Proposed Texas budgets downsize Gov. Abbott’s Pre-K initiative

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Gov. Abbott’s pre-kindergarten emergency item could be getting a haircut this legislative session. Nearly every lawmaker in 2015 approved $118 million in grant funding for high quality early childhood programs. This year lawmakers’ total budget is smaller and so are the grants in their first form.

This year the Texas Education Agency awarded $118 million in grants. To keep services the same, they’ve asked to continue the amount for each of the next two years. The Senate proposed budget recommends $75 million per year. The House proposed budget recommends $117 million in 2018 but then nothing in 2019.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath gave his first testimony in front of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Tuesday. “I look forward to working with you to find ways to fully fund this initiative to make further inroads in the achievement gap,” Morath told the committee.

“Thank you for working with us, this was a starting point. I’m going to keep saying that,” said Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

Many programs could be downsized in the final version of the budget after the Texas Comptroller announced lawmakers would have billions of dollars less to spend this year. The main drivers for the decrease were low oil prices not bringing in expected tax revenue and billions of dollars constitutionally dedicated to other areas of the budget.

The proposals worry some early childhood education supporters, now only a year into the program.

Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children sent testimony to the committee writing, “the introduced budget bill falls short of maintaining the current $118 million per year,putting the program at risk just as it is getting started and undermining efforts to ensure that students enter kindergarten with the skills they need to succeed.”

Tuesday afternoon, Pre-K teachers packed a AISD Cunningham Elementary cafeteria for on the job training. In order to receive the grants schools must increase teacher training, monitor student progress and develop family engagement plans.

Jacquie Porter from AISD says the money also helps keep class sizes small.

“We were able to put [teaching assistants] in some of our classrooms that were larger,” said Porter. She leads the instruction alongside a member of the Texas Education Agency. AISD received nearly $3 million from TEA to raise standards. “I see a phenomenal difference with what’s happening in the classroom,” said Porter.

“Keeping any of the funding allows us to continue to lower our teacher-to-student ratio which research shows makes an incredible difference in the classroom,” said Porter, hoping the grants survive the budget crunch.

A spokesperson from the Governor’s Office, John Wittman, responded to a comment via email, “Expanding optional, high-quality Pre-K continues to be a priority for Gov. Abbott and he will work to ensure that these programs are fully funded during the 85th legislative session.”

During the 2015 legislative session, advisers to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick sent a letter blasting the program, calling it “a godless environment” which “tramples” on parental rights. He later dissolved the advisory board.

Both leaders of the legislative branch are so far mum on the issue. Lt. Governor Patrick’s office did not return a request for comment on the budget proposals. A spokesperson for the speaker of the Texas House has yet to return a request for comment as well.

Districts that received Pre-K high quality grants this school year

State records show 224,000 children Texas attend Pre-K. Out of those students, 159,000 of those students are covered by new grant funds.

DistrictPre-K Funding Combined
Del Valle ISD$386,151
Austin ISD$2,985,670
Elgin ISD$142,423
Fredericksburg ISD$72,682
Granger ISD$11,016
Harmony Science Academy$135,816
Hays CISD$364,862
Jarrell ISD$51,392
La Grange ISD$55,797
Manor ISD$358,255
Marble Falls ISD$88,833
New Braunfels ISD$140,955
Pflugerville ISD$491,130
Round Rock ISD$530,773
Taylor ISD$103,515
Wimberley ISD$27,901

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