Our Op-ed: A New Dashboard to Track Early Childhood Development

This commentary by David Feigen, Director of Early Learning Policy at Texans Care for Children, originally appeared in the San Antonio Express-News

The term “school readiness” likely conjures images of preschoolers reciting their ABCs, confidently identifying pictures of animals and showing the makings of a grade-level vocabulary.

Although assessing these early literacy skills is important to understanding a child’s language development, it tells us very little about how Texas is ensuring children are ready to thrive in kindergarten. The new Texas School Readiness Dashboard, from Texans Care for Children, is a tool to better answer that question.

Imagine two Texas children. The first is born healthy, with plenty of books at home, parents who learned vital parenting skills from classes or role models, access to effective doctors, healthy food and well-trained early educators when she goes to child care and pre-K.

The second child is not so fortunate. Because his mom had trouble getting health insurance and prenatal care, he was born prematurely. He begins life with breathing challenges and developmental delays. Unfortunately, his parents don’t get insurance from their jobs and run into bureaucratic obstacles when they try to sign up their son for insurance through Medicaid, so he has less access to quality doctors and early intervention specialists. Because his parents live in an area without sufficient high-quality child care, he does not benefit from the well-trained, nurturing child care educators and play-based learning that support positive brain development.

These two children do not need to take an early literacy assessment for the state to know they did not have an equal opportunity at school readiness. Children are born learning. Their brains and bodies develop rapidly in the first few years of life. But when needs are not met, development can be disrupted and kids start falling behind before they even start school.

In recent years, the Legislature has increasingly recognized the importance of school readiness, investing in pre-K in the 2019 school finance bill and beginning to improve the quality of child care in 2021. But clearly more steps are needed to improve early childhood experiences from birth to age 5.

The recent launch of our dashboard provides data on the early childhood experiences that experts identified as critical to school readiness. The data reveal challenges and opportunities.

The state ranks 47th in the nation on access to voluntary home-visiting programs, which strengthen parenting skills. More than half of low-income Texas children younger than 6 with working parents live in an area with inadequate access to subsidized child care. More than 10 percent of Texas babies are born preterm, with Black babies at higher risk. Nearly half of low-income Texas women of childbearing age are uninsured, the worst rate in the U.S.

Too many young children are going hungry or uninsured, but Texas lags behind other states in enrolling eligible children in Medicaid health insurance or SNAP nutrition benefits. Fortunately, Texas is outperforming the national average when it comes to regular checkups for toddlers who do enroll in Medicaid, although there is still significant room for improvement.

The dashboard also provides more than 50 recommendations to state leaders — and we’re glad to see momentum for many of these policy steps at the Legislature. For example, legislators are looking at ways to improve access to high-quality child care as federal relief funding for child care expires, and there is growing support for extending maternal health coverage for a full year after pregnancy.

We will continue to update the dashboard at TXReadyKids.org with new data and the latest policy progress so Texans can measure the steps the state is taking to ensure each and every child arrives in kindergarten ready to succeed.

David Feigen is the director of early learning policy for Texans Care for Children.