You can be optimistic about pre-K, but…


Recent news articles about the Texas Education Agency report recommending limited class sizes for pre-K generated a lot of positive buzz, as it should have, but here is a belated spoiler alert. The TEA’s consultants don’t reflect the short-sighted attitudes of many Texas legislators and may not even have the support of Gov. Greg Abbott, who gives himself more credit as a pre-K advocate than he deserves.

The governor and the Legislature will decide the fate of the recommendations, which include limiting class sizes to 22 students and limiting student-to-teacher ratios to 11-to-1 for classes that have more than 15 students. The recommendations follow research that repeatedly has demonstrated the value of small class sizes in improving the educational environment for young children. TSTA also has long advocated for smaller classes and the funding to pay for them.

Strangely enough, the state’s 22-1 limit on class sizes for grades K-4 – which is widely circumvented anyway — doesn’t apply to pre-K, and it is no sure thing that this report will change that. The Dallas Morning News story linked below explains some of the political obstacles, but it may be behind a pay wall for many readers.

Smaller class sizes will require more funding, and Gov. Abbott and the legislative majority have a history of opposing adequate funding for public schools, preferring instead to over-test kids and experiment with privatization.

Gov. Abbott allegedly made “quality” pre-K a “priority” during the 2015 legislative session, but his real priority was cutting taxes. Abbott signed tax cuts worth $3.8 billion (with a b), while his pre-K “priority” limped out of the legislative session with a $116 million appropriation that didn’t even replace all the pre-K funding that had been lost during the 2011 education budget cuts. Many districts found the individual grants so small for their needs that they didn’t even bother to apply for one.

As the Dallas News’ article points out, some members of the Senate Education Committee are openly hostile to pre-K, and some of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s tea party supporters consider the program “Godless.”

Meanwhile, the same senators will eagerly entertain a discussion at next week’s Education Committee meeting about how to drain tax dollars from public schools for vouchers and other privatization schemes – not invest them in pre-K classrooms, where they can actually do some good.




Pre-K money doesn’t match Abbott’s rhetoric


Despite the release of $116 million in state pre-K grants this week and despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s claims to the contrary, early education has never been the governor’s top priority. It certainly wasn’t during last year’s legislative session, when the money was appropriated.

The governor’s top priorities then and now were tax cuts and limited government, which includes squeezing education and other programs for children.

The $116 million in pre-K grants pales in comparision to the $3.9 billion – that’s billion, with a b — that Abbott and the legislative majority approved in tax cuts last year. The lion’s share of those cuts — $2.6 billion – were to the state’s main business tax. And state leaders left several billion additional dollars in the bank, rather than invest in the children they claim to support.

So Texas still spends much less per student on education than most states, while enrollment continues to grow by about 85,000 students per year. And Abbott already has asked the Legislature to continue shortchanging schools when lawmakers convene in January.

About half of the state’s school districts received the pre-K grants. But they will receive only $734 per student, about half of the $1,500 per kid that Abbott had dangled in front of the schools if they agreed to impose “tougher” pre-K standards.

The new grant program doesn’t even completely restore the $200 million that the legislative majority cut from pre-K in 2011. And it doesn’t fund full-day pre-K, despite research showing that full-day pre-K is much more effective, particularly for low-income children, who now account for about 60 percent of Texas’ public school enrollment.

As the AP story linked below points out, the Duncanville school district from which Abbott graduated was among more than 20 districts that applied for a pre-K grant but ended up passing on the money.

“It kind of became diminishing returns,” a Duncanville spokeswoman explained.

Abbott no doubt will continue to talk about how important pre-K is, but his commitment doesn’t match his rhetoric.


Needing real commitments for education


After I posted an article on the TSTA website about the huge expansion of free, full-day pre-kindergarten in New York City, a reader asked, “Why can this not happen here?” The answer is simple. Texas doesn’t have enough state leaders who are truly committed to pre-K or even to public education, for that matter.

New York City has a new, ambitious pre-K program because Mayor Bill de Blasio not only recognized the value of the program but also had the political will to see that it happened for an estimated 65,000 four-year-olds. He stands in stark contrast to the policymakers in the majority at the Texas statehouse, who love to give lip service to education but are more committed to ideological fanatics than they are to school children.

Gov. Greg Abbott made pre-K a so-called “priority” during the legislative session earlier this year. But he signed a very limited pre-K bill that doesn’t come close to meeting the state’s needs. It doesn’t even fully restore the $200 million that the legislative majority cut from pre-kindergarten programs in 2011 when it was slashing $5.4 billion from public schools.

And, even Abbott’s modest proposal had some rough sailing with many legislators after tea party ideologues attacked it as “socialistic” and “godless.” These know-nothing critics, you may recall, were members of an “advisory board” appointed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a self-proclaimed “education evangelist.”

In truth, according to several studies, low-income children (the majority of public school enrollees in Texas) are more likely to graduate from high school if they have been enrolled in pre-school programs.

For every low-income child who gets to enroll in a pre-K program under Texas’ new law, many others will be out of luck, and it doesn’t have to be that way. The Legislature had enough money last session to pay for a broader expansion of pre-K as well as improve overall public education funding. But the governor and the legislative majority chose to leave billions of your tax dollars sitting in the bank because right-wing ideologues demanded it.

Why can’t we increase educational opportunities in Texas?

We can, as soon as we start electing more legislators from both parties who truly want to improve education – beginning with a fair and adequate funding system — and have the political will to do so. That won’t be easy in Texas’ dominant political climate, but the next opportunity begins with the party primaries in March.





Putting pre-K in the political cross-hairs


Allegations from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Flat Earth brigade that pre-kindergarten programs are “Godless” and “socialistic” have as much basis in fact as equally ludicrous claims from extremists who believe that any sensible form of gun control is “treason.”

In truth, according to various academic studies, pre-K and other early childhood education programs are extremely important in giving children, especially kids from low-income, under-privileged families – who are a majority of Texas school children — a solid start toward a quality education. Pre-K helps these kids learn how to learn with other children in a classroom setting.

So far, the quality of political debate during this year’s legislative session is probably the lowest I have encountered in many years of watching the Texas Legislature. But that’s what happens when public officeholders give ideology an equal footing with reason.

Patrick claims to have been caught without warning this week when his hand-picked tea party “advisory board” issued its statement denouncing Gov. Greg Abbott’s pre-kindergarten proposal, one of the governor’s legislative priorities.

You can believe Patrick if you want, but he should have expected nothing else when he appointed the group of right-wing, anti-government ideologues. In any event, Abbott challenged the lieutenant governor on the development during a testy meeting of state leaders yesterday, as initially reported by my friend, R.G. Ratcliffe, in Texas Monthly.

To be sure, TSTA and other public school advocates are disappointed in Abbott’s bill because we believe it doesn’t go far enough – it wouldn’t even completely restore the funds cut from pre-K grants in 2011 – and it would put too many restrictions on pre-K programs. We believe full-day pre-K should be made available to every eligible child in Texas, which probably makes us maniacal “communists” in the eyes of Patrick’s tea party “advisors.” But we don’t want to see pre-K become a victim of shortsighted right-wing politics.

It is no secret that Patrick already is eyeing a race for governor – that’s why he appointed his tea party advisory board to begin with — and Abbott doubtlessly realizes that Patrick wouldn’t hesitate to try to defeat him in the 2016 Republican primary, if given the opportunity.

It would be a shame if pre-K were to become a victim of right-wing politics. But remember, folks, elections have consequences, and we are being reminded of that fact every day this Legislature is in session.