Among dozens of changes included in a school finance reform bill Gov. Greg Abbott signed earlier this year, lawmakers included a provision that sends new money to school districts across the state and requires them to use it to expand their half-day prekindergarten classes to full-day.
But weeks into the new school year and months after Abbott signed the bill, the school districts that already had full-day pre-K classes still have it, and the districts that didn't have it before the bill was passed mostly still don't.
With the passage of House Bill 3, school districts across the state, including many in North Texas, are working to expand their pre-K course offerings. That means hiring new early childhood teachers, developing new course curricula and, in some cases, building new classrooms — all things that can't be done overnight. Some districts have told parents they may not see full-day pre-K programs until next year or later.
"You just can't turn a luxury liner on a dime," said David Garcia, chief financial officer for Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD.
HEB offers half-day, state-funded preschool for 4-year-olds who meet the state's qualifications, another half-day preschool program for certain needy 4-year-olds and a full-day tuition-based program. District officials hope to begin offering free full-day pre-K classes for qualifying students in the 2020-21 school year.
The main issue the district needs to work out is where to put those students, Garcia said. Many school districts buy portable classroom units as a temporary solution when they have capacity problems. But most cities across the DFW area have municipal codes banning temporary classrooms, meaning that isn't an option for many North Texas districts.
With the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, the district is expecting to open two new elementary school campuses that were funded through a 2018 bond issue.
In years past, the state only funded, and required districts to offer, half-day pre-K courses to qualifying students. Some districts, including Dallas ISD, offered full-day pre-K programs and picked up the tab for the difference themselves. Those districts are allowed to use the new pre-K money to fund other early learning priorities.
Now, districts are required to offer full-day pre-K classes to qualifying 4-year-olds. Students may qualify for pre-K based on a number of 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.
Experts say high-quality pre-K classes are critically important to help economically disadvantaged students, students who are learning English and others catch up with their peers before starting kindergarten. Researchers point to benefits that can last years after students are finished with pre-K.
But Texas' programs have fallen short in the past. In a study released in April by Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research, Texas' state-funded pre-K program met just four of the 10 benchmarks authors identified as being necessary for high-quality early childhood education. Among other areas the state falls short, Texas doesn't have statewide maximum class sizes or limits on teacher-to-student ratios in prekindergarten classes.
But Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute and the study's author, said statewide full-day pre-K for qualifying students would be "a great start for Texas."
Besides classroom space to house the new classes, districts also need to worry about what goes in them, said Jackeline Orsini, director of early childhood learning for Arlington ISD. The supplies that pre-K classes need are different from those for older students, she said. Pre-K students are learning concepts like how to share, how to interact with other students and problem-solving. Classrooms need supplies to help reinforce those skills, like dramatic play centers, pretend kitchens and bookshelves, she said.
Likewise, districts that are looking to expand their pre-K programs need to hire teachers and teaching assistants who are qualified to teach early childhood programs, Orsini said.
The timing of House Bill 3 made it difficult for any district to move from half-day pre-K to full-day for the current school year, Orsini said. The bill was signed into law in June, at a time when most qualified teachers have already signed contracts for the upcoming school year. That made it nearly impossible for any district to hire enough teachers to start new programs, especially at a time when hundreds of districts across the state were trying to do the same thing, she said.
Difficult timing aside, Orsini said full-day pre-K classes will be a big benefit to the youngest students in Arlington, as well as their families. Pre-K classes help students work on early academic skills like shapes and numbers, as well as social and emotional skills. Having full-day classes instead of half-day gives teachers more time to work with students on those skills. It also means parents don't have to find child care for the half of the day when their children aren't in school.
"Those little ones are going to be exposed to literacy, science, art, early math concepts, music, social studies," Orsini said. "...This has been something that a lot of educators have been waiting for, and families as well."
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