Written by: David Feigen and Stephanie Rubin
When children walk into the classroom on the first day of kindergarten, there are many directions their lives could go in, yet their early childhood experiences — both positive and negative — are already nudging them in certain directions. Those experiences during the first few years of life have a profound effect on children’s brain development and who they will become as a student, as a member of their family, their community, and the Texas workforce.
And those life-changing early childhood experiences are shaped in large part by policies regarding pre-k, child care, maternal health, Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), children’s health insurance, home visiting, and more.
That’s why we’re glad to say that, in many ways, the recent Texas legislative session was a success for early childhood. As we reported at the end of the session, the Legislature passed a school finance package that funds full-day pre-k for currently eligible children (HB 3), multiple bills to increase oversight of safety in child care, legislation to improve nutrition and physical play in child care (SB 952), a bill to study teacher-caregiver ratios in child care (SB 708), additional funding in the state budget for ECI, and more. Other bills that passed, such as the package of student mental health legislation (HB 18 and HB 19) or legislation on school discipline (HB 65), should be helpful to students in all grades, including pre-k and other early grades.
Yet, much more work on Texas early childhood policy remains to be done.
So where does Texas go from here on early childhood policy? How can the state best leverage existing and new resources to meet the needs of our youngest Texans and their families, boost school readiness and early grade success, reduce child maltreatment, and reap other significant benefits for families, communities, and the state?
Some early childhood policy recommendations for the state are already pretty clear, while others require further exploration, but here are a few areas to keep on your radar screen for the next few months and years:
Implementation of Early Childhood Bills that Recently Passed
The first order of business is to monitor and shape implementation of new Texas policies on early childhood.
As school districts implement full-day pre-k, for example, the Texas Education Agency will need to ensure districts struggling to identify adequate space are developing pre-k partnerships with nearby quality child care centers and Head Start programs. And as districts implement HB 18 and HB 19, they should keep in mind that new student mental health strategies can support students in early grades, helping them build up their skills for managing conflict, anxiety, and anger and helping school staff learn how to support students who have experienced trauma.
As state agencies develop administrative rules and other implementation plans for the bills that passed, such as the Health and Human Services Commission’s (HHSC) upcoming rule-making and implementation of the child care nutrition bill, stakeholders have an opportunity to stay engaged and shape the next steps. In the case of ECI, it will be important to see if the new state funding will be enough for community organizations to keep serving eligible toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays.
Child Care Policy
While parents are kids’ first and most important teachers, state child care policies also play a huge role in shaping the lives of Texas kids. After all, the parents of about 60 percent of Texas children under age six are in the workforce. While the Legislature took important steps on child care safety oversight, nutrition, and other areas, there is much more work for the state to do to ensure that our youngest Texans experience effective learning environments, parents can go to work knowing that their children are safe and on a strong educational path, and employers can benefit from better attendance and focus from their workforce.
Since child care in our state typically costs at least as much as tuition at the University of Texas, many families have no choice but to place their little children in cheaper, low-quality child care. One of the differences between low-quality care and high-quality care is the number of children assigned to each teacher. The teacher-child ratio that Texas currently allows is far out of line with best practices. The ratio study that the state is conducting under SB 708 will shed light on ways to potentially improve the state’s current rules.
Improving the quality of child care, particularly for working and low-income families who can’t afford the priciest options, must be a state priority. Only three percent of the state’s licensed child care capacity is rated at the highest level of quality on Texas Rising Star (TRS) or accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, often considered the gold standard of quality child care standards. One of the primary challenges is recruiting and sustaining a quality workforce, as educators leave programs due to minimum wage salaries, insufficient training and supports, and unmanageable classroom environments. Because education does not begin at age four, ensuring children can access high-quality, enriching, and safe child care options helps make sure more children are ready for kindergarten and on track to be reading on grade level by third grade.
We are still celebrating the big step the Legislature took by funding full-day pre-k for eligible children, but there is more work to do.
While the state recommends that districts provide a teacher or aide for every 11 pre-k students, there is no required ratio or class size limit the way there is for Texas kindergarten through fourth grade. Like in child care, a manageable class size and student-teacher ratio is an essential ingredient for an effective, high-quality pre-k classroom, although it certainly isn’t the only ingredient. We will continue to urge state policymakers to establish pre-k class size and ratio limits that match recommended best practices.
We also need to look at which students are offered pre-k. The state funds half-day pre-k for three-year-olds, but many districts only offer pre-k to four-year-olds, missing an opportunity to draw down additional funding and start getting three-year-olds on track to succeed in school. It’s also time to explore raising the income eligibility level for pre-k, which currently excludes many working and middle class families that don’t make enough money to afford high-quality child care or private pre-k for their four-year-olds. Texas could also consider encouraging more districts to partner with child care programs to offer publicly-funded pre-k to all four-year-olds within district boundaries given the need to boost early literacy and math scores among the broader school population and the proven academic benefits of mixed-income pre-k classrooms.
Issues for Both Child Care and Early Elementary Grades
While some of the early childhood issues that require attention in Texas are specific to either child care or elementary school, as outlined above, there are some issues that cut across both of these settings.
In child care and in early grades, for example, we need to continue to work to reduce suspensions and implement strategies that improve behavior. One strategy that deserves more attention is the use of Early Childhood Mental Health Consultants to help teachers and administrators address challenging behavior.
Considering that half of all Texas children under age eight have at least one parent who speaks a language other than English in the home, another question for policymakers and early childhood advocates is how to improve academic support and outcomes for our growing population of bilingual children.
Early Childhood Policy Issues Beyond Child Care and Early Grades
There are many other services and state policies that support families and help shape the first few years of children’s lives in Texas, such as home visiting, prenatal and postpartum care for moms, developmental screening, Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), and more. Many of these need additional attention from state policymakers. For example, during the last legislative session, the Texas House passed a bill to provide postpartum health coverage to mothers with low incomes for the first 12 months after childbirth, but the Senate did not take up the legislation and it did not become law.
We are currently working with our partners to develop a Prenatal to Three (PN-3) Infant Toddler policy agenda that, if approved by state leaders, would ensure an additional 100,000 low-income infants and toddlers and their caregivers have better access to the critical early childhood services to help them thrive.
Early Childhood Policy Issues that Also Include Older Kids
Beyond issues that are exclusive to early childhood, like the ones outlined above, there are a few critical issues that are high on the Texas children’s policy agenda for the next two years and play a critical role in shaping the first few years of kids’ lives.
One of those issues is reducing the percentage of Texas kids who lack health insurance. Texas currently has the nation’s worst uninsured rate for children, and the rate got worse over the last two years. Basic health care — including well check visits where providers can identify developmental delays in babies and toddlers and make referrals to ECI — is one of the primary building blocks of a strong early childhood. One step the Legislature can take is reducing the red tape that knocks eligible children out of their Medicaid insurance.
Another top Texas children’s issue for the next two years is preparing for implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act, a new law restructuring federal foster care funding to states. This is particularly important to early childhood, considering that children under age six represent the majority of Texas kids who are removed from their families by Child Protective Services (CPS) and placed in foster care. If Texas takes the right step, the state can draw down additional funds to support families — for example, through substance use treatment for parents and pregnant women — and try to keep young children safely out of foster care. Ensuring that parents are healthy and financially stable is critical to the success of young children.
Texans Care for Children is working in conjunction with state leaders, advocates, and local partners to help guide the next steps of early childhood policy. The Texas Early Learning Council, community coalitions like Early Matters, the Prenatal-to-Three policy collaborative, as well as the University of Texas’ Prenatal-to-Three Policy Impact Center at the LBJ school, can help pave the way to a Texas where all children have the opportunity of a strong, healthy start. We look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together to support our youngest Texans and create a bright future for the state of Texas.