Pre-K pri­or­i­ties at is­sue

Leg­is­la­tors so far not en­thu­si­as­tic about fund­ing Ab­bott’s sig­na­ture grant ini­tia­tive.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Julie Chang jchang@states­man.com

A mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar prekinder­garten grant pro­gram, a leg­isla­tive pri­or­ity of Gov. Greg Ab­bott two years ago, is in dan­ger of go­ing un­funded this ses­sion as House lead­ers so far are ig­nor­ing Ab­bott’s pleas to spend money on the ini­tia­tive over the next two years.

School ad­min­is­tra­tors, mean­while, are split on whether the pro­gram should con­tinue.

Es­tab­lished in 2015, the grant pro­gram has given 578 school dis­tricts an ex­tra $734 per pre-K stu­dent — a to­tal of $130 mil­lion over 2016-17. Those dis­tricts have com­mit­ted to im­ple­ment­ing high-qual- ity stan­dards in prekinder­garten class­rooms such as fam­ily en­gage­ment, re­port­ing more data to the state and re­quir­ing teach­ers have an ad­di­tional cre­den­tial. Keep­ing the grant pro­gram would mean about half of Texas’ school dis­tricts that meet the re­quire­ments of the grant could ben­e­fit from the money; end­ing it could mean that the money would be re­dis­tributed to ev­ery school dis­trict that has a prekinder­garten pro­gram.

“The uti­liza­tion of that fund has al­lowed us to go in-depth with our pre-K pro­gram at a level we have never been able to do,” said Shar­rah Pharr, di­rec­tor of

fed­eral pro­grams and grants for the Hays school dis­trict, which will have re­ceived a to­tal of $365,000 in pre-K grant money from the state.

How­ever, some school dis­tricts el­i­gi­ble for the grant money turned it down be­cause the pro­gram’s re­quire­ments would have been too ex­pen­sive to carry out for the amount of money avail­able.

A po­lit­i­cal foot­ball?

Last month, House lead­ers re­vised their bud­get pro­posal that in­cluded end­ing the high-qual­ity prekinder­garten grant pro­gram. They in­stead would make a one­time al­lo­ca­tion to all school dis­tricts with pre-K class­rooms, with­out in­sist­ing on any ad­di­tional re­port­ing or cre­den­tial re­quire­ments. The move would bring pre-K fund­ing up to $147 mil­lion over the next two years.

Ab­bott, un­happy that his sig­na­ture pro­gram is at risk, says that he would rather have no prekinder­garten pro­gram if it’s not con­sid­ered high qual­ity. He wants law­mak­ers to dou­ble the fund­ing of the grant pro­gram to $236 mil­lion over the next two years.

“It’s clear that the gov­er­nor’s state­ment to do this right or not at all was mis­in­ter­preted by the House. The gov­er­nor be­lieves they should ei­ther fully fund high-qual­ity pre-K or elim­i­nate pre-K fund­ing al­to­gether,” said Ab­bott’s spokesman, John Wittman.

In his State of the State ad­dress in Jan­uary, Ab­bott chided law­mak­ers for not bud­get­ing more money for his pre-K pro­gram: “You brought high-qual­ity stan­dards to a pre-K sys­tem that des­per­ately needed mean­ing­ful im­prove­ment. So, I’m per­plexed by the bud­gets sub­mit­ted by the House and Se­nate. They nod in the di­rec­tion of pre-K but they turn a blind eye to the goal of achiev­ing high-qual­ity pre-K.”

Ja­son Em­bry, press sec­re­tary for House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San An­to­nio, said House lead­ers pre­fer to give school dis­tricts flex­i­bil­ity in how they run their pro­grams.

“The House bud­get pri­or­i­tizes pre-K pro­grams that serve al­most 90 per­cent of school dis­tricts and give lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and par­ents greater dis­cre­tion over how to al­lo­cate funds,” Em­bry said.

The Se­nate rec­om­mends fund­ing the grant pro­gram $86 mil­lion below Ab­bott’s tar­get for the next two years.

Ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tee lead­ers in the House and Se­nate, Sen. Larry Tay­lor, R-Friendswood, and Rep. Dan Hu­berty, R-Hous­ton, aren’t weigh­ing in on what school dis­trict ad­vo­cates see as a po­lit­i­cal tug of war be­tween Ab­bott and Straus. Tay­lor and Hu­berty de­clined re­quests for com­ment.

“There’s clearly some po­lit­i­cal divi­sion be­tween some House mem­bers and the gov­er­nor. But there’s agree­ment on qual­ity pre-K and that will get sorted out over the ses­sion,” said Stephanie Ru­bin, head of Tex­ans Care for Chil­dren, which sup­ports fund­ing Ab­bott’s grant pro­gram.

School dis­tricts torn on fund­ing

Dis­tricts that re­ceived money from the grant tend to be in sup­port of keep­ing it; those that didn’t re­ceive grant money were sup­port­ive of mak­ing that money avail­able to all dis­tricts, said Cen­tral Texas school of­fi­cials who re­sponded to an Amer­i­can-States­man re­quest for com­ment.

“The funds in the grant pro­grams were so small and with so many strings that they were in­com­pat­i­ble with op­er­at­ing our pro­gram any­way,” said Doug Kil­lian, su­per­in­ten­dent of the Hutto school dis­trict, which did not ap­ply for the grant. “The House’s move, while not pro­vid­ing a sig­nif­i­cant amount of funds, at least flows them to all dis­tricts who are al­ready try­ing to serve pre-K chil­dren, pri­mar­ily with lim­ited state and fed­eral funds sup­ple­mented with lo­cal funds and tu­ition.”

Twenty-one dis­tricts statewide, in­clud­ing Lock­hart, turned the money down be­cause it wasn’t enough to cover the re­quire­ments of im­ple­ment­ing the high-qual­ity stan­dards.

Sue Car­pen­ter, se­nior di­rec­tor of Suc­cess by 6, the United Way for Greater Austin’s early ed­u­ca­tion ini­tia­tive, said that putting money in a grant pro­gram that has to be re­plen­ished each leg­isla­tive ses­sion pre­vents school dis­tricts from plan­ning for the fu­ture. She would pre­fer that the money is dis­bursed through the school fund­ing for­mula so that it is guar­an­teed each year.

School dis­tricts should be trusted to im­ple­ment high-qual­ity stan­dards with or with­out a grant pro­gram, she said.

Though Cen­tral Texas school dis­tricts used Ab­bott’s grant pro­gram to “ben­e­fit and to en­hance their pro­grams, the univer­sal theme was that they wish this was part of for­mula fund­ing be­cause then we would have greater lat­i­tude in more of the sys­temic and struc­tural changes ... like adding staff. It’s kind of hard for a school dis­trict who wants to hire a bunch of in­di­vid­u­als if you think that this fund­ing would only be good for a year,” Car­pen­ter said.

Ten Cen­tral Texas school dis­tricts re­ceived a to­tal of $6 mil­lion, with the Austin dis­trict re­ceiv­ing the most — $3 mil­lion — which Austin of­fi­cials have said is suf­fi­cient to cover the cost of the re­quire­ments.

Pharr said the Hays school dis­trict has been able to im­ple­ment more teacher train­ing and add tech­nol­ogy in the class­room. Of­fi­cials are plan­ning on us­ing the grant money to launch cod­ing lessons for pre-K stu­dents.

The Texas Ed­u­ca­tion Agency has stud­ied nine school dis­tricts statewide and Har­mony char­ter school in Austin and de­ter­mined that all of them would like to keep the grant pro­gram in part be­cause it in­creased their pre-K en­roll­ment.

Texas has about 220,000 pre-K stu­dents, with school dis­tricts re­ceiv­ing on av­er­age about $3,600 per stu­dent in state fund­ing. The state pays for half-day pro­grams for stu­dents from low-in­come and mil­i­tary fam­i­lies.

Re­search has shown that stu­dents who at­tend pre-K are bet­ter pre­pared for kinder­garten and read­ing and math in higher grades. They also have bet­ter so­cial and emo­tional skills at a younger age and higher at­ten­dance rates in mid­dle and high schools.

Texas does bet­ter than most states in pro­vid­ing pre-K ed­u­ca­tion; about half of the state’s 4-year-olds are in such pro­grams, ac­cord­ing to data from the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Early Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search. But the study also found that Texas pro­grams are less ef­fec­tive than those in other states.

Nearly half of the state’s school dis­tricts dip into lo­cal money to of­fer full-day pro­grams, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 sur­vey from the ed­u­ca­tion re­search and ad­vo­cacy group Chil­dren at Risk.

Con­tact Julie Chang at 512-912-2565. Twit­ter: @juliechang1

RI­CARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN A mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar prekinder­garten grant pro­gram cham­pi­oned by Gov. Greg Ab­bott and launched in 2015 has given 578 Texas school dis­tricts an ex­tra $734 per pre-K stu­dent, amount­ing to a to­tal of $130 mil­lion fo

RI­CARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Texas has about 220,000 pre-K stu­dents, with school dis­tricts re­ceiv­ing on av­er­age about $3,600 per stu­dent in state fund­ing. The state pays for half-day pro­grams for stu­dents from low-in­come and mil­i­tary fam­i­lies.

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