Some 181,000 Texas 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-backed pre-kindergarten in 2008-09, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, making the state No. 1 in the number of 4-year-olds attending public-school pre-K. Separately, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has estimated that 85 percent of the state's 4-year-olds are in a public or private pre-K program.
The pre-K program funded by the state mostly serves children whose families live at or near the federal poverty level — an eligibility limit that state Sen. Rodney Ellis wants to erase in hopes, he says, of helping more children succeed in school.
A 2006 study by researchers at Texas A&M University concluded that permitting all 4-year-olds to enter high-quality, full-day pre-K classes, in public or private settings, would deliver benefits greatly exceeding costs. The study took into account factors including educational outcomes, increased future earnings and reduced child welfare, child care, justice system and crime victims' costs.
Ellis, D-Houston, filed proposals to open pre-K to all 4-year-olds in the 2005, 2007 and 2009 legislative sessions, but nothing happened, he complains. The May 14 issue of The Texas Observer quotes Ellis saying: “I’ve never gotten it out of committee or gotten a hearing.”
We wondered if Ellis accurately recapped the fate of his proposals.
First, some background on this issue. Like most states, Texas limits pre-K eligibility to targeted groups. For starters, children have to be at least 3 years old to qualify. Until recently, they also had to be homeless or unable to speak and comprehend English or educationally disadvantaged — a characterization based on family income.
Since 1985, state law has required any district with at least 15 eligible 4-year-olds to offer half-day pre-K, which is supported by state education aid. Districts that offer full-day programs must fund them by charging parents tuition or using other resources including state early-start grants, according to a 2010 report by the House Research Organization. The state put nearly $777 million into pre-K classes in 2008-09, according to the Texas Education Agency.
With an assist from Ellis's office, we confirmed from legislative records that for each of the three sessions, Ellis filed his pre-K bill and it failed to win a hearing or be voted out of committee. In 2005 and 2007, identical House measures likewise languished.
Still, we wondered if that inaction reflects lawmakers' indifference to early childhood education in general, or simply the three proposals by Ellis. Has any House or Senate member succeeded in winning consideration—or adoption—of measures widening pre-K access?
Texas experts on pre-K told us that in 2006 and 2007, the Legislature took steps intended to expand access.
In 2006, legislators agreed to a move by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, to allow toddler dependents of adults on active military duty into pre-K; the expansion was rolled into a measure focused on education and school property taxes, according to Ida Garcia, Van de Putte’s legislative director.
In 2007, Garcia said, Van de Putte was among backers of a move to ensure pre-K eligibility for all children who had ever been in foster care became law. Previously, she said, children in foster care were permitted into pre-K classes but if they were later adopted, they could be barred.
Pre-K experts noted too that legislators last year sent Gov. Rick Perry a proposal by Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, that directed $25 million to support full-day pre-K classes in school districts that adopted specific pre-K class-size limits and teacher-student ratios, among requirements. But Perry vetoed that bill, saying the money should be spent instead on existing grants enabling select districts to expand half-day classes to full-day offerings -- serving "more students with greater needs," or 21,000 more students than would have been served under the vetoed proposal, the governor said.
So how does Ellis’ statement shake out?
He’s right that his proposals to open pre-K to all 4-year-olds never drew a hearing or advanced from committee. But a few efforts to expand eligibility for — or enhance — pre-K offerings have succeeded or won wide consideration.
We rate his statement as Mostly True.