Child advocacy group calls on state to increase funding for pre-K

Touting it as the biggest return on investment for Texas children, a child advocacy group on Tuesday called on state leaders to increase funding for quality pre-kindergarten programs.

The Houston-based group Children at Risk released the findings of its year-long assessment of pre-kindergarten in Texas. The report, The State of Pre-K: Realities and Opportunities in Texas, reveals that most school districts want to offer full-day pre-kindergarten programs, but have inadequate funding.

Research indicates that students who participate in pre-kindergarten programs are more likely to be school-ready and show increases in academic achievement. Such programs are critical for low-income children, research shows, who tend to start school behind their peers.

A “high-quality pre-K program is the way to go for our students,” said Bob Sanborn, president of Children at Risk. “If we want all of our students to be successful in Texas, this is going to be the best and most cost-effective way. … It’s far less expensive to do pre-K now than do to dropout recovery and to put people in jail and to try to get kids to go to college who aren’t ready. Those things are far more costly than doing pre-K today.”

There’s been a push among education advocates and policymakers to get more students prepared to enter school. Talk of revamping early education has also spilled into the gubernatorial campaigns of Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott, with Davis advocating for universal pre-K and Abbott pitching for individual school districts to develop stepped-up programs.

Since 2011, when more than $200 million was cut from the state’s Early Start Grant Program, some districts were forced to eliminate full-day pre-kindergarten, increase class sizes or cut the program altogether, the study showed.

“It is imperative that Texas choose to prioritize what could be the biggest return on investments we could have in regards to our children: a quality early education,” said Katherine Wright, executive director of the Wright Family Foundation, one of the groups that forms the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, which commissioned the study.

According to the study, the quality and size of pre-kindergarten programs vary widely across the state, with about half of Texas school districts offering a full-day pre-kindergarten and nearly two-thirds offering programs to some students who don’t automatically qualify.

Children at Risk called on the state to provide more transparency of pre-kindergarten assessment and increase the data available about such programs managed by school districts; to create financial incentives for districts to offer full-day pre-kindergarten; and to tie additional funding to school districts that limit class sizes to 20 students or a staff-to-student ratio of one teacher to 10 students.

There is no state policy regulating class size or teacher-to-student ratios for pre-kindergarten classes.

The report comes days after Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced he plans to apply for a federal grant to expand pre-kindergarten in Texas. The new Preschool Development grant program, through the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will award the money through a competitive process.

According to Texas Education Agency data, there were 227,568 students in a pre-kindergarten program in Texas in 2012-13. Eighty-six percent were economically disadvantaged.

In Travis County, only 1 in 2 preschool-age children have the skills needed as they enter kindergarten, according to the United Way for Greater Austin.

Local school districts have taken action to bolster early education efforts. In 2012, the Austin school district partnered with the federally funded Head Start program so that more 3-year-olds could be in Head Start and all 4-year-olds could be in pre-kindergarten. This year, Head Start is also serving some of the district’s 4-year-olds, as well.

With budget constraints, it’s been difficult for the Austin district to fund full-day pre-kindergarten, and the district is looking for ways to continue offering it, said Jacquie Porter, director of early childhood education.

“There are so many benefits to pre-kindergarten, and there are so much research to lifelong benefits of a smart start,” she said. “We need to invest more in our youngest children.”

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