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Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature pre-K program in danger of going unfunded

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 — total of $118 million over 2016-17 . Those districts have committed to implementing high-quality standards in prekindergarten classrooms like 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.

Pre-K 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 one-time allocation to all school districts with pre-K classrooms without 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.

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 keeps 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 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.

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