Meaningful Pre-K Reform is in Trouble, Because Austin Reps Are Lazy

Dallas reps are fighting a losing battle for enough pre-K dollars to make a difference

 

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The Dallas Morning News ran a good editorial on Friday showing why we should support meaningful pre-K reform. You should read it now. I’ll wait.

So, your takeaway from that is a) Grand Prairie is doing some good things in its ISD (true, and more widespread than you probably realize); b) full-day Pre-K is necessary in Texas (true); and c) the state is going to at least give districts more money to expand from half-day to full-day pre-K under HB 4, the Gov. Abbott-backed bill currently under consideration.

That last item — c) — is true but largely meaningless. Because HB 4 is a PR event masquerading as a serious education bill, one that could harm pre-K efforts more than it helps. Unfortunately, it looks as though that is the bill that is going to pass. Meanwhile, a far superior pre-K bill, HB 1100, co-authored by Dallas representative Eric Johnson, is going to die because people in Austin are okay with half-assing education for kids in Texas — especially poor kids.

Let me hit several points about this that you need to understand if you care about proper pre-K in Texas:

• If you have six-plus hours to kill, you should watch the public education committee hearing on HB 1100 and HB 4 and other pre-K bills that took place a few weeks ago in Austin. (Scroll down to public education hearing on 3/10) If nothing else, listen to Johnson’s opening comments about 21:30 in and his arguments with HB 4 author Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston).

ChartPreK

• This hearing clearly lays out how the governor-backed bill is not only inferior to Johnson’s bill, but also how it does almost no good whatsoever. HB 1100 doubles funding per child (needed if you double the hours those kids spend at pre-K) while HB 4 gives so little money to districts it can’t even be seriously considered a full-day bill, because it will result in almost no new full-day programs. HB 1100 requires a specialized training certification for pre-K teachers that pre-K teacher be certified, helping ensure higher-quality pre-K programs (the most important factor in pre-K making a meaningful difference in the academic performance of poor kids). HB 1100 demands accountability from districts to show pre-K is working, because you can’t forever fund a program in this current economic climate if those pre-K classes aren’t showing strong results. The accountability language in HB 100 says the state will look at 3rd- and 4th-grade assessments (which they already administer), and if TEA says the program isn’t working, they will recommend changes. If those changes are not adopted, the state funding would cease. Under HB 4, there is no accountability to show results. (Johnson put together a great chart comparing current law, HB 1100, and HB 4. Download it here.)

• How did the six hours of discussion go overall? Well, on one level, there was a lot of great high-level education discussion. Overall, experts who spoke voiced strong support of full day pre-K as necessary  throughout the meeting. The consensus was that, regardless of which bill wins, pre-K should be part of formula funding for districts — which will likely be one of the untold stories of the meeting. And Huberty, the author of HB 4, did NOT like folks denigrating his bill. He wanted everyone to know he is for children. He also quoted Kevin Costner movies. So noted.

• Dallas was very well represented in the hearings. There was testimony from Alan Cohen of DISD, Commit, the regional chamber, and Lumin. Also in the room: United Way Dallas, Child Care Group, etc. Cohen was particularly good swatting down the silly notions (that won’t die) that pre-K advances don’t hold up. This portion of his opening remarks are worth reprinting:

In Dallas ISD, we know that if we miss the chance to educate an at-risk child during the first 5 years of his or her life, all future educational interventions we try will be more difficult, more expensive, and less effective.

This truth often leads reasonable people to the simple conclusion that we need more of our children attending pre-K. But this alone is insufficient. We need more kids attending pre-K, AND we need our pre-K classrooms to be of the highest quality.

Yet this is where our education system in Texas, like most others around the country, continues to fall short.

But it does not have to be this way. We not only have decades of early childhood research proving long-term results for children, but researchers also know that they can replicate the results.

In other words, this is a field where we actually know what works. There really is a gold standard.

Yet, despite what we know – very rarely do we actually make the investment necessary to replicate that research.

• It was disappointing to listen to committee members who aren’t up on current education research. For example, there was in incredibly stupid early line of questioning wondering if full day was really that much better than half day. The argument: “Well, if you can really figure out a how to make a 4-year-old pay attention for eight hours a day, let me know.” (I’m paraphrasing, but only slightly.)

Okay, here are the two definitive studies on the matter:

Study 1: (2006, Randomized Trial, New Jersey)

Money quote:

“Although further research is needed to augment this single study of half-day vs. extended-day preschool, the results clearly indicate that duration and intensity matter. Extended-day preschool seems to have dramatic and lasting effects when it is high quality. All teachers in the study classrooms were certified, public school employees paid on union scale. A comprehensive curriculum was implemented with strong supervisory support offered to classroom staff. Classrooms were also well supplied, and both children and families received support services. Given the evident need of many families for full-day care for their 4 year olds and the evidence presented here that full-day preschool has important benefits for child learning, policy makers should strongly consider implementation of full-day preschool.”

Study 2: (November 2014, Chicago Child-Parent Centers)
Key findings: Positive gains in school readiness, social emotional learning, and health. Also a significant decrease in chronic absenteeism. Money quote:

“ … the findings are large enough to assure parents and the rest of the public that the positive benefits found for high-quality part-day preschool were found in high-quality full-day preschool to an even greater extent.”

• People need to stop trying to question the long-term effectiveness of pre-K by citing that Head Start impact study from 2003 or the Tennessee Voluntary pre-K study. Both are now easily debunked. In fact, they are PROOF that high-quality pre-K is necessary; just shoving kids in a school room for eight hours without expert attention does nothing.

• Which brings us to the outcome. Everyone left feeling good about getting to make the case for quality pre-K funding. But today, the fact is it looks like not only is HB 1100 dead in the water, but the authors of HB 4 aren’t considering adding more money, accountability, or teacher certification to their bill. Which means HB 4 will be a largely useless bill that won’t move the needle and will give critics ammunition to take that money away when it doesn’t show results. In this way that bill HURTS kids.

Then why will it pass? Because too many well-meaning legislators are too lazy to look hard at the budget and find ways to make the $300-$400 million needed available. Budgeting is an expression of values, and everyone says they value education. But too many otherwise intelligent legislators say they are going to vote for HB 4 because “something is better than nothing.” No. Wrong. These reps are simply unwilling to do the work necessary to make it politically impossible for Abbott and Huberty and others to support HB 4. Instead, these Austin reps are going to make it possible for these people to pass a do-nothing bill. If they held the line and said they won’t support it because kids deserve better, they could force better legislation. But they aren’t invested in doing the education research to see why HB 4 is a bad bill, or studying the budget to find the money available. It’s lazy, and it’s an abdication of their responsibilities to their constituents — and, of course, to kids.

This doesn’t have to happen. The money is there. This budget is going to have $2.2B for education spending. HB 1100 would cost between $300-$400 million. That’s 14 to 18 percent of the budget. So how serious are we about pre-K if the most aggressive bill out there still leaves you $1.8B to spend elsewhere in education — and it STILL can’t pass? The answer is one even a 4-year-old could answer.

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