In March 2014, Greg Abbott said that as governor, he would push for targeting state aid to school districts offering quality pre-kindergarten classes.
"Expanding the population of students served by existing state-funded programs without addressing the quality of existing prekindergarten instruction or how it is being delivered would be an act of negligence and waste," Abbott said, in part making it clear he did not support state-funded full-day pre-k for schools until quality was assured.
Under existing law, state aid supports half-day programs for students from low-income, English-language learning, military and foster families, as noted in a Texas Tribune news story.
In February 2015, Abbott designated early education among his emergency topics for the 2015 Legislature, telling legislators: "To begin the process of improving our schools and advancing our students, we must improve early education."
On Feb. 26, 2015, Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed companion measures modeled on Abbott's pre-K proposal, though an Austin American-Statesman news story said the House plan, House Bill 4, foresaw less spending than Abbott was urging in his proposed 2016-17 state budget; Abbott had proposed $118 million for his desired pre-K grants.
The Tribune quoted Huberty saying House budget writers intended to put $100 million into the program, with school districts standing to receive up to $1,500 per student. With 225,000 eligible students, Huberty also acknowledged demand could exceed supply. "It's a numbers game," he said. "But at the end of the day, we are putting money back into the system, we are putting money back into pre-kindergarten." That was a reference to the 2011 Legislature's decision, in the face of a projected revenue shortfall, to end about $100 million a year in pre-kindergarten grants for local school districts, cutting off such aid to about 360 school districts.
Huberty and Zaffirini each proposed to add a subchapter to the state's education code, "High Quality Prekindergarten Program," enabling school districts to receive additional funding if the districts provided quality pre-K classes. By December 2018, the proposals said, the Texas education commissioner would be required to report to lawmakers on the effectiveness of the new program on student learning.
HB 4 progressed to passage in the face of some legislative criticism.
In April, the House advanced that body's version 129-18 after Huberty fended off efforts involving tea-party Republican Rep. Jonathan Stickland and others to kill the plan, news organizations including the Tribune reported.
At the time, about $130 million in additional funding was envisioned as flowing to school districts that adopt certain curriculum and teacher quality standards in their pre-kindergarten programs, as well as a "parent engagement plan."
Stickland, of Bedford, thrice failed to delay consideration as Huberty said he wished to correct "misinformation" about the measure, stressing that it was about quality control, not expanding early education. "I've been hearing from a lot of my colleagues that it's OK for us to spend billions of dollars on the border, and it's OK for us to spend billions of dollars over here," he said. "Let me ask you to spend $100 million to get a program that makes sense."
"This does not expand pre-K. This is not universal pre-K," Huberty said. "This is creating a high-quality, gold standard program for educating our most vulnerable children."
Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, among opponents, said: "Throwing money at a problem does not solve a problem." And Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, cast doubt on studies indicating that investment in early education resulted in lower remediation costs later on, likening pre-kindergarten to daycare, the Tribune said.
Shortly after the House handed its plan to the Senate, Abbott issued a statement saying he looked forward to signing it into law. "The road to elevating Texas to become first in the nation for education begins with pre-k," he said, as the Tribune noted. "And I applaud the Texas House of Representatives for recognizing the critical importance of providing high-quality pre-k for our children to build a strong foundation for future success."
In this atmosphere, Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, in lieu of Zaffirini, carried the proposal through to 25-6 Senate approval. Campbell told colleagues: "This is not an expansion of pre-K. It is a completely optional program." Members added a wrinkle, though, by capping spending on the program at $130 million in the first two years.
The measure's fiscal note projects initial two-year costs of $133 million, though the note also says allocations to school districts are to be limited to $130 million. The former figure is based on the program providing pre-k aid of up to $1,500 per student to serve up to three-quarters of eligible three- and four-year-old students. Separately, lawmakers signed off on language in the state budget to spend $118 million (the amount Abbott initially requested) on the initiative in 2016-17.
Abbott commented after the Senate action: "Today's vote is essential to implementing high-quality education standards for Texas pre-K students, providing them with the tools necessary to succeed, and improving accountability and transparency measures for participating pre-K programs across the state."
House members soon agreed to the revised version, which Abbott then signed into law.
We rate this an Abbott promise KEPT.
Promise Kept — Promises earn this rating when the original promise is mostly or completely fulfilled.