We don’t need these things in the Century of Texas.
Just how important is full-day pre-kindergarten for the state’s youngest and most disadvantaged kids? Is it more important than after-school tutoring? Than canceling music and art classes? As they brace for a proposed $10 billion less in state funding, that’s one decision that public schools will have to make.
“It’s choosing between bad and worse and bad and bad,” says Daniel King, the superintendent of the Rio Grande Valley’s Pharr-San Juan-Alamo district, “It’s definitely not a good day when we are sitting around talking about whether class size going up could help salvage all-day pre-K, or vice-versa.”
The Texas Education Agency‘s $1.3 billion in discretionary grants, which fund a variety of special initiatives from full-day pre-K to teacher incentives to high school completion efforts, are among the state programs sent to the guillotine in the introductory budget proposals from both the House and the Senate. The former slashes all funding for the grants, while the latter reduces the total amount to $400 million to be spread across all of the agency’s competitive grant programs. The grants currently allow districts to extend the state’s standard half-day pre-K to a full-day program at a cost of about $200 million per biennium. Last year the program funded full-time pre-K for approximately 101,000 children of the more than 190,000 enrolled in state-funded pre-K.
Advocates argue that pre-K, where students learn fundamentals like counting, the alphabet, sharing and taking turns, makes kids less likely to drop out, repeat grades and need remedial classes as they move through the education system. Developing these skills early, says Libby Doggett, who oversees the Pew Center on the States pre-K advocacy efforts, can result in up to $7 return for every dollar the state invests in pre-K programs. (In Texas, a 2006 study from Texas A&M University showed at least a $3.50 yield on every dollar invested.) She says any cuts to funding for pre-K will hurt the state for “years to come” in increased costs for parents who must alter work schedules to take care of their children during the day, schools that must deal with unprepared students and communities that have to tackle higher dropout rates.
“There’s no educational program that has a better basis in research and a better return in investment,” Doggett says. “Smart states will get out ahead, smart legislators will make sure the money is there, because it really will make the rest of the school system better.”
I have no idea what the effect of this will be. Neither, I daresay, do the legislators who are willing to vote for it, though I’m sure they’ll all downplay it if pressed. We know there are benefits to pre-K – there are likely benefits we don’t really notice as well, because they’re not tied up in test scores – and we know there will be costs to cutting pre-K. But who cares about future costs if we can save a few bucks now?