Texas Must Fully Fund Pre-k for Low-income Kids

There is broad consensus among Texas philanthropists, business leaders, educators, economists, and others that high quality early childhood education is a powerful tool for ensuring more children start school with the skills to succeed in elementary school and beyond.That's why we were so pleased in 2015 when the governor and Texas Legislature created the new pre-k grant program that directs the Texas Education Agency to establish a program that distributes $118 million per year over the biennium to eligible school districts across Texas. This session, lawmakers must fully fund the program again.To qualify for funding, districts must meet certain enhanced quality standards for curriculum, teacher qualifications, academic performance and family engagement. Districts that receive the grants must report on this information, as well as data about class size, teacher-student ratios, and whether they offer full-day pre-k.Research makes clear that investing in quality pre-k is a smart. A new report from Children at Risk commissioned by The Meadows Foundation found that economically disadvantaged third graders who attended full day Texas pre-k had 40 percent higher odds of reading at a college-ready pace in third grade than economically disadvantaged students who did not attend pre-k. These same students also scored 80 points higher on the third grade STAAR reading exam when they had both quality pre-k and a quality elementary school education, further proof that quality pre-k works. Other studies show Texas pre-k reduces special education expenditures and produces other benefits.As philanthropists who consistently use data to inform our grant making, Texas Education Advocacy Grantmakers Education Consortium in 2015 commissioned the non-profit organization Texans Care for Children to evaluate local demand for and implementation of the bill.The research found that there was overwhelming demand across the state for the new pre-k grant funds. Texas districts representing a whopping 86 percent of students in pre-k are receiving funding in the first year. Texans Care's report also found that the grants are serving pre-k students in districts across the economic spectrum. Eighty-three percent of pre-k students in lower poverty districts (less than 40 percent disadvantaged) are benefitting from the grants compared to 87 percent of those in higher poverty districts (more than 60 percent disadvantaged).But the pre-k bill was about more than just money. The effort is also about data and transparency. Texans deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent on pre-k. Under the new program, all districts are now required to report class sizes and the ratio of teachers-to-students. This information will allow parents and policymakers to finally get a clear picture of how districts are investing their pre-k dollars and of the quality of pre-k in Texas.Now districts across the state are implementing the quality improvement initiatives included in the 2015 legislation. The research that The Dallas Foundation, United Ways of Texas, and other grant makers commissioned proves that Texas school districts are using the funding to prioritize the elements of high-quality pre-k, such as teacher training, curriculum, instructional materials, technology and parent engagement. Some districts also used the grants to expand full-day pre-k options.Texans should be proud of the bi-partisanship and cooperation of Governor Abbott and the Democrats and Republicans in the Texas Legislature up to this point, but we can't let up now. Texas philanthropy continues to be committed to partnering with the state to support quality pre-k in districts across Texas, just as we have for decades, but the most recent versions of the Senate and House budgets do not reflect the full commitment of the state's resources. The grant program is off to a solid start, but state leaders must continue to fund the program to ensure that it's successful and Texas kids are ready for kindergarten.We encourage the Texas Legislature to fully fund the high-quality pre-k grant program at $236 million over the biennium so that we can build on our accomplishments and finish what we started.Mary Jalonick is chief executive of The Dallas Foundation and chair of the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News. Website: dallasfoundation.orgAdrianna Cuellar-Rojas is chief executive of United Ways of Texas. Website: uwtexas.org  Continue reading...

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