Bipartisan Supporters and Powerful Data Back Texas Pre-K

This commentary first appeared in the Austin American Statesman.

The Democratic and Republican campaign consultants who recently squared off on the Statesman editorial page may have entertained partisan readers but left them with the wrong impressions about pre-kindergarten in Texas.

While the Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak addressed the federal Head Start program, the state of Texas has focused its funding on voluntary pre-K for low-income and other eligible 4-year-olds. The state provides funding for school districts to offer half-day pre-K (3 hours), sometimes in partnership with private child care centers. If districts can scrounge up enough local tax dollars, they can expand to full-day (6 hours).

Contrary to the columnists, pre-K has not been a particularly partisan issue. Republican governors in other states have championed pre-K investments. In Texas, a wide variety of Republican state legislators have shown their support, with more than 20 putting their names on the last significant full-day pre-K bill. True, as state leaders made deep cuts to education in 2011, Democrats rightly criticized them for eliminating state grants for extending pre-K from half-day to full-day, noting that full-day has a much greater impact on children.

The broad support for pre-K extends beyond our elected officials. The chambers of commerce from the state’s eight largest metro areas have urged the Legislature to fund full-day pre-K. The president of the Texas Association of Business summed up the business position well, saying, "If we want to improve our workforce, increase the tax base, and reduce the societal cost of high school dropouts, then we are going to have to convince everyone that pre-K is an extremely good investment.” Throughout the country, economists, educators and law enforcement leaders are making the same arguments.

These supporters know that many children from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t enroll in pre-K are already behind their classmates on day one of kindergarten and fall further behind year after year. Locally, E3 Alliance, a business-backed research group, found that "almost half of Central Texas children are not ready for kindergarten.”

Pre-K supporters also know these classes can help close that gap. Citing one of the most rigorous long-term studies of a high-quality pre-K program, which took place in Michigan, the Texas Association of Business wrote, "The study found that the subjects who were enrolled in a pre-kindergarten program were more likely to have graduated from high school, had higher earnings, and had committed fewer crimes than the comparison group who did not attend a pre-kindergarten program.”

Researchers at Austin’s E3 Alliance, conducting a sophisticated regression analysis to control for income and other variables, found that local kindergartners were four times more likely to be prepared for school if they were previously enrolled in pre-K. Studies also show that preparing kids for kindergarten saves taxpayers money because districts and states end up with lower costs for special education and other expenditures.

Two of E3 Alliance’s other findings need the Legislature’s attention. First, significantly more eligible families sign their kids up for pre-K if it’s full-day. It’s not surprising that half-day programs don’t fit into some working family’s busy schedules.

Second, pre-K students who had a combination of a full-day program and low student-teacher ratios were more prepared for elementary school than other pre-K students. Texas is one of the only states that does not have a pre-K class size cap or ratio requirement, with some schools assigning 28 4-year-olds to compete for the attention of a single pre-K teacher.

Funding full-day pre-K and lowering class sizes aren’t the only steps the state can take to ensure more children start school ready to succeed. We need to take a look at other early childhood policies, especially those for children younger than 4, when 85 percent of brain growth occurs. For example, we can ensure more young Texans are developing on track by improving child care quality through lower teacher-student ratios, expanding research-backed programs to work with at-risk mothers of infants in their homes, and establishing a Texas Education Agency office of early learning to bolster early education programs.

Plenty of work remains for early childhood education in Texas, but we have the proven strategies and broad support necessary to provide our littlest learners the support they need.

Brauer is the early education policy associate at Texans Care For Children.