When House Bill 4 was passed by the 84th Texas legislature in 2015, it was simultaneously applauded and criticized. The author of the bill, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said he wanted “to make sure that we do the right thing for our little kids.” Governor Greg Abbott heralded the bill as a move toward advancing quality Pre-K education.
Lawmakers championed the bill as a way to boost quality Pre-K programs. It did not seek to expand Pre-K to serve children who are not eligible under federal guidelines. The bill, they said, was to make sure quality Pre-K was offered, and provided $118 million in grants for school districts and charter schools that adopted new standards for Pre-K curriculum and teacher qualifications, as well as improving parental engagement and progress monitoring measures.
Almost two years later – and with the Texas legislature heading into its 85th session – the grant is up for renewal, and without action by the legislature in the upcoming session, the funding will disappear, leaving districts across the state scrambling to maintain quality Pre-K programs with fewer resources.
With this in mind, The Commit! Partnership (as part of a statewide effort commissioned by Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, and in partnership with Texans Care for Children) took a deep dive into the data generated since the grant was funded. Specifically, Commit! analyzed HB4 participation and implementation in six districts in Dallas County – Dallas, DeSoto, Duncanville, Irving, Richardson and Mesquite ISDs – and one district in Collin County, McKinney ISD. These districts represent 321,053 students, 64 percent of Dallas County students (not including the students from McKinney ISD), and make up 6 percent of Texas students.
Many of the schools participating said they applied for funding for a range of goals meant to enrich their existing Pre-K programs, including enhancing supports for their teachers and aides, strengthening their family engagement programs to equip parents with the ability to engage in learning with their child, and expand their programs to include some full-day options.
But a program with an expiration date also caused districts to proceed with some caution. Districts expressed reluctance to use the funds to invest in long-term goals like program expansion or additional teachers for fear that later – if the legislature opted to let the program die either by vote or neglect – they would have to dial back those plans and reduce staffing later. For those same reasons, many did not use the grant funds to expand to a full-day program. In fact, one district (Duncanville ISD) even opted to decline the funds completely because of the insufficient funding for full-day Pre-K, and several opted to only add full-day programs in a few select schools.
Make no mistake: high-quality Pre-K is absolutely imperative for Dallas County, and the legislature renewing HB4 will help school districts sustain new quality measures that have been implemented. This will also give additional time to measure the impact of the program in terms of student performance. The presence or absence of such a program can mean a great deal in the trajectory of a student. In Dallas County, 43 percent of kids are kindergarten ready when they arrive for their first day of school. That need to catch up already often means that the student is placed in the untenable position of forever playing catch up – in fact, 66 percent of third graders are not reading at grade level, which will have significant impacts on high school graduation rates which will directly impact workforce development.
High quality Pre-K means that students attending Dallas ISD are now more than twice as likely to be ready for kindergarten if they’ve attended a high quality Pre-K program. Dallas ISD data also reveals that students that arrive in kindergarten ready to learn with their peers are three times more likely to be reading on grade level by third grade.
In 2015, more than 25,000 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in a public Pre-K or Head Start in Dallas County. That number represents 44 percent of eligible children. Since 2013, districts have added 2,800 spots to their Pre-K programs, and districts that offer full-day programs generally see a higher percentage of students enrolled, versus half-day programs only.
Why is this? The Center for Public Education says one reason is likely economic – a full day of free Pre-K is easier for a working family to make use of, where a half-day would mean working less or one parent not working at all. That sentiment is consistent with a survey commissioned by the City of New York this year that found that more than half of its nearly 70,000 Pre-K families said they would not be able to work if Pre-K was half day, and 41 percent said they would not be able to work as much.
To put Texas in context with the rest of the nation, the most recent State of Preschool Yearbook (which addressed the 2015-2016 school year, which was pre-HB 4) from the National Institute for Early Education Research ranks Texas 34th in state spending on Pre-K, 10th in access to Pre-K for four-year-olds, and 12th for three-year-olds. The same snapshot also revealed the quality issues for Texas – the state only hit two benchmarks out of 10 possible.
Texas needs to continue a move forward, not backward.
A staggering 90 percent of brain development happens by age 5. Yet only five percent of public education dollars are spent on growing the youngest minds through early childhood education. Without a continued and consistent push to increase funding, access and quality, it will be difficult for Texas to grow the workforce it needs to attract new business and reach the state’s own goal of at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 having a certificate or degree by 2030.