Op-ed: TX Legislature Should Back Early Childhood Strategies for English Learners

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, Corpus Christi Caller Times, and San Antonio Express-News.

Two years ago, the Legislature took strong steps to overhaul our school finance system and set the goal of ensuring all Texas kids are strong readers by third grade. While House Bill 3 was a huge achievement — and we especially cheered their funding of full-day pre-k for eligible students — reaching that early literacy goal will require the state to do more.

To reach that third grade reading goal, one key next step is for Texas to better support young English Learners in child care, pre-k, and other early grades. English Learners — who have always been a significant part of the state’s public school population — account for more than a quarter of Texas students from pre-k through third grade.


Smarter state strategies for English Learners will also help them master both English and their home language, which has well-documented cognitive benefits for children. Our students’ potential to become multilingual is also an incredible asset that we should harness to help grow a Texas workforce that competes on the world stage. Of course, the best time to learn both languages is in early childhood, when the rapidly developing brain is like a sponge for language.

To pursue these goals for the state’s young English Learners, Texans Care for Children, Philanthropy Advocates, Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), and others formed the Texas Early Childhood English Learner Initiative after the passage of HB 3. The Initiative worked with teachers, researchers, parents, child care providers, and other experts across Texas to better understand the challenges and potential solutions.

We learned a lot in our year of research. For example, while Dual Language Immersion is the most effective model of instruction, and the Legislature included a provision in HB 3 to promote it, Texas schools still widely use all kinds of different, less effective approaches to educating young English Learners. Additionally, Texas does not have nearly enough bilingual certified teachers to educate our English Learners. And there’s little information on how child care programs educate English Learners, as many programs do not collect data on children’s home language, English proficiency, race, or ethnicity, and the state does not offer them consistent and comprehensive guidelines for educating English Learners.

When COVID-19 hit, the Initiative’s work became even more urgent. It turns out that online learning just doesn’t work well for pre-k and other early grades. Developing language skills in particular works much better in person compared to Zoom calls and online assignments. Additionally, during the pandemic, students have faced uneven access to learning opportunities, depending on factors like reliable home internet, the availability of a quiet place to study, and the time and capacity of busy parents. The result is that during a critical year of early childhood, many young English Learners missed out.

To address these challenges, the Initiative recently published a roadmap of recommendations on the new bilingualtexas.org website, drawing on the input collected across the state. Legislators have filed bills aimed at implementing several of the recommendations. Sen. Brandon Creighton and Rep. Bobby Guerra filed legislation (SB 1101 and HB 2256) to create a bilingual special education teacher certification focused on English Learners. Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. and Rep. Guerra stepped up by introducing bills to create a state strategic plan for supporting young English Learners (SB 560 and HB 2258). Sen. José Menéndez and Rep. James Talarico filed bills to create pre-k class size limits (SB 2081 and HB 41). Beyond these bills, the Legislature can also help English Learners recover from the pandemic through the state budget.

We urge the Legislature to pass these and other initiatives for early childhood English Learners. And we encourage state agencies, school districts, and child care providers to take the steps outlined in the roadmap to help more kids and our state reach their full potential.