Budget Cuts Put Pre-K in Jeopardy

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Getty Images / Joe Corrigan/Stringer

    With about an hour and a half left in Pamela Houston's full-day pre-kindergarten class, her students' bright eyes are still rapt as she begins to read "The Grouchy Ladybug."

    Her animated reading is accompanied by questions the children eagerly answer -- "What are the parts of a bug?" "Head, thorax and abdomen," they reply in chorus. Students in the south Dallas classroom then participate in math activities before breaking into small groups for further lessons and finally heading home.

    Although many experts say these full-day classes are beneficial to children, looming cuts to education funding have put many of these full-day pre-k programs on the chopping block in hundreds of districts across Texas.

    As state lawmakers debate how to fix a gaping budget shortfall in the coming weeks, school officials are faced with the difficult choice of trimming their classes to a half day or eliminating other costs.

    "There's no question that the full-day program is extremely beneficial, especially for the population that the full day serves," said Kara Johnson, who heads the Austin-based Texas Early Childhood Education Coalition.

    Funding cuts still being debated in the Legislature don't affect the standard half-day program that districts must offer if they have enough qualifying students.

    But about a quarter of the state's 1,237 districts receive pre-kindergarten grants that are expected to disappear in the new Texas budget. Because most of these districts use that funding for full-day classes, even some of the state's largest school systems are now considering cutting their full-day offerings or shifting funding from other programs.

    The grant cuts -- included in both the Senate- and House-approved budget proposals -- would save the state more than $200 million in its attempt to solve a $27 billion budget shortfall over the next two fiscal years.

    Earlier this year, the priority in the Dallas school district -- which offers half day at some schools and a full day at others -- was to expand all its pre-kindergarten classes to a full day. But amid the pending budget cuts, the district is now unsure whether it will be able to keep any full-day programs.

    "It's more instructional time. It's what we think would benefit kids the best," said Beth Steerman, director of early childhood for the Dallas district. "The better foundation that kids can have as they enter kindergarten and beyond, the better they're going to do."

    Districts in Fort Worth and Houston, the state's largest district, plan to keep their full-day classes by shifting resources.

    "Full-day pre-k is such a priority that we've redirected money. ... We know how crucial that is to getting young children off on the right foot," said Houston school district spokesman Jason Spencer, adding that in anticipation of losing the state grant, they're funding the full-day by using federal money and making cuts to other programs.

    Other districts, such as Carrollton-Farmers Branch in suburban Dallas, have already eliminated their full-day offerings. That district was among those that found ways other than the grants to fund a full day, but reverted to a half day anyway in anticipation of a tight budget.

    In Midland, Superintendent Ryder Warren said that in order to continue offering a full day, the district is closing its two pre-kindergarten centers and moving the programs into schools. The cost savings will help offset the anticipated loss of the state grant.

    A study done by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University compared children in an eight-hour pre-kindergarten program to children assigned to a 2.5 to three-hour program in a randomized trial, finding that those in the longer program had a greater improvement in test scores.

    "Pre-k is important because it sets a child up on a path to school success," said Steve Barnett, institute co-director and one of the study's authors.

    But Susan Landry, director of the University of Texas Health Science Center's Children's Learning Institute in Houston, said her concern is more with the quality of the program. She cited a study published in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly that found children's academic gains related more with the quality of the program than its duration.

    Matecha Kibble, whose son Caleb is in Houston's class, said she has noticed his progress and hopes the program isn't cut to a half day when her 3-year-old daughter is ready to attend.

    "I see him blossoming," said the stay-at-home mother of nine. "Where when he's at home, he's under mom all the time."

    Caleb's teacher said some of that success is because the children have more time to learn the lessons.

    "Full day they get more extensive experiences with each other, more conversation," Houston said. "They'll get to practice more of what they learn. Half day it'll just be rush, rush, rush, rush."