This commentary originally appeared in TribTalk, a publication of the Texas Tribune.
A new era for Texas pre-K is underway. Guided by research showing that a strong early childhood education is the foundation for student success, Gov. Greg Abbott championed legislation in 2015 to establish a new grant program to make Texas pre-K programs more effective. Passage of the bill, HB 4, was a critical step. Now it’s time to implement it, learn from it and build on it to ensure that more Texas children start kindergarten with the academic, social, and emotional skills it takes to succeed in school.
Governor Abbott recently tapped Mike Morath, a trustee on the Dallas ISD school board, to lead those and other efforts as the state’s new education commissioner. Some education stakeholders have expressed concerns about his views on school choice and his work on a "home rule” proposal in Dallas. But on the subject of pre-K, his track record as a Dallas ISD Trustee suggests he is a strong believer in the power of quality pre-K to boost school readiness and academic achievement.
In 2013, with strong support from then-Trustee Morath, Dallas ISD began a concerted effort to improve its pre-K program. It worked on teacher training, curriculum, and enrollment, and the effort paid off. This year, the district was thrilled to discover a 10-percentage-point increase in the number of kindergarten students who began school on grade level.
During Morath’s tenure, the district complemented those efforts with a commitment to manageable teacher-student ratios. The engaging activities, discussions and teacher-child interactions that are the hallmarks of effective pre-K — not to mention the basics of supervision and safety — are nearly impossible if individual teachers are on their own with 25 or 30 four-year-olds, no matter how strong the teacher training or curriculum might be. While Texas imposes class size limits for other elementary school grades, there is no statewide limit on pre-K class sizes or adult-student ratios. But Dallas ISD wisely maintains a maximum ratio of one adult (teacher or aide) for every 12 four-year olds and a ratio of one adult for every nine kids in a class of three-year-olds. The District has proposed codifying these ratios and setting a goal of no more than eight students per teacher or aide.
While these gains and practices are impressive, Dallas ISD knew it could do more to harness the power of pre-K to lift the district. That’s why they have proposed a 10-year plan to put in place full-day pre-K for all eligible 4-year-olds and half-day for eligible 3-year-olds. Currently, the state’s pre-K program is only half-day, though research shows that children who attend full-day preschool programs have higher scores on measures of school readiness and reduced chronic absences compared to those who attend part-day programs. Offering a full-day program also ensures that more working parents — who can’t pick up their children from school at midday — are able to give their kids the benefits of pre-K.
We are optimistic that Commissioner Morath, a supporter of the district’s bold 10-year proposal, will bring that same commitment to early education to TEA. We are confident that the commissioner, a self-described "super nerd” known for his love of data, knows the decades of research on the power of high-quality pre-K and what it could mean for the state.
There are plenty of directions he could take that commitment: Pushing for increased access for three-year-olds; better professional development for teachers; strict enforcement of the House Bill 4 requirement that participating districts at least attempt to maintain a ratio of one adult for every 11 pre-K students; support to districts moving towards offering full day pre-K in collaboration with community partners; giving teachers the tools to avoid suspending four-year-olds; or other quality improvement initiatives. But there is no doubt that Commissioner Morath, backed by a pro-pre-K Governor, will have ample opportunities to lead Texas efforts to build a truly high-quality pre-K system.
We look forward to working with the new TEA Commissioner and others to ensure all Texas children have access to an engaging, effective early education that puts them — and our state — on a path to success.
Stephanie Rubin is the CEO of Texans Care for Children.