Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is taking members of his own party to task in a bid to push the state legislature to fully fund one of his signature policy proposals—high-quality, optional pre-K services for any interested family.

The Lone Star State’s legislature, which meets every two years to appropriate budgets, already spends around $1.5 billion per session to support school district efforts to provide pre-kindergarten services.

The immediate cause of the dispute between the governor and lawmakers is not over that $1.5 billion pool of funds, but rather an additional $236 million Abbott would like the state to spend over the next two years to ensure that pre-K programs are “high quality.”

According to local reports, the state Senate has earmarked $75 million for the high-quality pre-K program, while the state House of Representatives has proposed spending a total of $118 million until the next session.

Those proposals were unsatisfactory to Abbott, who spoke to lawmakers in his State of the State address in late January.

The high–quality pre-K program’s role is “to ensure that pre-K works rather than wastes taxpayer money. Let’s do this right. Or don’t do it at all,” he said.


A Texas-Sized Study

Robert Sanborn, the president of the Texas-based nonprofit Children At Risk, has been a major ally in Abbott’s efforts to strengthen the state’s public pre-K offerings.

For years, opponents of expanding public support for pre-K in Texas had called for a specific study on the effects of pre-K on students in the state, said Sanborn, who has an international education doctorate from Columbia University.

In response, Sanborn and his team put together a five-year longitudinal study with 47,000 participants to measure the effects of high-quality pre-K programs on third grade reading scores among economically disadvantaged students.

The study found that high quality pre-K had a “significant difference” on the 3rd grade scores of the disadvantaged students, said Sanborn in an interview with InsideSources.

“For economically disadvantaged students, the odds of reading at a college-ready pace are 40% higher if they attend full-day public pre-K,” according to an executive summary of the report.

For the purpose of the study, “high quality” pre-K, includes full-day programs with, at most, an 11 to 1 student-teacher ratio. These are metrics that Sanborn said constitute “a low bar.”

He also said that the governor has left it up to individual school districts to determine what constitutes “high quality” pre-K, for the purposes of the state grant program.

In an interview on local talk radio station 95.1 KYFO, Abbott conceded that some in his state oppose pre-K funding in general. However, lost in the debate over his program, is the fact that many of these constituents are represented by lawmakers who spend hundreds of millions per year in “non-accountable pre-K,” he said.

The governor’s position is that his “high-quality” grant program should be fully funded to ensure that the larger pool of pre-K funds don’t go to waste on inferior programs.

Sanborn explained that many school districts use the additional “high quality” grant money to expand their offerings to full-day programs, or to revamp the standards and rigor of the pre-K programs already in place.

Some districts in Texas also employ public-private partnerships to satisfy demand for pre-K needs. These voucher-type programs allow some private child-care organizations to access public dollars to make pre-K more affordable, or in some cases free to low-income families.

According to Sanborn and the governor, investing in quality pre-K is the best way to ensure dropout prevention and high graduation rates. They argue that investing in pre-K would actually save the state in costly remediation efforts down the line.

“The only people who don’t seem to understand this are the legislators,” said Sanborn.


Pushback from Conservative Scholar

In Washington, Katharine Stevens, who is a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is unconvinced that expanding pre-K offerings is the best investment the state could make to increase educational outcomes for disadvantaged young people.

Stevens, who also has a doctorate in education policy from Columbia University, has been a sharp commentator on the methodologies used in pre-K and early childhood studies.

She authored a paper in 2016, “Does Pre-K Work?” in which she questioned the policy recommendations that have been derived from research in the pre-K space.

In an interview, Stevens called the Children at Risk study “advocacy research; produced by advocates and used by advocates.”

Sanborn said his group is independent and non-partisan. He said that they come to their advocacy positions based on their scientific findings and the research of others they review.

“The data is pretty clear” in support of pre-K for low-income families, he said. Based on that data, his ultimate goal is for the state to nearly double its yearly pre-K appropriations to ensure high quality pre-K for all families that choose to avail themselves of that option—a goal that he concedes is not going to be realized in the current budget climate.

Stevens countered the policy recommendations drawn from the study by pointing to a passage in the Children at Risk report, in which the authors explain: “This study is not intended to be a causal analysis of pre-K effects,” but instead “seeks to find associations between pre-K enrollment and average 3rd Grade STAAR Reading scores.”

Stevens said this distinction between correlation and causality is worth underscoring. She argues that the same qualities that would motivate a low-income parent to enroll their child in a pre-K program, could plausibly make them a more effective at-home teacher, and could explain the higher 3rd grade reading scores.

Furthermore, Stevens claimed that the study did a poor job of isolating the effects of pre-K from the effects of a low quality or high quality K-3 school the students may have subsequently entered into.

Based on the Children at Risk findings, as well as other outside research, Stevens said: “If you had a choice between sending a kid to full day pre-K and a bad K-3, versus no pre-K and a good K-3, you should probably choose the good K-3.”

Sanborn agrees that studies have shown a “fade effect” in the trajectory of students who go from quality pre-K programs to struggling elementary schools, and said that such an effect also exists when pre-K students move into kindergarten classes with other students who have not acquired pre-K skills.

He also noted that pre-K has had less of an effect, if any, on children of affluent or well-educated parents.

Those limitations to pre-K are part of why he and Abbott call for pre-K to be optional, but also freely available, to all low-income families.


If Not Pre-K, Then What?

While many pre-K studies don’t meet her standards, Stevens urged policy-makers to shift their attention to an academic area where she argues that the science is deepest and most relevant: early childhood brain development.

According to Stevens, the latest in brain science research makes the case that the biggest impact on a child’s development can be had by investing in pre-natal care to child-care up to age 3.

“Four is very late” for getting a child prepared for schooling, “by then you are already in remediation,” said Stevens. Most pre-K programs, particularly those offered for low-income families, only cover the year before kindergarten.

Efforts to bolster pre-K offerings, like the ones in Texas, distract attention from where dollars could have the most influence in ensuring positive outcomes for disadvantaged students.

Instead, policymakers should focus more broadly on “significantly increasing” investments in improving childcare generally, she said. She also supports improving K-3 offerings where she argues that substantial infrastructure is already in place and marginal dollars could be used to greater effect.

Building an expensive public—or publicly subsidized—pre-K program from whole cloth makes little sense in the context of tough budgetary decisions, she argues.

According to Stevens, there are a few reasons why policymakers and advocates have misplaced their emphasis on pre-K efforts rather than a more holistic view of child-care services:

First, she perceives a lag in understanding among some advocates of the latest in brain-science research.

Second, she believes there is a sense that there is political support for pre-K initiatives, and advocates are willing to take what they can realistically get to support pre-elementary education.

And finally, according to Stevens, a standardized universal pre-K system, which would effectively add a 14th year to the public school system, would be a boon to powerful teacher’s unions.

“Early childhood is the foundation of our society,” said Stevens.

“It is critically important both to taxpayers and to kids to think rigorously and honestly and resist doing what is politically popular and easy.”

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