As the 2017 Texas Legislature is about to begin, UWATX is focusing efforts on advocating on behalf of children and their families. Pre-K has been an important issue area during past legislative sessions, and is poised to be an important issue area during this session. During the 2015 legislative session, the 84th Texas Legislature passed House Bill 4 (HB4) as part of Governor Greg Abbotts’ emergency early education initiative. Over the last 6 months, United Way for Greater Austin (UWATX), in conjunction with Texans Care for Children and Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, has worked to better understand Central Texas school districts’ interest in and experience with the State’s new HB 4 High Quality Pre-K grant by looking into the level and scope of district demand, the application process, the opportunities HB 4 funds bring to local Pre-K quality improvement efforts, implementation challenges, and policy opportunities for the State to strengthen support for local Pre-K priorities.
The bill aimed to implement high-quality education standards for Texas Pre-K students by establishing a grant funding program of $118 million for the 2016-2017 State fiscal biennium. Under the program, funds were awarded to eligible school districts and open-enrollment charter schools who applied and agreed to meet certain enhanced quality standards. These include: curriculum requirements based on updated Pre-K guidelines; implementation of a progress monitoring tool; additional teacher education requirements; the implementation of a family engagement plan to encourage and maintain family involvement; and working towards teacher-to-student ratios of 1-to-11. HB 4 also requires all districts to collect and report additional data, such as class sizes and ratios, to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the Commissioner of Education.
UWATX researched and interviewed several Central Texas Independent School Districts in order to fully understand the local interest and experience with this new quality pre-K grant. See the full report here. All independent school districts in the Central Texas area who applied for the HB 4 grant indicated that they did so because the funding would allow them to accelerate or enhance their plans for improving the quality of their current Pre-K programs. The majority of the districts are using the HB4 funding to purchase new or additional curriculum, progress monitoring tools, and technology, offer expanded or targeted professional development, and create and formalize their family engagement plans. A small number of districts are using the funds for large structural changes such as hiring new staff to reduce classroom ratios or providing full-day Pre-K.
Notably, almost all of districts planning these larger programmatic changes already had concrete plans in place to make these changes regardless of the HB 4 funding. The grant funds allowed them to do so sooner. District administrators were overwhelmingly appreciative of the attention lawmakers were giving to early childhood education and hoped this commitment would continue beyond this one-time funding. They all indicated that applying for the funds provided an opportunity to communicate their community need and was a way for districts to show their appreciation to policymakers. School districts who did not apply for funding provided a variety of reasons for their decisions. They either did not offer a Pre-K program, had too few Pre-K eligible children, believed that the funding was not a good fit for their current program as they primarily provided tuition based Pre-K, or they indicated that the amount awarded by TEA would not be sufficient to meet the necessary quality standards.
As a results of this research and these conversations with several Central Texas districts, UWATX has five recommendations as the new legislative session begins.
- Provide stable and long-term funding support for Pre-K to allow districts to make concrete investments in staff and programs.
- Provide full-day Pre-K for all eligible three- and four-year-olds.
- Provide stable and long-term funding for districts to reach teacher to child ratio requirements of 1:11 and to limit class sizes to 22 students.
- Support teacher quality and development by re-introducing an early childhood teacher certification that will ensure that teachers understand developmentally appropriate practices and can provide ideal environment for three- and four-year-olds.
- Encourage community collaborations between school districts, Head Start programs, and high quality child care programs to help align and maximize resources, improve quality, and strengthen the overall early childhood system.
The research included in this report was produced with the support of the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium. The Consortium is comprised of foundations and philanthropists from across Texas interested in ensuring that parents, educators, policymakers, media, and the general public have objective data about public education. The research included in this report is objective and non-partisan. Created in 2011, the Consortium is currently comprised of 37 foundations from throughout Texas and focuses its work on leveraging private resources to produce credible and necessary data on the most important educational challenges facing Texas. For more information on the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, please visit www.tegac.org.
To learn more about how you can help advocate for quality Pre-K, please join us at the Capitol this Friday, January 13th, where the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium and Texans Care for Children are co-hosting a Pre-K Briefing to showcase the research findings by UWATX and other regional partners.