Texas should look to Michigan for ways to address early childhood education

SMU education authority Paige Ware says the Texas legislature needs to heed the governor's plea for more funding for pre-K.

Paige Ware

By Paige Ware

There is a tug-of-war over how to fund high-quality pre-K education programs in Texas.

Paige Ware
Paige Ware

Gov. Greg Abbott has issued a call during this legislative session to increase pre-K funding by doubling the amount appropriated in 2015. So far, state lawmakers are not heeding the call, but they should.

The governor's proposed funding of $236 million would give traction to the quality pre-K programs put in place last year, allowing communities to build upon a foundation of high standards for Texas' youngest students.

However, the House is considering budgeting only $146 million over two years, without tying the money to meet high educational standards. Its allocation to school districts would be based solely on student enrollments. The Senate is slicing the pie differently, by giving more over two years for a total of $180 million, but again, without much incentive for setting quality standards.

Research shows that pre-K alone is not a predictor of student success, but quality pre-K is.

This means that pre-K programs offering well-managed and supportive classroom environments are the ones that make a difference. So do small student-teacher ratios with well-trained teachers who can monitor students' progress and recognize when interventions need to happen. Another important component is parent engagement. Parents need guidance on how to foster their children's school readiness from the get-go.

With their 2015 bill, House Bill 4, Texas legislators laid the groundwork for student success by funding pre-K programs that encouraged lower student-teacher ratios and endorsed proven practices, such as using research-based curriculum and assessments. However, in an analysis conducted locally by The Commit! Partnership, Dallas County schools participating in the 2015 HB 4 grant were concerned about not being able to make long-term investments in pre-K education because continued funding was uncertain. Consequently, many schools used their money on one-time costs.

In addition, school districts wished that long-term, sustainable funds be focused on full-day programs, which model the traditional school schedule and are more feasible for parents.

The vision for improving children's education becomes shortsighted when funding is unsteady, moving hesitantly from biennium to biennium when legislators convene. Investing in 3-and 4-year-olds and their teachers is costly, but it can yield important successes over the long run. The best example of this kind of commitment is Michigan's Great Start Readiness Program, which has been funded by the state for 30 years.

According to the Brookings Institution, Michigan has the only state-funded preschool evaluation that follows students' paths from pre-K to high school graduation. Students participating in the Great Start Readiness Program outperformed their peers in comparison groups, demonstrating school success indicators during kindergarten, second grade, middle school and high school graduation.

The indicator that stands out is grade retention. Participating Michigan high school students graduate on time more than those in the comparison groups. What also makes the Michigan program unique is the insistence on establishing and following quality standards and evaluating them. In addition to supporting student success, these standards keep the program's use of public tax dollars accountable and transparent.

We at SMU Simmons believe that evaluating these early childhood education programs is critical. Researchers in our Center on Research and Evaluation already work with Head Start programs in Tarrant County and the Dallas Independent School District. We observe 1,500 pre-K classrooms twice a year so that instructional coaches and teachers can receive data quickly and make improvements to the quality of instruction.

But there is more that all of us can do. Commit!'s Dallas County report tells us that 25,000 children enrolled in pre-K or Head Start programs in 2015. They represent only 44 percent of children who could have enrolled in our county. In 2016, it was encouraging to see enrollment rise by 8 percent when area districts agreed on a common registration week and enlisted help from community partners to get the word out.

Texas' elected officials, educators, parents and citizens now face an important choice.

High-quality pre-K programs — led by trained professionals and supported by their communities — are a critical component of students' educational trajectory, setting them on course to earn high school and vocational or college degrees. An upfront investment will pay dividends not only for students, but also for our state's families, taxpayers, communities and workforce.

In this tug-of-war over funding, let's pull together for early childhood education and Texas' future.

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