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Cal Jillson, Political Science: Pre-K efforts at Capitol a test for governor, lawmakers

Times Record News

By: Mathew Waller

AUSTIN — Children ran in circles in the bright gym. They sat pointing at pictures and words in books at the library. And they typed at computers in a screen-filled classroom.

“The slide game!” one child shouted, asked about a favorite education computer program.

“Thinking skills,” said another.

The 240 children, many kindergarten-age, attend the Abacus School of Austin — which offers full-day prekindergarten classes.

“It’s all about a love for learning,” said Cathy Kelly, director of the school.

She talked about how they brought in a zebra and a camel for a demonstration.

Abacus is on the higher end of pre-K environments, and the private school is funded through tuition alone, as opposed to the way the state provides funding for half-day pre-K for economically disadvantaged children.

Now Texas is preparing to invest more in children ages 3-5 in public schools. Lawmakers thus far aren’t debating whether the state will invest in pre-K, but how, and by how much?

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has a huge stake in the matter, as his first big educational proposal and his first emergency priority, a measure that could aim at proving that Republican leadership is able to make meaningful reform in public education.

Abbott’s plan is most closely encapsulated in House Bill 4 from state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and has tremendous backing. The bill would give more funding to schools that qualify to set up high quality pre-K.

However, the bill has been called incremental as it doesn’t come near restoring more than $200 million in pre-K grant funding removed back in 2011. Abbott’s plan will cost about $100 million. Another piece of pre-K legislation, HB 1100 from state Rep Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, and state Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, would require full-day pre-K for the high quality programs and bring in double the cost to spend around $300 million.

“Gov. Abbott has laid out a vision to make Texas first in the nation in education, and that begins by building a strong foundation in early education with the goal of ensuring all students are performing at grade level in reading and math by the time they finish the 3rd grade,” Amelia Chassé, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, wrote in statement.

HB 4 also has the backing from the Texas Association of Business.

“It’s very important because too many of our kids arrive at kindergarten not ready to learn,” TAB President Bill Hammond said.

Such an investment can help cover workforce skills gaps in the future.

“Not enough students are coming out of high school that are career- or college-ready,” Hammond said.

An effective solution

Texas began offering pre-K publicly in 1985. There are 1,047 school districts and charter schools offering a prekindergarten program, and 504 of them are full day.

Advocates for pre-K say that the program is more than a day care and that children without pre-K are less likely to catch up in kindergarten, that in the long term there are fewer high school dropouts, and that the soft skills help children throughout their lives.

The issue of putting more resources into pre-K got started in the campaign season, with both Abbott and his opponent, former Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis, of Fort Worth, emphasizing education in their campaigns.

“The beauty of prekindergarten, as opposed to many other education initiatives, is there is such a good amount of credible research that establishes its benefits,” said Holly Eaton, the director of professional development and advocacy for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. “That’s why the Legislature has funded it, at least half-day, knowing of its importance.”

A day of pre-K at Abacus starts as early as 6:30 a.m. with early morning activities, a morning snack, group time, gym or music and movement play, literary and writing study, such as letter study, and shared reading and writing. The afternoon at Abacus as a full-day school includes art studio, time in the computer lab or library, science and social studies, math and exercise on the playground.

Of particular importance is that pre-K helps close the “word gap,” where by the time children in wealthy families are 3 years old, they’ve been exposed to 30 million more words than those in low-income households, Eaton said.

Catherine Murphy, an Austin mother whose child recently went to Abacus, said she has seen pre-K work. Her son is now in first grade, and she said he adapted well when kindergarten rolled around. He had no problem rising early, sitting quietly or doing work, she said.

“I would be totally for getting a child into education sooner rather than later,” Murphy said. “To have him in a school rather than a day care is really important.”

Scott Elliff, a retired school superintendent in South Texas, said pre-K is a tool that helps bridge equality gaps in general.

“Especially when you’re talking about student populations that are high poverty … I think it’s absolutely an essential part of our programming,” Elliff said. “The way our state accountability system is set up, everybody by the third grade needs to pass the same tests.”

He said full-day kindergarten not only helps with more instruction for children, but it also helps families in which parents can’t take off work to pick up their children from a half-day program.

Dollars that Count

A major difference between Huberty’s HB 4 bill and Johnson’s HB 1100 bill is how much funding would go to pre-K.

For now public schools in Texas get half-day pre-K funding to the tune of $3,650 per eligible student.

Under HB 4 districts could opt in and get up to $1,500 per student, Huberty’s office has said in a release.

Under Johnson’s HB 1100, schools could get another $3,650, essentially doubling the allotment for students.

Johnson argued that, because more students might be eligible in HB 4, the amount going to students in HB 4 would likely be watered down to more like $650 per student for the 185,000 students who may be eligible.

Johnson compared the situation to the hypothetical of giving everyone a dollar out of a million dollars, or targeting a million dollars at a specific project, like a library.

“It doesn’t really accomplish a whole bunch,” Johnson said of HB 4.

Johnson’s HB 1100, meanwhile, would require a plan for more teacher assistant training and teacher development, class size limits, and most significantly, a full day.

For a district to qualify under HB 4, it would need to fully align what they teach with the Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines and measure their progress to meet the goals of those guidelines.

Teachers would need to be certified, and individual districts would need to make a plan to engage parents and keep families highly involved in the student’s education.

“One of the goals of this program: make sure that every kid in the state of Texas gets money,” Huberty told a panel of lawmakers this month.

At the moment the major challenge to HB 4 is HB 1100, the bill offering full-day pre-K in its high quality requirements. Most of the House Democrats are signed onto HB 1100.

Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson called HB 4 a modest proposal, and the director of the University of Texas’ Texas Politics Project has called the program a “minimalist approach,” in an opinion piece.

A statement from Abbott’s office bristled against any idea that Abbott isn’t serious about the issue.

“Governor Abbott placed early education at the forefront of his agenda by declaring it his first emergency item during his State of the State address, and is actively working with the Legislature to ensure his proposals are adopted to build a brighter future for Texas children,” Chassé said in a statement.

Hammond, with the business association, said he supports HB 4 because of the lesser cost. Huberty has also raised concerns that some school districts won’t be able to participate because they don’t have the room or capacity for full-day pre-K.

“It’s a decision that has to be made at the local level,” Johnson said in defense of HB 1100 before a House panel. He said that school districts could partner with private entities for the space, and that “there is a whole panoply of options.”

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