The Dallas Examiner
Many education specialists have stated that the best start to a good education is an early start, namely a high-quality, full-day prekindergarten program. Because 90 percent of brain development occurs before age 5, children who attend pre-K are 3.5 times more likely to be ready for kindergarten, succeed in school, graduate and go to college, according to Dallas ISD.
However, these opportunities for a good start aren’t open to all students. In 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the signing of House Bill 4, which issued a grant for Texas schools to offer funding for full-day pre-K programs to fewer than half of all Texas schools, leaving each city and school district to determine where the programs would be offered.
Currently, full-day pre-K programs in Dallas ISD are tuition-based and offered this year in only five of its 157 elementary schools along U.S. Highway 75, north of Downtown Dallas, as part of a pilot program.
The tuition rate is set at $700 per month. Free tuition is offered to military families, free or reduced lunch participants, ESL students, foster care and homeless children. All other 4-year-olds whose parents cannot afford the tuition can participate in free half-day pre-K.
Early education advocates expressed their concern that the program ignored areas that were primarily low- to moderate-income African American families.
With enrollment in Dallas ISD schools steadily decreasing, the district vowed to expand the pre-K program. This year, the full-day program began enrollment April 3 for the 2017/2018 school year at a lower rate of $525 monthly at 19 district elementary schools – leaving 138 schools out of the program.
In an effort to expand free high quality, full-day pre-K programs, Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, filed Pre-K Formula Funding – House Bill 2282 in February, to fund a gold standard full-day pre-K program for all schools in qualifying school districts that serve economically disadvantaged children and adopt national best practices for improving educational outcomes – not just in Dallas but throughout Texas.
“I want the state of Texas to increase its funding share of pre-K from one half-day to one full-day. Right now the state pays every district for every child that they enroll in one pre-K enough money to pay for half of it and I want it to pay for all of it,” he said.
Texas law currently only requires districts to offer a half-day pre-K program in areas that have eligible preschoolers that fit the definition of eligibility set by the education code. Johnson stated he wanted to double the amount that each school receives for the program and include schools in all underserved areas to fund the full-day program.
“Mainly because of two reasons,” he explained. “One, full-day works better than half-day in terms of what the kids are able to learn and what can be accomplished. And two, because working families can’t take advantage of half-day pre-K as well as they could take advantage of full-day pre-K because of work.
“The biggest barrier consistently when people are asked why they don’t participate in the pre-K program is that families can’t take off in the middle of the day to pick up their child from a half-day program.”
Johnson pointed out that the mayor’s bill was funded through a grant, while the HB 2282 would be funded by the Foundation School Program.
“To highlight why my bill is different from what the governor proposed last session and what he’s asking for this session; the main difference is that the governor wants to fund pre-K as a grant, as a special program that every two years we have to come back to Austin and reauthorize,” he explained. “I want to fund pre-K through the school funding fund that we fund kindergarten through 12th grade. And if you think about it, you say, ‘What does that mean?’ Well, think about this. You know, you never read a headline that says the Legislature is contemplating whether or not it’s going to fully fund the fifth grade this year. You never hear that there’s a certain grade that we may not pay for. That’s because it doesn’t work like that. For K-12, there’s a formula and it just says, however many of these kids show up on X days … the state just sends you a check for their share of how much we’re suppose to pay per child. It’s not a function of every two years, and when the Legislature meets, we have to determine if we’re going to do it or not. That’s the difference in being in the formula and being a grant.”
He explained that a grant has a term of two years and has to be re-examined and determined every two years.
“Right now, the House and the Senate have both put in their initial budget that they are not going to put any money in the governor’s pre-K program any more. They’ve got zeros right now in his grant program. And that’s the problem with doing it as a grant in the first place,” Johnson said. “I told the governor in a one-on-one sit down meeting in his office, we need to fund pre-K the way we fund K-12. Pre-K needs to be no different than the seventh grade or the eighth grade. However many kids show up on Day One for pre-K or by that third day in September, however many kids are there, the state needs to send the money. And it shouldn’t be subject to a grant every two years being appropriated by the Legislature, because one day the Legislature [isn’t] going to. And sure enough, it didn’t even take one session. We came back this session and the House and the Senate decided not to put any money in it. So there goes the pre-K money.”
Moreover, under the current policy, pre-K programs in Texas have consistently received low marks from The National Institute for Early Education Research.
HB 2282 had more quality measure built into it than the mayor’s bill, according to Johnson.
“We require lower student/teacher ratios so the students get more attention. We require more in the way of training for teachers. We take everything to the level of national best practices. Our bill is much more rigorous than what’s required for a district to qualify for the money. Its higher quality, its full day and its funded through the formula – that’s the key takeaway about our bill,” he said.
Johnson stated that the overall benefit is to improve the education of children in Texas by giving them the best start possible.
“I love Texas. I was born in Texas, raised in Texas. I’m a Texan through and through. And every piece of legislation I propose – whether it’s a local bill that deals with some issues specific to Dallas or it has statewide impact like this – it all has the same goal, and that is to make Texas overall a better place for everyone to live and give everybody the opportunity to reach their full potential.
“And the whole state is going to suffer if entire communities of kids that are on that list of eligibility – all of those kids are starting school behind the eight ball already and not reading on grade-level by third grade, and then not graduating on time or not graduating at all – we’re all going to suffer if we’re not educating those kids so they can be contributing members of the workforce and filling these jobs that we need to fill and making the new discoveries that we’re going to need. We can’t afford for those kids that are on that list to continue to fall through the cracks. We just can’t.”
Furthermore, Johnson believes that funding pre-K would reduce the need for special education programs and result in fewer incidents of delinquency, helping to save the state approximately $142 million annually.
“We know pre-K works when its done right,” he concluded. “And done right means full day and it means high quality, which means high standards, and it means consistency and reliable funding, which means through the formula. That’s what it has to be if it’s going to be given a chance to work.
On March 15, the bill was referred to the Public Education Committee and has yet to be heard or voted on.
Now, with seven weeks left until the end of the 85th Texas Legislative session, Johnson has urged the Legislature to “stop dragging its feet and commit to doing what is right for the children of this state. Our state leaders need to stop playing politics with our most vulnerable children and fully fund a high-quality, full-day, formula-funded pre-K program now.”
He suggested that community members who would like to support the bill should call the members of the Public Education Committee, including the committee chairman, and ask for the bill to be set for a hearing as soon as possible.