Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.
Pre-K education has emerged as the most hotly debated issue in this year’s race for Governor. Both Senator Davis and Attorney General Abbott have laid out competing proposals to provide pre-k education in Texas, with dueling press conferences and accusations flying back and forth.
What Pre-K seeks to do is to eliminate what education researchers have recognized as the single biggest impediment to improving public education—the literacy gap. For years we have been aware that because of income and parental education disparity, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds begin school at a significant disadvantage. We know that a child that reads at grade level by the end of 3rd grade has over a 95% chance of graduating from high school. When you consider the close correlation between high school graduation and the rate of poverty—you can see that the development of an effective Pre-K program in Texas has the potential of significantly reducing poverty in a generation.
While there are merits to both Davis and Abbott’s respective plans, it’s what they are missing that is most telling.
You simply can’t have an effective Pre-K system without a funding mechanism in place. Our current K-12 system is itself woefully underfunded and the object of litigation. The idea of proposing an expansion of education without addressing the underlying financial problems that exist in K-12 renders any plan proposed nonsense. You have to get the funding right.
Private and religious schools largely provide Pre-K in Texas. Several ISDs have a limited Pre-K program, but the vast majority does not. In order to expand Pre-K through the ISD system, it would require a significant capital expenditure on a scale not previously seen. Buildings have to be built and that itself could be billions in additional costs.
Every study that has been done on Pre-K recognizes that its impact is only significant if the program is comprehensive and structured educationally. State government has repeatedly shown that when it comes to the development and implementation of specific educational programs, they have done more harm than good. Rather than a large state program—local governments are better suited to making Pre-K work.
So what should we do?
The most effective Pre-K systems nationally, have been locally driven and locally controlled. Tulsa, Oklahoma is the national leader in Pre-K and has had the most effective program. San Antonio’s local initiative has also been widely praised for its approach. While applauding Davis and Abbott for their focus on Pre-K, I would argue that if they really wanted a program to be successful—develop a funding system through a local authorization process, and let city/county governments lead the way. Austin has repeatedly proven it is unable to solve big problems. It’s time to try a different approach.
Jay K. Aiyer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs. He served on the Board of Trustees for the Houston Community College System from 2000-2008 and served as Chief of Staff to Mayor Lee P. Brown from 1998-2000.