How Much Money is DISD Missing Out On by Not Fully Funding Pre-K?

If trustees don't call for a tax increase in the next few years, full meaningful pre-K expansion is dead.


At this past week’s board briefing, trustee Nancy Bingham said something that thoroughly irritated me. Now, I feel bad calling her out, because she is, for the most part, a fantastic trustee. She understands proper governance, and she doesn’t allow herself to get dragged into the mud with trolling status-quo types. I also like her because she tends to zone out and play Candy Crush Saga when status quo trustees start filibustering. Last week, though, she said something I’ve heard often from other trustees, too, and it was way off base.

Bingham, in an off-hand comment, said that she believes the district should move forward with putting the $1.6 billion bond issue on the ballot in November. Nothing wrong with that. As I said last week, it’s the right thing to do.

Then — responding, I think, to my suggestion in that same column last week that the board was negligent in not pursuing a Tax Ratification Election to pay for programmatic needs; the bond only pays for land and facilities — she pointed out that she doesn’t support a TRE because she doesn’t think voters in her district would support it or her if she tried to sell it. She said that “some trustees who never have an opponent” (referring to trustee Mike Morath) can afford to be for such an effort, but she wants to get re-elected. To which most trustees, including Morath, just chuckled in response.

It was funny. It is also an inexcusable position, albeit one taken by other trustees on similar issues. It is wrong for three reasons:

1. There is one overriding value that should guide all trustee decisions: improving educational outcomes for kids. (I wrote an entire post explaining why, and how being a trustee differs greatly from being a city council member.) Often just how to do that is debatable. But everyone agrees that meaningful pre-K raises educational outcomes (at least through third grade; you need to do more work after that). It just appears that because elected officials are too scared to try to sell a tiny tax increase to help poor kids — because HEAVEN FORFEND THEY LOSE THEIR UNPAID TRUSTEE JOB — they won’t actually do what’s necessary to grab every pre-K dollar available.

2. It is absolutely true that the bond program will help pre-K in DISD, because we haven’t aligned our facilities with pre-K demographics and the bond will help do that. And I commend Trustee Bingham for taking a strong stand in support of the bond program because of it. But to expand pre-K, it will take more programmatic money that can’t come from a bond. A huge chunk of that programmatic money will automatically come to the district because it’s funded by the state (see below). But more will be needed, and it will have to come from local taxpayers like you and me. If trustees never want to try to sell the public on this need, we’ll never be able to fully execute the district’s unbelievably robust early education plan.

Since I’m beating the pre-K drum so much, I thought it worthwhile to bring up exactly what we’ve been missing out on because district leadership over the last two decades hasn’t gotten its act together to focus on pre-K:

First, we leave a ton of money on the table because we haven’t expanded pre-K access — an estimated $60 million from the state last year alone.

As an exercise, I did a little back of the napkin math to see how much state pre-K money we’ve left on the table in the past, and how much we might be leaving on the table moving forward.

If we take …

  • Estimated number of pre-K aged students served over the past 15 years (I confirmed this number with DISD): 129,112 – note: this is only 4 year olds, even though the state also funds 3 year olds
  • Estimated number of low income and/or Limited English Proficient (LEP) 1st graders served during those same years: 203,131 – this is the total number of kids who SHOULD have been served in pre-K as 4 year olds, and again as 3 year olds
  • Estimated $3,650 per child in funding from the state (this can vary, but it’s based on this)

And if we are to assume that today’s dollar amounts and rules were in effect, then the equation would look something like:

[(number of eligible 1st graders – number of PK students) + (number of eligible 1st graders)] x ($ per child)

*NOTE: we add the number of eligible 1st graders again to account for 3 year olds

[(203,131-129,112)+(203,131)] x $3650 = $1,011,597,500

So, we’ve left a billion dollars on the table for pre-K.

Here’s another way of looking at it. Based on today’s enrollment, we are leaving approximately $60 million per year on the table. Over the next 15 years, if we do not continue to increase enrollment, that would equal $900 million that we could be bringing into our community for our kids (assuming at no time during those 15 years does the state or federal government provide additional funding; a bad assumption, since we know the state just increased funding by about $1500 per 4 year old).

So, we’ve left a billion dollars on the table, and we could leave $900-plus million.

Let me be clear: The bond is the right FIRST step to help address this, because it helps build more pre-K classrooms where the kids are. But properly funding the district’s 0-5 early childhood plan means more than just funding these pre-K classrooms on a half day basis – which is what this big chunk of state funding does. The district plan calls for funding full day classrooms, parental home visits, a lot of pre-K professional development, and more. This means that at some point, we’re going to have to talk about a TRE or we’re going to have to give up on DISD’s 0-5 plans. Lack of action on this by district leadership isn’t benign neglect. It means they are actively killing the district’s vaunted early education plan. Again, the bond is a step in the right direction, so we can’t say they are killing it yet. But if the TRE isn’t put before the voters in the next few years, they will be.

3. The idea that you should do what’s right and then sell it to your constituents instead of just take the temperature of folks barely paying attention isn’t some crazy notion. In fact, I would argue that maybe — JUUUUUST MAYBE — the reason hard-headed elected officials like Angela Hunt, Dwaine Caraway, Philip Kingston, Scott Griggs, Rafael Anchia, and Mike Morath never face much opposition is BECAUSE they take principled stands and then convince voters it’s the right thing to do. Just a theory. One I’d like to see all trustees test in this case.


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