Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

In May, the Texas House and Senate approved HB-3, which provides around $11.6 billion in funding for public schools.

Providing full-day pre-Kindergarten for eligible 4-year-olds is among the changes the funding is going toward. Eligible 4-year-old children must be either from a low-income family, live in foster care or be homeless, have an active-duty military parent, be a child of a first responder, or have limited English-speaking skills. The Senate bill has children of educators employed by a school district as eligible, too. 

In April, Holly Heard, the associate director of research data operations at Houston Education Research Consortium, testified alongside several other education experts to the Texas Senate's Committee for Education about the research revealing the importance of all-day pre-K.

She highlighted 2017 HERC research from Erin Baumgartner, HERC's HISD associate director of research and relations, that found students who had two years of pre-K with the district were the most likely to be “school ready” – 45 percent compared to 39 percent of students with only one year of pre-K with the district – and were more than twice as likely to be school ready than those who had zero years of pre-K with the district. 

"What this means is that attending full-day pre-k for at least one year made about twice as many students ready for entering kindergarten as those who did not attend," Heard told the Senate committee. As of publication, the bill is waiting to be signed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Once he signs the bill, it will go into effect for the 2019-2020 school year. 

While the bill is taking steps in the right direction, Baumgartner wants to change the perspective of pre-K in Texas from being an option for at-risk students to being the norm for all students.

"Right now, pre-K is not the norm," Baumgartner said. "It's not provided for all students. It's provided for the at-risk populations, so it may be less common that everyone just assumes a child should be in pre-K somewhere. I think we should be talking about universal pre-K because it's important to change the expectations and the norms around going to pre-K."

Kindergarten, she explained, was not "the norm" at one time either, but it's been universally accepted as the beginning of a child's educational career, which has long-term impacts on a child's learning years down the road.

"Which is so crazy to think about kindergarten as such an important point, but there is research that shows half of the gap that exists between black and white students at the end of high school can be traced back to kindergarten entry," Baumgartner said. "So if we eliminate the gaps early on, it's going to mean better things for long-term outcomes for students," Baumgartner said.

While normalizing pre-K to be the new education entry-point is the goal, the Legislature hasn't been consistent in its support and funding of pre-K. In 2011, lawmakers cut a pre-K grant, then restored a portion of that money two years later. Then in 2015, lawmakers created a high-quality pre-K grant program but cut the money for the program in 2017. Baumgartner noted many of those state-funded grants were contingent on quality standards being met and many smaller-sized districts had trouble meeting those standards, so they often lost the money. 

Prior to the most recent bill, Texas paid for districts to offer half-day pre-K to eligible students and districts had to pay out-of-pocket for the second half of the day. Now that the funding is set to expand to full-day programs, Baumgartner expects many districts will be able to reallocate their funding in order to improve quality by lowering class sizes, hiring trained people and additional support staff in classrooms. 

"Hopefully, for districts who were already moving toward full-day programs, this gives them an extra boost," Baumgartner said. "These things are expensive. They cost money."

The next project for Baumgartner and HERC's work in pre-K partners with Houston Independent School District to identify students' access and utilization. Her team is ensuring that HISD located the right areas where their early childhood centers and pre-K programs need to be. "When you've got a 4-year old, you don't want to drive very far with them. That distance matters, so we're trying to help the district think intentionally about what it means to improve access," she said.

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