Pre-K, Money, and the Future of School Reform

Why it takes outside pressure to make a school district do the right thing

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Last week, the DISD board met to discuss policies, procurements, and whatever else tickled their fancy, like they do with great tedium every month, twice a month. If you read this story about last Thursday’s DISD board briefing, you probably think you missed a rather routine discussion of a disagreement between some trustees and the administration about how to best fund the district’s pre-K needs.

That’s true and false. It’s true that the story gives a good summary of a discussion. But it wasn’t routine. What actually happened: A seemingly predictable discussion – technically, a first read of a proposed pre-K policy – disguised what was really at stake: the entire future of DISD’s reform efforts as we have come to know them.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, allow me to re-raise: Given the battle lines being drawn on the board and within the administration itself, we will look back on the next two month’s discussion over this proposed policy as the moment that determines whether meaningful reform that closes student achievement gaps will continue in DISD.

Let’s examine why this debate is so crucial in light of what was said last week — and what those words really mean.

This is the board policy proposed by trustee Miguel Solis.

It will take you about three minutes to read it. Upon doing so, a question mark will form over your head as you think, “How can this be controversial?” The overview, taken from the document, with mild style cleanup:

The district shall offer prekindergarten to all eligible 3- and 4-year-olds within the District. Classrooms shall be made available both within Dallas ISD elementary schools and via partnerships with third-party operated early childhood centers that meet a prearranged set of quality benchmarks. Additionally, the District shall offer services to parents of eligible children ages zero through 5 designed to help improve eventual prekindergarten and kindergarten readiness. The district’s annual budget process shall prioritize expansion of services in these areas, including both direct service delivery and support services necessary to ensure success, until all eligible families are served, and district procurement and personnel practices shall likewise prioritize this expansion, with the goal of serving 100 percent of eligible families in the district’s service area by the 2025-2026 academic year.

Highlights from the rest of the policy deal with stated goals and prescriptions for everything from kindergarten readiness (get to 80 percent) to their eventual 3rd grade reading scores (80 percent reading at grade level) to adult-student ratios (8-1 to 12-1, depending on various factors) to class size (no more than 24) to professional development for pre-K teachers (they need it).

Let’s step back and remember why this is so important. If you are coming fresh to this, I wrote an entire post a year ago detailing why pre-K is vital for DISD, and told you that a fight over it was coming. Please read it again if you need context, but here’s a relevant excerpt:

Of the many things I’ve learned the past six months, the importance of early education, or pre-K, is the most astonishing. What’s amazing to me about it is the near-certainty of the evidence that supports how crucial it is for poor kids to be put into a quality pre-K program.

[T]he benefits of quality pre-K (the adjective is important) keep being proven. Let me be clear: that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of good studies out there that discuss the problem of “fadeout” — the idea that the pre-K gains disappear by 3rd grade. It’s why there is still thoughtful debate about the subject in large urban districts like New York.

But large meta-analysis of these studies suggests three things: a) the fadeout occurs when the principals of quality pre-K are not carried through the child’s education thereafter; b) truly randomized studies show much less fadeout than cherry-picked results; and c) what is commonly mistaken for “fadeout” is actually “catch-up” from students who did not have quality pre-K but who have other favorable factors allowing them to close the gap by 3rd grade (usually not poor students).

For my money, the $45 million additional dollars DISD hopes to spend on early education by 2020 would be well spent.

Some other facts about pre-K you need to consider if you think this shouldn’t be DISD’s absolute funding priority:

  • A study of more than 30,000 K-8th graders showed that the steepest learning curve occurs before 3rd grade, concluding that: “Importantly, these findings underscore economists’ advice to invest heavily in the early years of education, by showing that this is the period when the average student is learning the most.”
  • In October, DISD’s own analysis found that its students who were deemed kindergarten ready were 6 times more likely to pass the 3rd-grade STAAR state exams at the recommended level than students who were not kindergarten ready.
  • From the chart at the top of this post, you can see that by following the DISD early education department’s 32-point pre-K plan (which you can see in the slide below) – the plan on which Solis’ policy is based – kindergarten readiness has jumped an astonishing 13 percentage points. (If you want more details on how that happened, read the DMN’s excellent story on this “meteoric lift.”)

PreK_DISD_page16

After reading Solis’ proposed policy in context with what I’ve said above, I suspect most Dallas citizens would react with a collective fist pump. Yay that the reform plan for pre-K is working, and yay that the board is trying to make it policy because it’s working so well and so important to the district long-term. After all, most folks know this in their guts, right? Getting to kids as early as possible, making sure they don’t academically fall behind kids with better support systems, makes it much more likely those (often poor) kids will succeed in school and in life.

(In fact, I’m pretty certain sure you’re in favor of making pre-K a top priority. In a poll released less than a week ago, 80 percent of voters said they supported public investments in early education.)

Why then, am I saying this is so controversial? Let’s go to the tape.

Tawnell’s story in the DMN gives you the key disagreement from last week: money. This can be summarized in one quote from the meeting by Superintendent Michael Hinojosa that the great education bloggers at Turn and Talks highlighted: “Our No. 1 commitment is to the budget.”

Hinojosa pushed back hard against the policy, saying that, given the district’s student shortfall (2,000 fewer kids than expected) and other funding needs, he doesn’t want his budgeting hands tied by a policy that mandates he find funds to pay for this pre-K strategy going forward. Now, he said over and over that his No. 1 priority was early education, ahead of every other reform measure (like school choice, career and tech, and teacher excellence). He said that the board would just have to trust him that he would find a way to give all available dollars to pre-K, but that he wasn’t sure what dollars will be available. But the basic problem with that comes from Hinojosa’s own statement on the nature of the pre-K commitment: “We’re going to fund it next year; I can’t promise after that.”

In fact, there are really three problems with this:

1. Traditionally, large districts talk a great game when it comes to early education but don’t want to make the hard choices on how to fund it. DISD is no different.

2. The money is there if a) state money is counted correctly and b) hard but smart choices are made.

3. All this is in line with the bigger story — I would argue it’s a near-crisis — happening in the district right now, which is that Hinojosa is making decisions based on saving money rather than attacking student achievement.

In order:

Bernadette Nutall kept saying that she was “for pre-K, apple pie, and the American flag,” her way of acknowledging that pre-K is the sort of thing that everyone is for, so don’t suggest she’s not. Joyce Foreman and Hinojosa basically tried to say the same thing, each one saying that of course they’re “for pre-K,” in the same way we’re all for everything that is awesome.

But as trustee Mike Morath pointed out, history suggests that school districts, like all large bureaucracies, don’t make tough funding decisions unless they’re forced to do so by outside agencies. That could be teacher unions keeping districts honest about pay, it could be the state keeping them focused on standardized outcomes, or in this case it’s a board that wants to cement the district’s unwavering commitment to quality pre-K.

Morath said that he realizes that this is a conundrum, since he has long said that the school board should not set narrow rules but give direction and oversight. But others held the same view – that this kind of core direction change in K-12 would require specific mandates. Trustee Dan Micciche noted that a senior administrative official privately told him that early education was not the responsibility of the school system. The policy’s supporters all seem to recognize that putting outside pressure on the administration – not just Hinojosa, but any administration – would be necessary to see to the long-term commitment of dollars needed to continue the district’s recent early education success. Otherwise, everyone pledges allegiance to pre-K, apple pie, and the American flag, but nothing happens for kids.

Examples of this are evident all over the country:

It took a court order for New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program to invest in quality. The NJ Abbott Preschool Program began investing in quality in 1999 and it took five years of significant investment and vision before it had a program ready to study in 2004. The most recent research update has their gains persisting through 5th grade — gains that are double for those kids that were in two years of quality pre-K.

The fact is, it never would have happened without the outside pressure of a court order. And now? The New Jersey program spends more than double what DISD spends to support each child in their successful quality pre-K program. And that district’s largely poor population is achieving at much higher rates.

Which brings us to the second issue: The money is there if the will is there.

Look, quality pre-K is a big investment. I’ve seen the district’s early education director speak to groups several times. He always points this out. Even after getting more money from the state — House Bill 4 will give the district $1,400 more per 4-year-old — DISD will have to eventually find $45 million to $55 million annually in its nearly $1.9 billion budget (which will probably shrink next year) to make this happen long-term. That’s a pretty penny. No one is arguing this.

But, we agree it’s vital, right? And do you know what DOESN’T work? Underfunded, poorly planned pre-K. In fact, there are a couple people in the district right now – very high up executives – who will tell you off the record that they don’t think pre-K works, period. What examples will they point to? One study of a program in Tennessee that in fact proves my point: Non-rigorous, underfunded pre-K programs can’t compare to the sort of pre-K program the district began putting in place two years ago. As University of Chicago economics professor James Heckman notes, when it comes to pre-K, you get what you pay for.

Unless pre-K is a relentless priority, cemented by board policy, even the best intentions will lead to an underfunded, poor-performing program. Hard choices must be made. All of these choices basically mean the same thing: spend less on older children to subsidize younger children. Because the state gives the district more money for kids ages 5 to 18 than it does age zero to 4. This means that DISD – and all districts in Texas – spend far more per pupil on kids who are older than 5 than it does on kids who are younger. It spends that money in many ways: police, security, building maintenance, WiFi, laptops, smartboards, case workers, counselors, nurses, administrators, clerks, lots and lots of teachers — you name it.

The question isn’t whether any of this other spending isn’t working. Undoubtedly some small amount of it is probably pretty useless. The DMN has covered the outcomes from the Imagine 2020 strategic feeder initiative, and they sure look lackluster.

But “not working at all” isn’t the real issue. The issue is: Does any of the other $1.9B in spending in DISD produce fewer results for kids than the spending on the early childhood plan? Because we know what DISD’s early childhood plan has done to kindergarten readiness already. And if DISD’s own data hold, by the end of the 2018-2019 school year we should see something like a 4 point rise in the percentage of 3rd graders who read at a post-secondary pace. Mind you, DISD’s current performance on that front is an unbelievably depressing: 29 percent. So a 4 percent rise would be truly historic. Clearly, there is a whole heck of a lot in the DISD budget that is less effective at producing outcomes than early childhood education.

Who can make this happen? I’ve sung CFO Jim Terry’s praises before. When the co-priorities under Miles were student achievement AND growing the fund balance, Terry found many creative ways to make both happen. Unless he’s one of those people who think pre-K doesn’t work — and that would be terrible if true — he could find a way to properly fund pre-K under the board’s proposed policy.

Because this is not one of those gray areas, folks. It is absolutely a binary equation: You can’t say you are “for pre-K” and not be committed to funding quality operations at any cost. There is no “pretty good” with pre-K. There is no “almost pregnant.” You’re either in or you’re out, right now.

Which leads us to the third concern about what Hinojosa said. If Hinojosa was at his most honest when he said, “Our No. 1 commitment is to the budget,” then we’ve got ourselves a major problem. Because the district is full of smart, hungry educators desperate to help poor kids, despite the sometimes toxic environment DISD has to endure. Certainly many of them had problems with Miles in many ways, but I’m guessing that few doubted his single-minded focus on student achievement. They knew he would take in the chest (or, often, the back) any and all status quo arrows if he was doing so for programs that could change poor kids’ lives. This affected behavior in the classroom, as everyone recognized the single-minded mission of the school system. It affected administrators as well, because they knew they had political cover to do whatever needed to be done to increase student achievement.

Now, there appears to be, from the words of the superintendent, great doubt as to the mission of the school system. No longer is the No. 1 priority improving outcomes for kids. Instead, the No. 1 priority is to balance the budget. So, staff members who hunger for ways to improve outcomes for kids seem to be looking at a leadership vacuum, and are undoubtedly asking themselves many questions:

  • If my boss talks about budget over achievement on pre-K – something that EVERYONE IS FOR – what is he going to do with more controversial reforms?
  • Heck, we already have data that says our pre-K is working! And it’s popular! Why not use the political cover of this board policy to force dueling cabinet members focused on their own turf to find the money, rather than fight the board on the policy?
  • TEI is expensive. Is he going to dilute that next?
  • Isn’t our enormous fund balance there to help us with things like funding quality pre-K?
  • Should I start looking at job boards?

That’s where we are. Look, I’m not saying there is universal support for this pre-K policy. Hinojosa noted that his cabinet was unanimously opposed to it. I don’t doubt that. Why? Because they want their priorities funded, AND because there isn’t a pre-K spot on Hinojosa’s cabinet. So it’s not as though the failure of this pre-K policy will cause any of DISD’s top brass to question our direction. But we do have a lot of talented people who want to keep pushing for positive changes for kids. And I imagine many of them are left with serious concerns.

Because they know the score. You can praise pre-K, apple pie, and the American flag in every speech you give, but actions matter. State pre-K money has been available, after all, since the mid-1990s, and people having been praising pre-K for at least that long, and yet the district has never done pre-K right. It is starting to. Hinojosa has committed to continuing to do so next year. These are all good things. But the year after that is anybody’s guess. And it doesn’t have to be.

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Comments

  • jfpo

    “No longer is the No. 1 priority improving outcomes for kids. Instead, the No. 1 priority is to balance the budget. So, staff members who hunger for ways to improve outcomes for kids seem to be looking at a leadership vacuum…”

    Was there any reason not to expect this when we brought back a re-tread?

  • Johnny

    Hinojosa is and probably always will be a little overly budget sensitive after the way his first tenure went down.

  • EricCeleste

    Yes I didn’t get into that, but that is certainly part of it. He even made a statement during the meeting that CFO’ Terry “has a better history with budgets than I do.”