Yesterday the House Public Education Committee took up the major pre-K bills for the session, a hearing we previewed in this blog post. The room was overflowing with school district representatives, business leaders, and advocates from across the state who wanted to have their voices heard, most of them calling for greater investment and quality in our pre-K programs. Many witnesses and legislators made the case for prioritizing pre-K. Rep. Marsha Farney, for example, emphasized the research showing that high-quality pre-K can help students throughout their academic career and later in life.
However, it became clear during the hearing that the Governor's plan, HB 4, is prioritizing school district autonomy to a degree that jeopardizes quality. Within pre-K there is already so much local flexibility that it comes at the expense of state oversight and accountability, and often student and teacher needs. Texas is one of the only states that provides districts with funding for pre-K with virtually no standards tied to the use of those funds.
Many witnesses pointed out that the quality standards identified in HB 4 do not mirror research-based best practices, as our chart demonstrates. For example, it does not require participating districts to improve teacher standards or limit pre-K class sizes or student-teacher ratios. As the bill authors continue to work on this legislation, they will have to address these quality indicators if Texas is to achieve a "gold standard,” world-class program.
As it stands now, HB 4 proposes the following requirements only if a district chooses to "opt in" to a higher quality program:
- Providing a certified teacher in the classroom (83% of districts already have this.)
- Having a parent engagement plan in place (Most districts already do this.)
- Ensuring the curriculum uses the state's pre-K guidelines (Most districts already use them.)
- Measuring student progress (Most districts already do this through assessment.)
Since these practices are already in place for most districts and relatively easy toimplement in others, the state should mandate them for all districts. Awarding funding in exchange for meeting these standards will not drive any significant improvements and will not impact all school districts. The limited amount of funding contemplated for the bill – which would have to double to reach 2011 funding levels – also suggests that the new resources will not be available to all interested districts.
Another area that bill authors must address as they work on the bill is data collection. Part of the rationale behind the plan in HB 4 is to ensure that our half-day programs are high-quality and making an impact. But, as currently drafted, the bill wouldn't require any data to be reported to TEA. In the absence of baseline data on the current pre-K program, or reporting requirements on non-participating districts, it is also unclear what new data on participating districts will be compared to.
We look forward to working with the bill authors to address these questions, improve the standards in the bill, increase the funding attached to it, and ultimately develop legislation that reflects the lofty early education vision offered by Governor Abbott.