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Early Matters

What will happen with pre-K this session?

They say it’s a priority, though I would advise tempering one’s expectations.

Currently, Texas funds a half day of preschool for 4-year-olds whose first language is not English, whose families have low incomes, whose parents are active duty military or who are in foster care.

Texas has some of the weakest quality standards for preschool, with no limits on student-to-teacher ratios or class sizes, according to reports from the National Institute for Early Education.

A Republican-led Legislature cut about $5.4 billion from public education funding in 2011, including $200 million for a pre-K grant program that helped some school districts offer full-day classes.

Lawmakers restored a portion of the funding in 2013, including about $30 million for the grant program.

[…]

Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, said that while there’s more bipartisanship support for pre-K this year, Democrats and Republicans likely will split on whether to make it a funding priority.

“I think we’re getting past the point where we have to convince folks of the importance of pre-K,” he said.

But even though more people “are recognizing and acknowledging the importance of that early investment, it’s still going to be determined by the action of the folks in charge and whether they’ll put money behind their assertions that there is a value,” he said.

Greg Abbott put forth a pre-k plan during the campaign, though it didn’t get a lot of discussion and he was vague about details and cost. Even at the high end of his proposal, the amount the state would spend on pre-k would still be down from 2011. With other priorities likely to take precedence and little to no room for growth, my expectation is that we may get some new standards and maybe some incentive money, but nothing beyond that. So again, to sum up in three words, don’t expect much.

Texas asks for federal funding for pre-k vouchers

Not sure how I feel about this.

BagOfMoney

Teacher groups are up in arms as Texas seeks millions from the federal government to fund a new pre-K voucher program that would begin next fall.

Last month, the Texas Education Agency applied for $30 million in prekindergarten grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education, its share of the $160 million federal Preschool Development Grants Program. If approved, officials plan to use 25 percent of that money to pay for full-day, high-quality preschool for eligible children in Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.

Currently, the state funds half-day public preschool for children from low-income, educationally disadvantaged, non-English speaking and military families. Under the proposed program, parents with eligible kids would sign up for the public or private pre-K program of their choice through a lottery system. If the program meets the grant’s quality requirements, the full cost of the child’s preschool would be paid for using the grant money. At around $8,000 a year per child, the grant could add an additional 17,900 additional pre-K slots, a 25 percent increase, to the existing system.

According to the grant application, the proposal would be one of four ways the TEA would use the $30 million to “expand” and “enhance” access to full-day, high-quality preschool in Texas. Critics of the proposal, however, said it would amount to little more than the creation of a pre-K school voucher program.

[…]

While the proposal is unpopular among educators, it could find friends in the state’s newly-elected leaders. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott campaigned on smarter and more accountable funding for pre-K programs, while Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick long has been a vouchers champion.

The idea also is likely to find favor with Early Matters, a coalition organized by the Greater Houston Partnership to seek ways to expand local pre-K and child-care programs. A previous effort failed to get off the ground in 2013, when organizers unsuccessfully sought to force a referendum on a 1-cent property tax to fund expanded pre-K programs locally.

The main critic cited in the story is the Coalition for Public Schools, which sent a letter to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on October 30 outlining their issues. The Coalition’s super-minimalist website is here, and they don’t appear to have a Facebook presence, so I have been unable to find a copy of their letter and learn what their specific beefs are. Fortunately, Lisa Falkenberg was on the job and did some digging to find out more and fill in some of the gaps.

I was initially skeptical of the criticisms. After all, the Texas Workforce Commission has administered a federal subsidy system since the 1990s that essentially provides very low-income parents a voucher to pay for private child care so they can go back to work or school. A Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said this program would serve as a model for the proposed one.

And isn’t it a bit early for complaints anyway? Shouldn’t we all still be singing “Kumbaya” about Texas applying for any program near and dear to President Barack Obama’s heart? After snubbing Common Core and Race to the Top – in part, for good reason, I might add – Texas announced in September that it would apply for the federal grant. Much of it would benefit Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.

[…]

We need money. The grant proposal, written with the help of the folks at The Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center here in Houston, offers some good ideas.

“I guess I was kind of shocked to see the article this morning with the outcry … all about the voucher system,” said April Crawford, the institute’s director of state initiatives. “Certainly, 75 percent of it is not about a voucher approach at all. Twenty-five percent, they might go to a private program, but they also might go to a school near work that they know as a high-quality program. It just gives them more flexibility to pick and choose.”

So, what’s the problem?

For starters, a little reporting revealed I was wrong in thinking Texas had been there, done that with the Workforce Commission program. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. The Workforce program is about private child care. It has nothing to do with the public education system. So, there’s no risk of a private entity siphoning off dollars intended for public schools.

Then, there’s the Greater Houston Partnership’s beef. The business group, which considers pre-K its No. 1 legislative priority, has been working with Early Matters to expand and improve pre-K in Texas. A critical part of its effort is to create partnerships between school districts and private providers with extra classroom space.

“A voucher system really complicates that and gets in the way of that partnership,” said Jim Postl, former CEO of Pennzoil-Quaker State Company who heads the Partnership’s early childhood committee and is chairman of Early Matters. “The voucher system would bypass the ISDs and potentially go directly to the private providers. So, there’s less incentive for the two groups to work together.”

And then there’s the political taint of the V-word.

“I’m always suspicious when vouchers seem to come out of nowhere,” says Anthony, of Raise Your Hand.

Indeed, no one I talked to could tell me who insisted on including the voucher component. No one could really explain the purpose of it, either.

I basically agree with Falkenberg, and that leaves me back where I started. The v-word, as she puts it, is automatically suspicious, and in this case has a mysterious origin. Until that has been explained, and the concerns raised in her column have been addressed, I will be suspicious. There’s plenty of reason to not give any benefit of the doubt here. As we saw during the gubernatorial campaign, Greg Abbott isn’t interested in fully funding pre-k, so for better or worse we should continue to push for it locally.

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.

More on Early Matters

Scott McClelland, president of H-E-B Houston and also the chair of the Greater Houston Partnership Education Advisory Committee, pens an op-ed about the importance of pre-kindergarten and the latest effort to provide for it.

It’s hard to believe, but more than 60 percent of children in Houston start kindergarten lacking basic letter identification skills and almost 80 percent are challenged with number recognition. Additional research shows that a student who can’t read at grade level by the end of the third grade is four times more likely to drop out of school.

Those facts are concerning in and of themselves. But here’s why we all need to pay attention: Our job market is booming. But 60 percent of new jobs coming to Texas will require education beyond a high school diploma, and our state ranks last in high school graduation rates. Only 1 in 5 Texas children will earn a post-high school credential.

Quite simply, our region’s growth and expansion will be stifled if we cannot supply quality candidates to fill these jobs over the longterm.

Because the challenge is so great, local business leaders, educators and nonprofit organizations formed a broad-based coalition called “Early Matters.” The group has a singular focus: ensuring that our children are reading at grade level by the end of the third grade.

The group has set a 10-year vision that is predicated on being collaborative and inclusive – both of people and ideas.

Our approach is necessarily broad – all phases of child development leading to third grade need to be addressed. And while some of our plan calls for innovation that could pool existing resources, or make them work more efficiently, yes, achieving the goal will take money. A good plan that can’t be funded won’t make a difference.

See here for the background. Early Matters doesn’t appear to have its own webpage yet, but there is this page off the Greater Houston Partnership website, which contains a fact sheet and the press release of their announcement that they exist. I’m sure there will be more to come. This is all still very much at the high level stage, with most of what they’re talking about being the need for early childhood education solutions and not much yet about what those solutions will be. I’m glad they’re making the need to pay for something that will be effective and make a difference a key component of their early push, because that will be the greatest challenge. But how bug that challenge ultimately will be is not set in stone.

In the 2011 legislative session, $200 million was cut from pre-K programs. $30 million in funding was restored in 2013, but full restoration of these cuts is needed.

The ultimate goal of the Early Matters coalition is expanding to statewide, full-day pre-K. However, we know this will require substantial funding and additional time to ensure effective planning and implementation.

Just as a reminder, Greg Abbott’s big idea for pre-k comes with a $118 million price tag, which is to say that his fully funded plan for the 2016-2017 biennium would represent at most sixty percent of what the Legislature cut from pre-k spending in 2011. Wendy Davis, on the other hand, is proposing that school districts across the state offer full-day pre-K programs, which is to say exactly what this effort is pushing for. I recognize that an effort like Early Matters needs to be bipartisan, and I recognize that there are plenty of Republicans that support fully funded, quality pre-kindergarten programs. I just hope that the people that support Early Matters recognize that they can make their jobs easier if they want to or they can make their jobs harder. It’s their choice.

Trying again with pre-K

Different approach, hopefully a different result will follow.

On the first day of school for most Houston-area children, a coalition called “Early Matters” organized by the Greater Houston Partnership announced Monday it would release a 10-year “game plan” at a summit next month to expand pre-kindergarten and child care programs and assist parents so they can “become the best parents they can be for their growing child.”

Coalition members, including Chair Jim Postl, the retired president and CEO of Pennzoil-Quaker State Co., also made clear they would be looking to the Texas Legislature, which gutted state funding for full-day pre-K in 2011, saying restoring that money would be “a very important first step” to carrying out a plan they say will increase the likelihood that kids will stay in school and be prepared to join the workforce or go to college when they graduate.

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The Partnership, Houston’s most influential chamber of commerce group, helped commission a study in 2012 that found that the vast majority of brain development occurs before age five and that greater investment in early childhood programs would be crucial to the region’s future economic success. The resulting report inspired the formation of another coalition of local business and community leaders called Early to Rise that launched a petition drive last year to place a 1-cent property tax hike on the November ballot to generate funding for these types of programs. The effort was based on an obscure, decades-old law that said the county judge must call an election to raise the tax rate of the Harris County Department of Education if enough valid signatures are gathered.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett refused to place on the item on the ballot, however, saying he supported improving early childhood education but that the petition language the group had used did not comply with the law. He and others also did not like that the proposal would have diverted the tax dollars to the coffers of a private group.

The group sued, but an appeals court backed Emmett’s decision.

Harvey said he and other GHP committee members convened a few months later and decided to launch another effort with “more active involvement of the business community” and “a much broader coalition.” In addition to business leaders, the coalition was joined Monday by a half-dozen local school superintendents, including Houston ISD’s Terry Grier.

“I think there was a lot of answered questions in a lot of people’s minds” about last year’s proposal, including “how you raise the money and how you have a countywide tax rate, who is going to be in charge of those dollars,” Grier said. “I think that this has the full support of the Greater Houston Partnership and it’s a wide coalition, a much broader coalition than it was a year ago. I’ve seen both programs. This is not the same program repackaged. This is totally different.”

Clearly, going for a statewide plan is the optimal path, but it’s also the heavier lift politically since it would involve spending money. I know the GHP and their partners in this effort would like to be nice and bipartisan and all, but there are some fairly significant differences between the two major candidates on the issue of pre-K. If you don’t feel like clicking those links, just ask yourself who as the next Governor will be more amenable to fully funding a statewide pre-K program. The question answers itself. The Early Matters coalition, who have County Judge Ed Emmett on board with the idea, haven’t zeroed in on how they would fund this, and still have a lot of blanks to fill in policy-wise, but it’s the goal that matters. I personally would have no problems with the Lege doing this via appropriation, but we should certainly take advantage of whatever federal and private grants exist, too. Let’s make this happen, and let’s make it happen in a lot less than that ten-year time frame.