Congress envisioned changes that would dramatically alter early childhood education in Texas by giving all 3 and 4 year olds free access to preschool.
The program is part of a Biden administration’s social spending plan that would change the way the state approaches early childhood education – but it presents significant hurdles.
The plan has yet to pass the US Senate. Senator Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, is a decisive vote whose position could determine the fate of the legislation.
On Sunday, Manchin said he would not back the massive social spending proposal, jeopardizing his chances of becoming law. The Senate is still planning to hold a vote on the legislation next year. If that fails, lawmakers will likely try other means to pass the pre-K measure.
Kindergarten has been a hot topic in the Texas Legislature for years. A 2019 bill instituted a free full day of pre-K for eligible 4-year-olds.
If the federal plan becomes law, each state will decide whether it wants to participate in the universal pre-K program. Exports of early childhood education to Texas indicate that it is not known whether the state would adopt the program.
“If only I had a crystal ball,” said Kim Kofron, early childhood director for Children at Risk, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Texas.
How would that affect the Texans?
Currently, a number of 4-year-olds in Texas are eligible for a free Pre-K.
They include those who are entitled to a free or reduced lunch, are homeless, are in foster care (or previously in foster care), and those who cannot speak or understand English. School districts with fewer than 15 eligible students do not have to provide the free pre-K.
The Texas House of Representatives earlier this year created a bipartisan early childhood caucus that works on pre-K issues.
“Pre-K is one of the most bipartisan issues, there are definitely champions on both sides,” said Monty Exter, senior lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “But there are a lot of people who definitely see pre-K through the prism of a nanny state and are not pre-K champions.”
The congressional agenda would change the way pre-K is delivered in Texas, which was one of the first states to institute state-funded pre-K.
Currently, the state only gives money to schools to develop free pre-K programs, said Kara Waddell, president and CEO of Child Care Associates, a Fort Worth organization that works with service providers. local daycare centers to provide early learning opportunities for Texans.
But the pre-K universal program language specifies that there would be a mixed delivery system. This means that instead of only offering free preschools, the state should also provide free preschools in places such as local daycares and community preschool learning centers.
Waddell said this mixed delivery system would be attractive to some families.
“They are preschoolers while they are in daycare. And I think that’s the kind of ecosystem approach we’re going to have to think about, ”Waddell said.
Advocates of the congressional agenda say it would be a monumental step in expanding access to early childhood education statewide, especially given the impacts of the pandemic on the industry.
A February report from Children at Risk, the nonprofit research and advocacy group, found that in the early months of the pandemic, 25% of all daycares in Texas closed.
“We really need to rebuild after the pandemic. We know we have lost programs and teachers. So we really have to make sure we give this industry a boost, ”Kofron said.
Would Texas choose?
As part of the Congress program, the federal government will cover the costs for the first three years. The program is expected to last six years and, in the remaining years, states are expected to pay for an increasing amount of the program.
In the fourth year, states should pay 10% of all costs. This number increases to 25% in the fifth year and 40% in the sixth year.
Waddell said a key factor that could determine whether Texas adopts the program is whether it is ready to meet funding requirements.
Chuck DeVore is the vice president of national initiatives for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. He said Texas may refuse to adopt the program due to funding needs and the six-year term.
“At the end of six years, Texas would be responsible for paying the full bill,” DeVore said.
Knustrom, who works for the Texas Star Alliance government affairs group, said opposition from Texas lawmakers to the entire social spending plan could also doom the state’s chances of adopting the pre-K universal agenda. .
Knustrom believes politicians in Texas “may see this as too much government spending” and refuse to participate in any of the plan’s programs.
“There are flavors of universal pre-K that probably wouldn’t be objectionable to leadership at all,” Knustrom said. “If the price on the total bill is too high, I think that would probably make it a no-return for Texas.”
Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether the program would pass if it became law.
Some supporters of the program are more optimistic that Texas would adopt the program.
David Feigen is the Early Years Policy Associate for Texans Care for Children. He said preliminary conversations between program supporters and state policymakers did not focus on possible challenges that might arise from establishing the program.
“We’re excited about the bill, hope it gets through Congress, and hope Texas makes sure we take the opportunity,” Feigen said.
“I tend to believe that deep down when it comes to young children, Texans will put children first. And this is not to be naive. It’s just to say deep down, ‘we care about the families in Texas,’ ”she said.