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Early Matters presents its case

They’ve got a good coalition. Let’s see where they can go with it.

Access to preschool programs – and their quality – varies widely across Texas. A broad coalition of Houston-area executives, educators and nonprofit groups assembled by Houston’s premier business organization is working to change that, though a major hurdle remains: securing funding in a state that ranks toward the bottom in pre-K spending per pupil.

The coalition’s 10-year plan, to be released Friday, calls for full-day pre-K classes for all disadvantaged 4-year-olds, with tuition required for wealthier families; lower student-to-teacher ratios; higher standards for private child care providers; and parent education to help ready their toddlers for school.

Leaders of the local group, called Early Matters, say they plan to lobby the state for more money – an estimated $700 million to extend full-day pre-K to the hundreds of thousands of 4-year-olds from disadvantaged families in Texas.

“This is really going to be the job of the Legislature, to really understand that this early investment has a big return,” said Jim Postl, chairman of the coalition, organized by the Greater Houston Partnership.

Both gubernatorial candidates, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, have declared preschool education a priority, though they differ on the details. Abbott has focused on improving quality; Davis has championed expansion.

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The Early Matters report calls for no more than 20 students in a class – with one teacher and one aide. Like Alief, several local districts assign one aide to work with two or three teachers to save money.

Postl, the retired chief executive of Pennzoil-Quaker State Co., said he expects the Early Matters group will gain more traction than a smaller effort last year – made up of some of the same members – that tried unsuccessfully to get a 1-cent tax hike on the Harris County ballot to increase funding for early childhood education.

In the short term, Postl said, the group does not expect to seek city or county funding for its effort.

See here and here for the background, and here for the Early Matters page on the GHP website. I’ll say again, I think Davis’ plan is the better, but even if you think Abbott’s plan has merit, I see no reason to believe that it’s something he really cares about. There’s nothing in his rhetoric or his record to suggest to me this is a priority for him.

A followup story on Saturday showed some more support for Early Matters.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, in short speeches, expressed general support for the early childhood effort.

“Money is not sufficient, but it is necessary,” Parker said. “So we’re going to have to have hard conversations about how we fund what we need to do.”

Leaders of Early Matters, a group organized by the Greater Houston Partnership, have said they don’t plan to turn to the city or county for significant funding in the short term. An effort last year to get a 1-cent tax increase on the Harris County ballot under an obscure law failed after Emmett said that approach wasn’t legal.

“Early Matters is a program worthy of all our support,” Emmett said Friday about the new initiative, “and we need to make sure that it bears fruit and actually becomes a reality.”

It’s going to take all the voices we can get for that to happen, and if we want the Legislature to take action, we’re going to need to talk to them, and to the Governor. We can make that conversation easier or harder depending on how we vote this year.

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