HB 4 Applications to TEA Show Overwhelming Demand for New Pre-K Grants

Limited per student funding poses challenges, while final grant rules show step forward on manageable class sizes

For Immediate Release

CONTACT: Peter Clark, 512.417.9262

AUSTIN – 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 Texans Care for Children’s analysis of information provided by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), showing that education leaders throughout the state recognize high-quality pre-k is key to improving student performance. In 2015 the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 4, one of Governor Greg Abbott’s top priorities, to establish the new high-quality pre-k grant program.

"It turns out there’s a huge demand for additional pre-k funding, but it shouldn’t come as a big surprise,” said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children, a multi-issue children’s policy organization. "School and community leaders know that quality pre-k helps students start kindergarten with the skills they need to succeed instead of starting behind their peers on day one.”

A total of 549 of the state’s 1,027 independent school districts (ISDs) applied for the grant, representing 53 percent of ISDs. Fifty of the state’s 189 charter school districts, representing 26 percent of those districts, applied. A total of 4,343,597 students are enrolled in ISDs that applied, comprising 86 percent of the state’s five million students in traditional school districts.Each of the state’s 10 largest school districts applied: Houston, Dallas, Cypress-Fairbanks, Northside, Austin, Fort Worth, Fort Bend, North East, Aldine, and Katy ISD.

Because of the high demand, it appears that if every application is accepted, the grant funding allotted to each district would 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 Texans Care for Children. According to the information provided by TEA, the grant amounts would range from close to $1,000 per year for the smallest districts to over $4 million per year for Houston ISD. The Legislature provided $118 million for the program in the current two-year state budget, directing TEA to distribute the funding to participating school districts in the second year of the biennium, coinciding with the 2016-2017 school year. TEA is currently evaluating the applications to determine which ones meet the grant criteria.

"If the funding allocated for this grant program is ultimately divided up among so many districts, it will be a challenge for schools to turn the funding into significant gains for students,” said Ms. Rubin.

When the funding is distributed to school districts, it will be subject to rules published by TEA earlier this month. The original draft rules were silent on student-teacher ratios in spite of a provision on ratios in HB 4. Following requests from Texans Care for Children and others, TEA included the following provision in the final rules:

A school district or an open-enrollment charter school that receives funding under this grant must attempt to maintain an average ratio in any prekindergarten program class of not less than one certified teacher or teacher's aide for every 11 students.

"We’re pleased that TEA made clear that school districts are required to try to provide a teacher or aide for every 11 students in a pre-k class,” said Ms. Rubin. "Students get the most out of pre-k, and taxpayers get the most out of their investment, when class sizes are manageable.”

Texans Care for Children, in partnership with the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium (TEGAC), will closely monitor, analyze, and report on HB 4 grant decisions over the course of 2016.

HB 4 and the grant program do not change eligibility requirements for pre-k. Under existing state law, school districts must provide at least a half day of voluntary pre-k for four-year-olds if they are low-income, learning English, have ever been in the foster care system, or have a parent who is on active duty with the U.S. military or was injured or killed on active duty.

State officials are currently working on two other early childhood education policy decisions that will have significant consequences for student readiness in kindergarten. The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) is updating minimum standards for child care, such as the maximum class size allowed. State officials are also in court this month defending proposed rate cuts for children’s therapies that would undermine the state’s Early Childhood Intervention program.