"Universal pre-K" is the universal mantra of every school board member and education official in the city. It's the elusive idea that all future, predominantly poor, kids in Dallas ISD will have gone through an aggressive early childhood education program, and that earlier exposure to vocabulary and learning will put DISD kids on a more even playing field with more privileged children.
A new reportfrom the Houston-based non-profit Children At Risk points to the importance of early childhood education in preventing later academic struggles. The study focused on several districts, foremost among them Dallas ISD, and drew attention to the district's financial prioritization of pre-K. Representatives of Children At Risk, along with Mayor Mike Rawlings, will be speaking in Dallas today to release the report and discuss continued efforts to expand pre-K education in Dallas.
It's part of the statewide education budget debates that have taken center stage over the last few years. After the $5.4 billion education cuts in 2011, districts have grappled with balancing their budget needs with state requirements they meet testing and curriculum standards.
After a judge recently ruled that the statewide school finance system unfairly benefited wealthier districts, DISD has become more vocal about their budget needs that, as one of the poorer districts in the state, sets them apart. And chief among their concerns is the ability to finance early childhood education.
"We know that right now one of long-term plans is this investment in early childhood. And to invest in early childhood especially when you have many parents that live in poverty, it means we have to help out with preschool. We can't rely on large percentage of parents being able to pay for preschool," says DISD Superintendent Mike Miles. "We know that if we want equity in education opportunities, that's a cost to us that a suburban district wouldn't have, at least to the same degree."
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It's an assertion that is backed up by substantial research. By the time they reach elementary school, kids who receive pre-K education perform better in math and reading state testing. These kids ultimately do better throughout their lives as well: They are consistently more likely to graduate high school and get into college and stay out of the criminal justice system.
Still, Children At Risk reports that 73 percent of the examined districts, including DISD, reported inadequate funding for pre-K expansion. Just 47 percent offered full-day pre-K programs, and 36 percent do not have any pre-K programs for eligible kids at all.
Meanwhile, most districts report a staff-to-student ratio of 1:10, and express the desire to invest even more in pre-K education programs. It's clear that districts like Dallas ISD want to pour resources into early childhood education. They are increasingly prioritizing pre-K as well, despite financial limitations: 78 percent of districts reported putting at least some general operating funds toward pre-K operations.
But with state budget constraints as they are, it's equally clear that DISD will continue its Sisyphean task until the state, too, can prioritize early childhood education.