High Enrollment, Low Standards

For a state with an infamously threadbare social safety net, Texas is surprisingly good at getting kids into prekindergarten. With more than 227,000 children enrolled, Texas has the largest publicly funded pre-K system in the country. Families qualify if they’re economically disadvantaged or if a parent is in the military; children who have been in foster care, do not speak English, or are homeless are eligible as well. Any district with 15 eligible students must have a program. With 51 percent of four-year-olds covered, Texas appears to be doing well when it comes to providing pre-K. That is, until you consider what these programs look like.

By almost every measure, Texas has one of the lowest-quality pre-K programs in the country. The state offers funding for only three hours a day; it did away with the funding for full-day programs. In addition, Texas places no limits on class size for pre-kindergarteners. (By comparison, Head Start requires a teacher and an aide per 15 three- to four-year-olds, and the state mandates a 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio for kindergarten through fourth grade.) A recent survey of Central Austin school districts turned up one school that had a pre-K class of 26 children presided over by one teacher; most teachers are lucky if they have 22 students.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Second Chance for the Youngest Americans

The Abbot District's Fortunate Few

Sidebar: China Goes Big

Sidebar: The Robin Hood Plan

Sidebar: The Fade-Out Debate

Sidebar: High Enrollment, Low Standards

Q&A: The Genius of Early Intervention

Anyone who has ever spent time with four-year-olds knows that the challenges teachers face under these circumstances are daunting. Rebecca Palacios, who taught pre-K in Texas for 24 years, says with only one teacher in a classroom of 20 or more, any issue—a tantrum, an illness—can uproot the entire class. “If one kid throws up, who’s going to stay with the other 21?” she says. “You have to find a floater teacher. You only go to the restroom at lunchtime.” 

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), which surveys pre-K programs throughout the nation, Texas meets only two of ten benchmarks for quality. The state, for instance, does not require that teachers specialize in early childhood education or that programs provide auxiliary services for children, like vision or hearing exams. Spending per child in Texas ranks among the lowest in the country, which means there are few funds to go toward teacher professional development. 

But for advocates, the biggest concern is the lack of information about the state’s pre-K programs. Because of a series of budget cuts, the Texas Education Agency collects almost no data on pre-K. There’s only one staff person to oversee the nation’s largest program. The agency doesn’t track which districts found ways to fund full-day programs or which districts serve a population beyond those eligible under the state guidelines. Because the agency does almost no monitoring of student performance in pre-K, it can’t track differences between children who received pre-K and those who did not. “It’s hard to make a case for pre-K when you don’t know what’s going on,” says Caroline Neary, a data analyst with the Texas early-education advocacy group Children at Risk.

Texas isn’t the only state with a problem of quality. California and Florida have large pre-K programs that are considered below standard. NIEER has named 2011–2012 as “the worst year” for pre-K quality standards; five programs eliminated key indicators of quality, like classroom monitoring and technical support. With the recession, there’s been a sharp decrease in monitoring and site visits as well as funding for both classrooms and professional development. 

In Texas, a number of local districts have taken it upon themselves to improve their prekindergarten programs. The rural town of Levelland in West Texas offers full-day pre-K to everyone. The school district partners with Head Start and meets the 20-to-2 student-teacher ratio. Some big cities are also taking action. In 2012, Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio successfully championed a sales-tax increase to fund more high-quality pre-K programs. In Austin, the school district created a tuition-based system for those ineligible for free pre-K, with the additional funds helping to support a full-day program. 

Thanks to grants from foundations, Children at Risk is preparing to survey every district in the state, to find out what kinds of pre-K classes they offer and how many kids have access to high-quality programs. It will be released in September 2014, just months before the Texas Legislature goes back in session and decides whether this will be the year the state invests in pre-K.

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