Pre-K, early education, and child care: What do the different labels mean and how do their state standards and oversight differ?

During the recent legislative session, the Capitol and the media were abuzz with discussions about the importance of early education and various pre-K policy proposals. Since Governor Abbott declared pre-K as a top priority and passed a major piece of legislation, HB 4, many are asking which early education programs the bill addresses and which were left out.

The short answer is: It depends on the early education setting, the age of the child, and which government agency oversees the program.

Public School Pre-Kindergarten

HB 4 only addresses children in public school pre-K programs, establishing a grant program for school districts that meet new requirements. The state's public school pre-K program serves about 225,000 children. Four-year-olds in Texas qualify for free pre-K at a district elementary school if they:

  • come from a low-income and/or homeless family;
  • have a parent in the military;
  • are learning English; or
  • have been in the foster care system,

There are local variations in pre-K, with a handful of districts serving three-year-olds, several districts offering a full-day program rather than the state-funded half-day program, and a few small districts providing no pre-K program because of the lack of local demand. The funds flow directly to school districts though the state encourages collaboration between schools, private child care and Head Start programs.

Licensed Child Care

HB 4 does not apply to early education programs offered by private child care centers unless they have a partnership with a school district and serve children that are eligible for public school pre-K. There are approximately 10,500 licensed centers and listed family homes with over one million slots for children in infancy through age 12 in Texas. Most private child care centers are open for longer hours than public school pre-K programs as they aim to serve the needs of working parents. Typically, centers refer to classes serving children between the ages of three and five preparing to enter kindergarten as pre-K.

In contrast to public school pre-K, children can enroll in private child care anytime between infancy and 12 years old, although not all centers offer after-school care for elementary school students. Children in child care settings also come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, ranging from affluent to low-income families, with some receiving child care subsidies from the state. In many cases, low-income children are in child care centers with large class sizes that struggle to provide children the quality care and education they need during this critical period of brain development.

In addition to public pre-K and private child care, Head Start, a federal program, funds preschool for childrenfrom families thatmeet lower income guidelines than thoseattending public school pre-K.Head Start provides twice the funding per child than Texas does for pre-K and also provides comprehensive supportservices for families.

While public pre-K and private child care share a goal of kindergarten readiness for their students, state's oversight and quality standards are quite different depending on where a child receives early education services. The chart below describes the variation in requirements and oversight of early education in our state.

As you can see in the chart above, there is a huge variation in standards, quality, and state oversight depending on the early education setting in Texas. Many states have moved to create early education systems that align public school pre-K and child care standards so there is more consistency and quality control for state programs, resulting in greater school readiness and K-12 success. While Texas had the highest total state pre-K spending in 2013-2014, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, our state meets the lowest number of quality standards in the country.

We urge state leaders to create a higher quality early education system in the coming years. There are currently six state agencies involved in early education, with little coordination between them. The passage of HB 4 is a good first step, and we look forward to seeing the Governor and Legislature's next move to strengthen all of our state's early education efforts.