Texas lawmakers decide the future of pre-K at Capitol

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — More child advocates say pre-kindergarten is the first step in getting the best education. Gov. Greg Abbott agreed and made pre-K funding a priority this legislative session. The House Committee on Public Education laid out and heard testimony Tuesday as part of “Pre-K day,” where several bills are on the table.

“A, B, C, D…,” sings 6-year-old Charles and 4-year-old Kate. They didn’t know it at the time, but learning the alphabet song in pre-K made it easier to recognize letters. Recognizing letters led to forming words. Their mom, Martha Small Dyess, says that gives kids a head start in kindergarten.

“Be ahead the first day of school versus catching up, the second they hit the ground,” said Small Dyess.

“Pre-K is so much more than it used to be,” said Jacquie Porter with Austin Independent School District. She says the state pays for half-day pre-K for 92 percent of the district’s kids: low income, military families, homeless, English learning and foster families. Austin taxpayers pick up the rest of the tab for full-day. Porter says it’s worth it.

“It’s all about problem-solving skills,” she said, “it’s teaching them social-emotional-development.”

If passed, several bills would reward districts for meeting higher standards.

“It’s about time that we’ve decided as a state that pre-K a priority,” said Porter.

More money is coming, the only question now is how much. Two major bills would each put more money into the pre-K system if districts meet those higher standards.

House Bill 4 would add $1,500 per student more for half day pre-K, totaling $118 million. House Bill 1100 would double the current amount per student, adding another $3,650 for full day pre-K, pumping $300 million tax dollars into pre-K.

Some child care activists say this upgraded pre-K program should not be optional and these bills don’t go far enough. Texans Care for Children says this is a step in the right direction but doesn’t match what lawmakers cut from Pre-K in 2011.

“Allow a district to sort of opt in to quality. So only if a district wants to raise their quality, and wants to get additional funding, they will,” said Andrea Brauer with Texans Care for Children. “Unfortunately we believe that will leave a lot of districts in lesser quality programs.”

Fully funded pre-K for all children in the state may seem far-off, but it is already happening in Georgia. The program is funded by the state lottery and are offered through both private providers and local public schools. In the last school year, Georgia spent $312 million on the program for 84,000 students.

The Texas Education Agency says a full-day program in Texas would cost $4.6 billion, but it counts eligible 3- and 4-year-old’s, bringing the total number of students to 777,000.

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