is expected to release data in May of next year that will show how many pre-K students are ready for kindergarten, an indicator of a high quality pre-K program.

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