Houston Rockets Pre-K to Top of the Priority List

AP Photo/LM Otero

It’s hard to find a politician these days who doesn’t at least pay lip service to the idea of “early childhood education.” But actually improving pre-kindergarten remains an enormous hurdle—and in some states the situation has gotten worse. While a number of states made investments in pre-K 10 or 15 years ago, the 2010 Tea Party wave, combined with budget crises in many states, led to big cuts even in states that already had minimal pre-K funding. In the 2010-2011 school year, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities—a progressive economic think tank—reports that 12 states reduced enrollment in pre-K programs while others shortened the number of school days or found other methods of scaling back. It’s not much better at the federal level. While the Obama administration bandies about a new plan to expand pre-K and integrate it with the rest of public education, the sequestration process meant a $350 million cut to Head Start, the public preschool program for low-income three- and four-year olds. For many local activists, particularly in anti-Obama states, help isn’t likely to come soon from either the state or federal level.

In Houston’s Harris County, a collection of civic and business leaders have turned to the local community to fund a solution, which could be a test case for similar efforts elsewhere. The group, called Early to Rise, is pushing to get a property-tax increase on the November ballot—less than three months away—to fund a major preschool initiative. On Tuesday, the campaign presented more than 150,000 signatures to the county judge, nearly double the 78,000 they need to get the measure on the ballot. The proposal would raise property taxes by one cent per $100, giving the county between $25 and $30 million in new revenue. That money would fund a public-private partnership designed to increase education at daycare facilities. Instead of just focusing on four-year-olds, the program would help infants and toddlers as well—all the ages that attend daycare. If successful, this would be the largest locally funded childcare initiative in the country. A number of political heavyweights have signed onto the effort, from business leaders to school district superintendents to the county sheriff. According to one poll, nearly 70 percent of Harris County residents believe “a local effort to improve early childhood education in Harris County should be a priority.”

High-quality daycare centers are usually out of reach for all but the well-off. That means that the achievement gap begins almost out of the womb, as some infants are exposed to more words and more attention than others, spurring brain development. “In those very early days, it’s critical for teachers to be talking, singing, and reading with [children] from the very beginning so they’re exposed to language,” says Carol Shattuck, the president of Houston’s Collaborative for Children and one of the key architects and proponents of the Early to Rise plan.

While the country has a number of thriving pre-K programs in several states, most focus on children in the year or two before they start school. According to Mark Bogosian, the spokesman for Foundation for Child Development, an early childhood advocacy group, it’s frequently difficult to find programs that cater to three-year olds, let alone toddlers. “You’re most likely to see four-year olds starting pre-K,” he says. “We feel that’s really unfortunate. All the brain development science [shows] kids benefit from as early as possible.”

Currently, Texas only pays for half-day pre-K programs for four-year-olds who are low-income, non-English-speaking, or whose parents are active in the military. While public education in Texas is highly standardized, childcare centers in the state, as in most others, must meet very few standards and facilities vary tremendously from ritzy establishments that implement the latest pedagogical approaches to child development to those that look like warehouses filled with cribs.

The Early to Rise plan would focus on improving those facilities by making early childcare more like preschool. The money raised from the tax increase would go to the newly created Harris County School Readiness Corporation, which would use the funds to train daycare workers and managers at low-quality childcare facilities that choose to participate in the program. The program would use a rating system developed by the Houston child-advocacy group Collaborative for Children, one of the leading groups supporting the Early to Rise campaign, to identify how well different facilities functioned and how long they would need to improve. Those at the bottom would get a four-year commitment while those in the middle would have two years to reach a good level of performance. The money would go to staff development, stipends for workers who got certifications, and programs to teach parenting skills. Ideally, the Early to Rise program would turn daycare workers into teachers who encourage toddlers in their emotional and intellectual development. The program would also provide parent training so that when kids came back home, parents have strategies to continue cultivating the same brain development pre-schools target.

The plan grew largely out of two pilot programs in Houston: Bright Beginnings and College Bound from Birth, which have been operating for ten and six years, respectively. Together, the programs have worked to improve 20 childcare centers, and according to the Bright Beginnings data, children who attended participating childcare facilities outperformed their peers on 12 of the state’s 16 standardized tests later on. While the programs, like Early to Rise, are voluntary, childcare facilities benefit by getting a more professional staff and more positive ratings, which help to attract more clients. To prevent teachers from leaving after they get more certifications, Early to Rise has built in stipends to incentivize them to stay. “They become professionals themselves,” explains Shattuck. Participating facilities must agree to have staff attend a slew of professional-development courses and work with mentors. “This is not trying something for the first time,” says Shattuck. “This is trying to scale up something we know works.” With more than 1,200 such centers in Harris County, there’s a lot of scaling-up to be done.

But the Early to Rise campaign—which seems to be rapidly gaining momentum and support—has also come up against serious concerns about allowing an unelected nonprofit to distribute money, funding private daycare with public money, and whether improving quality but not affordability in early childhood education is the right use of dollars.


The Early to Rise campaign still faces some major hurdles—the biggest one being County Judge Ed Emmett. In Texas, county judges are elected at-large and sit on the board of commissioners, a county’s governing body. Emmett, who will have to certify the signatures in order for the initiative to go on the ballot, is a Republican but not an ideologue. Earlier this year, he aggressively pushed for Medicaid expansion, publicizing how it would help people in Harris County and angering some of the most powerful right-wing conservatives in the state. But when it comes to the preschool initiative, Emmett has argued the measure is a “fiasco.”

To get the initiative on the ballot, the Early to Rise campaign is using an obscure and decades-old law that currently only applies to the state’s two remaining local departments of education—in Harris and Dallas Counties. The state repealed the law in 1995, but left an exception for the two remaining departments to continue operating. Advocates of the law say it also allows for the citizens to initiate a tax increase through the Harris County Department of Education. But Emmett isn’t so sure. He’s awaiting an opinion from the state Attorney General. “We're not trying to derail this process,” says Emmett’s spokesman Joe Stinebaker. “They never even came in and talked to my guy [and] all of a sudden, boom, they're out doing this petition. And it's like ‘Did you even check the law on this?’” On Wednesday, Republican state senator Dan Patrick, a far-right candidate for lieutenant governor who has opposed the county judge, joined Emmett in asking for an opinion on the law.

Since the campaign already has the signatures, most expect that the question will ultimately get on the ballot. While the law is no longer codified, everyone leading the campaign seems confident they have strong legal standing because it’s referred to elsewhere in the education code.

Many of the Early to Rise supporters say Emmett is dragging his feet because he’s opposed to the substance of the program, and the county judge has made no secret of his opposition. Stinebaker describes the Early to Rise campaign as “a group coming forward and saying ‘We want this one cent tax which generates about 30 million ... and then we want the money to go to us.” His chief concern is that while the Harris County Department of Education would be doing the taxing, the money would then go to the Harris County School Readiness Corporation to be doled out.

The obvious concerns over handing the revenues to an unelected nonprofit board are not lost on the leaders of Early to Rise. However Jonathan Day, a former city councilman and one of the Early to Rise board members, argues this is much better than the alternative of letting the Harris County Department of Education administer the program, which would politicize the process. The Department of Education has had its share of political drama, including hiring a former county commissioner and convicted felon as its lobbyist. Day worries that by giving the Department of Education control over the process, childcare centers would get selected for the program based on political advantage rather than need. He says that’s already become a problem with charter schools. “We have some bad charter schools. Are we able to close ‘em down?” he says. “Every one of those charter schools has a bunch of defenders, [including] the state representative.” By putting the money in the hands of an unelected body, Day believes the program will avoid many of the same political problems. “You can to a very significant extent, avoid those kinds of results which are very damaging,” he says, and notes that the Department of Education would still have oversight.

But even if the initiative passes, the Harris County Department of Education’s board still has to approve the plan for spending the tax revenue, and members seem unwilling to support any deal that cuts them out entirely. Board Chair Angie Chestnut says, “We can't just be a pass-through organization. We never have been. That would be a make or break deal for me.” Chestnut is still undecided on the plan, and without the board’s support, there’s little way for the campaign to succeed. However, Day and others say they’re willing to allow one or two people from the Department of Education board to sit on the School Readiness Corporation Board. In fact, some key specifics of the plan are still being negotiated, like the board structure. “We think we'll be able to work this out,” says Day. “There's nothing sacrosanct about the structure.”

Others worry the plan further perpetuates privatization. Karen Miller—a longtime education advocate who’s fought against the education-reform movement’s push for charter and online schools—says she’s “just disappointed that the group … hasn’t been more forthcoming about what they really intend to do.” Miller, who is still gathering information about the program, worries that the Early to Rise plan might open the door to vouchers because it’s focused on private facilities, and that it will send resources to both nonprofits and for-profits, those run out of living rooms and those run out of churches.

But advocates argue the plan is nothing like a voucher system—it’s not per-pupil funding, and it doesn’t take away from dollars that go to a public system. “We don't really have a public system for early education like we do for K-12,” says Shattuck.

Early to Rise advocates don’t argue that their plan is perfect, but they say the campaign offers the only viable chance for improving childcare in the short-term. There’s little chance of help from the state; in 2011, the Texas legislature cut the meager grant program to help school districts offer full-day pre-K, and they chose not to restore funds this year. Given his unwillingness to cooperate with any other Obama initiatives, Texas Governor Rick Perry isn’t likely to embrace any federal programs for early childhood education. The Early to Rise plan is the only one on the table with large backing. “Opponents are fond of saying ‘We’re all for early childhood but we don't like this proposal,’” says Day. “Well what in the hell do you want to do about it? Tell me what you want to do? The answer is the opponents have no alternative. Nor did we. We had only one choice.”


The stakes are certainly high, and with little time to organize a campaign, the Early to Rise board is putting forth a full-throttle effort to educate and turn out voters in November. “They sure as hell better win,” says Jason Sabo, a Texas education-policy consultant and lobbyist. Sabo worries that if the initiative fails, it will have a chilling effect on a number of cities and counties watching to see what happens in Harris County before they put forth similar measures. In Texas, it could send a powerful message that voters don’t support these kinds of investments—and bolster the anti-spending philosophy of Perry and other far-right conservatives.

A year without a presidential or even a gubernatorial election might seem like a strange time to launch a major campaign to increase taxes. After all, low-income and nonwhite communities are normally less likely to show up to the polls in non-presidential years. But while 2013 is sure to be a low-turnout election in Houston, with no gubernatorial or federal races, Early to Rise leaders decided to push the initiative this year because there is a mayoral election in the city of Houston and relatively little political action in the surrounding, whiter suburbs of the county. That means that there’s a chance that more progressive city voters will turn out in higher numbers than the more conservative votes in the surrounding county. A poll from University of Houston professor Richard Murray showed much better odds if the campaign took place this time around.

However this week the county commission announced there would be an initiative on the ballot to revamp the city's infamous Astrodome into a convention center, which could raise interest from the more conservative parts of the county. In such a low-turnout election, mobilization will be key.

If the Early to Rise campaign is successful, it could help to perpetuate similar efforts in other cities and counties. Day sees the campaign as a clear part of a national push. “We can build support for what’s been happening in other states like Oklahoma and Maryland,” he says. Even those who are still undecided on the plan acknowledge that something needs to be done to improve early education. “If some change doesn't happen we will continue to have the situation we have now,” says Chestnut, “where only people who can afford it will have their child in daycare centers that offer education.”

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