In the News: Quality Pre-K: High demand is heartening, but Texas shouldn't let it dilute first-class programs

Houston Chronicle - April 20, 2016

Vocabulary is one telling difference between children who come to school ready for pre-K and those who aren't: Children of poor or uneducated parents have been exposed to as much as 30 million fewer words than their wealthier counterparts, according to studies.

Educators know early education can help close that gap. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Texas school districts representing 86 percent of the students in the state's traditional public schools submitted applications for the state's new pre-K grants, according to a leading nonprofit's analysis of information provided by the Texas Education Agency.

Although there's no quick fix to fight poverty and inequality, it's heartening to see a growing recognition in our state that preschool is an important tool with the potential to changes lives. Quality preschool, that is. Anything less is not as likely to improve outcomes. And that's the pitfall that our state needs to avoid.

Given the high demand, if the grant money is diluted among all the schools applying, districts may be unable to afford the hallmark of quality programs: a low student-teacher ratio.

Quick back-of-the-envelope calculations show why. After Gov. Greg Abbott announced that quality pre-K was one of his top priorities, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 4 in 2015 with the goal of establishing a pre-k grant program. The Legislature provided $118 million for the program in the current two-year state budget, directing TEA to distribute the funding to eligible, participating school districts in the 2016-2017 school year.

If every application is accepted, the grant funding allotted to each district could amount to less than half of the $1,500 per-student maximum envisioned in HB 4, according to a preliminary analysis of TEA's data by the nonprofit Texans Care for Children.

Say a school district received a grant for $600 per child over and above the existing funding; the sum likely would be insufficient to ensure a reasonable student-teacher ratio.

There is no state rule establishing a pre-K student-teacher ratio. However, when the funding is distributed to school districts, it will be subject to a rule published by the TEA that states that school districts or open-enrollment charter schools receiving funding must attempt to maintain an average ratio of not less than one certified teacher or teacher's aide for every 11 students.

The rule takes a step forward in setting an appropriate student to teacher ratio. But it's not a requirement, meaning school districts will be free to set their own rules. Some will make good decisions; some won't.

You can give a teacher the best training and the best books, but if you give her responsibility for too many children who have never been to school before, progress is impossible. These problems become more of an issue when many in the class don't speak English. This point is one that will be a political lightning rod, but there is no escaping that it reflects our state's demographic reality - and failure to educate these children will strangle our state's economic future.

There is nothing conservative about providing so little funding for a government initiative that it is doomed to falter. Our state's grant program is a great start, but the governor should strengthen his commitment to quality pre-K by making sure the effort has the resources it needs. He can accomplish this by ramping up the revenues or by dialing down on the scope of the program. Success, rather than mediocrity, should be the goal.

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