The federal government has denied Texas' application for up to $120 million in grants to help pay for pre-kindergarten programs, and some education advocates said the state's push to expand vouchers likely hurt its chances.
Of the 35 states that applied for the U.S. Department of Education grants, Texas and 16 others were denied. Texas proposed creating almost 18,000 new pre-kindergarten slots and improving 40,000 existing slots.
During his recent campaign, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott had proposed increased funding for pre-kindergarten programs that meet higher standards. The cost was estimated at $118 million for the two-year budget cycle, but the Abbott campaign did not specify a funding source.
Federal reviewers graded Texas poorly on such elements of its application as how it would implement its proposals. Texas had proposed using grant money for a trial voucher program that drew criticism from education advocates and pro-business groups.
The plan reflected state leaders' belief in voucher programs and proposed "expanding, enhancing and providing greater parental choice," said Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams in a statement Wednesday.
However, David Anthony, chief executive of the Raise Your Hand Texas education advocacy group, called the voucher program "an ill-considered addition that certainly didn't help our cause."
The state now pays for half-day pre-kindergarten for all eligible 3- and 4-year-olds, and about half of those eligible are enrolled. That is more than 226,000 children at a cost to the state of about $800 million a year. Local districts must pay the difference for full-day pre-kindergarten programs, which only half of the 10 biggest Texas school districts provide.
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"The announcement confirms that the Texas Legislature, rather than the federal government, will have to take the lead on ensuring our state's 4-year-olds are prepared to succeed when they start elementary school," said Eileen Garcia, chief executive of the nonprofit Texans Care for Children.
"The money is certainly there," said Josh Sanderson, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. "The question is, will there be a legislative will to do it?"
The states approved for funding were Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.