Abbott-Backed PreK Bill Poised to Become Law

 

Last week, after two months of back-and-forth, House Bill 4 won its final passage in the Texas legislature. The bill, which provides state funding for public prekindergarten programs, is now ready to be signed into law.

In its finalized form, House Bill 4 provides for $130 million in grants to public prekindergarten programs which follow state guidelines on curriculum, employ teachers who are certified in accordance with the bill’s provisions, and report to TEA on student outcomes. The grant will be parceled out in increments of up to $1,500 per student for eligible districts, which will be enough to improve existing half-day PreK programs, but not enough to convert half-day to full-day programs.

Governor Greg Abbott. Image courtesy of the Texas Tribune.

Governor Greg Abbott. Image courtesy of the Texas Tribune.

The bill’s passage is a victory for Governor Abbott; early education has been part of his platform from the outset, and it was one of the issues he stressed for immediate action in his State of the State address in February. His support for the issue was the impetus for House Bill 4, which was introduced shortly after the address.

Increased state funding for public preschool has enjoyed broad bipartisan support, but the manner and degree of state involvement has been contested, generally along party lines. The Texas Democratic Party’s platform expresses support for universal full-day PreK. The Texas Republican Party’s platform mentions early childhood education only to state that it should not be mandatory, but Governor Abbott’s campaign platform stressed increased funding and increased accountability and quality for public PreK programs, while shying away from the idea of full-day programs.

The argument for full-day PreK is predicated upon studies like this one which show it benefits students more than half-day PreK, including Texas-specific studies which found that high-quality PreK contributed to better outcomes for low-income and minority students and English language learners. The argument for half-day PreK is primarily based in moderation. During the gubernatorial campaign, Governor Abbott argued that universal full-day PreK would be too much, too fast, and that it would be preferable to systematically improve the quality of existing half-day programs before trying to implement full-day PreK statewide.

House Bill 4 has drawn criticism from Democrats and advocacy groups who say it does not go far enough. The $130 million cap, which was not included in the original draft of the bill, limits the funding of what some had already said was an under-funded initiative. The competing Democratic bill, House Bill 1100, was intended to fund full-day programs. House Bill 4, by contrast, will parcel out grants with half-day programs in mind. Thus, many proponents of full-day PreK remain unsatisfied.

Representative Dan Huberty (R-Houston). Image courtesy of the Texas Tribune.

Representative Dan Huberty (R-Houston). Image courtesy of the Texas Tribune.

The bill’s supporters – like its author, Representative Dan Huberty (R-Houston) – have responded to these critiques by arguing that a half-day expansion will be more widely beneficial. Full-day public PreK has been implemented in nearly half of Texas’ school districts, including Houston ISD and the primary districts of Dallas and Austin; and while these full-day programs could still benefit from some extra funding, the argument goes, providing funds for full-day programming would ask too much of districts that don’t already have such programs. A rapid expansion would cause quality concerns and strain facilities. Funding for statewide full-day would also cost significantly more – the last state PreK grant, which was enough to provide for full-day programs in some districts and which was slashed in 2011, was $200 million.

Huberty has acknowledged that House Bill 4 is “a first step” toward quality PreK programs in Texas, but he has expressed hope “that additional funding will help every school district in the state provide a high-quality prekindergarten program.” Even those who are less optimistic about the bill can agree that any increase is better than none at all, and the bump in funding will benefit students.

HISD currently offers full-day PreK with an annual tuition of $4590 to offset costs, waiving tuition for students who are mandated to receive free PreK under state law. While this is unlikely to change, HISD programs still stand to benefit from House Bill 4 if they adopt its criteria. It is unclear as of yet how the district would use these added funds and how much of an impact they might have.

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