Texas is lagging behind other states in the education it offers to its youngest learners, according to a study released Wednesday.
But a plan lawmakers are considering to fund full-day prekindergarten statewide could help turn the state's early learning program in the right direction, one of that study's authors said.
"It would be a great start for Texas," said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research.
Released Wednesday, the institute's annual State of Preschool yearbook lays out a series of benchmarks that researchers say states must have in place for their early childhood education programs to be successful. Those benchmarks include offering professional development opportunities for faculty and enacting policies that support picking good curricula and implementing them well.
Of the 10 benchmarks outlined in the report, Texas' state-funded early childhood program meets only four. Among other areas where the state falls short, Texas doesn't have statewide maximum class sizes or limits on teacher-to-student ratios in prekindergarten classes. In states whose programs don't meet at least half of the benchmarks, "There's real cause for worry," Barnett said.
"These are minimums," he said. "These are what we think research says if you've got all 10 of these, you can get in the game. We're worried about you if you don't."
The report also notes that Texas spent about $850 less per student on its pre-K programs in 2018 than it did a decade earlier.
Legislators are considering proposals to fund full-day pre-K programs for eligible students statewide. Districts that already have full-day classes could use that money to improve their early learning programs in other ways, such as expanding access for 3-year-olds or hiring more teachers. That plan is part of a proposed $9 billion in additional funding for education. But Texas' two houses disagree on how that money should be spent, meaning they will likely need to negotiate the final spending plan in conference committee.
Barnett said Texas lawmakers would do well to consider using some of that money to hire more state-level staff to support early childhood programs in districts across the state.
In Texas, 4-year-old students are eligible to attend state-funded pre-K programs if they meet one of several criteria, including qualifying for free or reduced lunches or being homeless or in foster care. The children of Star of Texas Award recipients are also eligible, as are children of parents who are either in active military service or who were injured or killed while on active duty.
The state funds half-day pre-K programs for qualifying students. But a number of districts, including the Dallas Independent School District, pay to offer broader services than the state funds. For the last five years, Dallas has offered full-day pre-K to all qualifying 4-year-olds and half-day pre-K to qualifying 3-year-olds.
Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said the district began footing the bill for full-day pre-K, because school officials knew it was a critical piece of their students' educations. About 95 percent of the district's pre-K students are economically disadvantaged, he said, and about half are English language learners. If the district can get those students reading at grade level by third grade, it puts them on a much better path for the rest of their school careers, he said.
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The program is beginning to show results, Hinojosa said. Students who came into the full-day pre-K program in its first year are now in second grade, and they're performing better than their peers who didn't attend pre-K. But the program is expensive. The district spends about $5 million a year on it.
If the state's proposed investment in pre-K materializes, the district could use it to offer full-day pre-K to 3-year-olds, or even to try to offer pre-K to all 4-year-olds in the district, whether they qualify or not.
Ultimately, expanding and supporting the district's early learning programs would mean that more of its students finish school ready for college or the workforce, Hinojosa said. But the district needs the money to pay for it.
"It's the best long-term bet for breaking the cycle of poverty," he said. "But it's long term and it's costly."