This is one in a series of blog posts about our 2015 legislative agenda.
The first five years of a child’s life are critical for building the foundation needed for success in school. High-quality learning environments are shown to level the playing field for low-income students, improving their chances of succeeding in elementary school and then later in life. With the opportunity to succeed early in school, children are much more likely to graduate from high school, find a job, and eventually excel in their careers. In addition to student success, research has shown that taxpayers receive a high return on investment by enjoying a more productive workforce and experiencing lower rates of crime.
Pre-K was a priority issue for both gubernatorial candidates during last year’s campaign and has become a popular, research-backed bi-partisan issue throughout the state and country. Currently the state pays for voluntary half-day pre-K for four-year-olds who come from low-income families, speak English as a second language, or meet other eligibility criteria. Some districts extend classes to a "full day,” which is six hours, using other sources of funding.
This legislative session our focus is on improving the quality of early education by setting limits on pre-K class sizes, establishing an Office of Early Learning, and lowering the allowable class sizes and child-caregiver ratios in child care.
Texas has the largest state-funded pre-K program in the country, but unfortunately, the National Institute for Early Education Research also finds that we have among the lowest quality standards in the nation. Research shows that pre-K can provide a huge return on investment, but our current program doesn’t have the quality standards necessary to yield those kinds of returns. Lawmakers want our kids to be ready for kindergarten, but that is a tall order when some classes have upwards of 30 kids with only one teacher to guide them. Currently the state places no limit on the size of pre-K classes or the ratio of children to teachers. Establishing class ratios and caps, as HB 296 proposes, will help improve quality in our classrooms. And ensuring that our state spending is at least at national average will help Texas to reach its goals in this area.
The absence of quality standards is in part a reflection of the inadequate state oversight of the pre-K program. Of the ten most populous states, Texas is the only one without an Office of Early Learning. Establishing an Office of Early Learning at the Texas Education Agency, as proposed by HB 617, would elevate the focus on these critical years and increase accountability of our state dollars. It would increase the state’s capacity to successfully apply for federal early education grants. Most importantly, it will help ensure we are meeting the program's intent to get kids ready for kindergarten.
Texas children would also be better served if leaders addressed child care standards, as well as pre-K. The topic of pre-K often overshadows the step before: child care. The ages of 0 to 4 are critical for brain development, so child care standards need attention too. A reasonable ratio of adults to children in the classroom must exist for quality interactions and real learning to take place. Lower ratios improve the safety of a child, as well as children's ability to learn. Imagine the stress a teacher experiences with sole responsibility for eleven two-year-olds, and the increased likelihood of accidents. This is what our state rules allow, despite outcry from advocates, and the fact that most other states have higher standards. Four years ago, our regulatory agency, DFPS, concluded that "the standards do not adequately protect the health and safety of children in some age ranges,” but no change has been made. Texas kids shouldn’t have to wait any longer.
Investing in quality early education can provide a great return on investment and voters support it. However, the key word is quality, and without that, we don't get the results we're aiming for. And we all know quality comes with a price tag. So we call on Texas leaders to do right by our youngest learners by allocating adequate resources to get us to our goal: strong education, a strong workforce, and a strong Texas.