Despite complaints from Tea Party-backed legislators and a lengthy five-hour debate, the Texas House passed a bill on Wednesday that increases funding for prekindergarten education.
House Bill 4 calls for Texas public schools to implement a long-term, high-quality prekindergarten program to prepare 4-year-old children toward college readiness. Both sides of the debate cited studies that supported or questioned pre-K benefits, but in the end, the House approved $130 million in additional funding for schools that adopt the program’s specific curriculum.
“At this grade level, we’re not testing, we’re assessing,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who filed the bill. “We’re looking at colors, numbers and understanding – can they think critically at this point? That’s where we understand if we can catch them early enough, and we can know if we have a problem, and we can start remediating at a much earlier age.”
Jennifer Adair, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Texas at Austin, said that prekindergarten prepares children for future schooling.
“If you start young and give lots of opportunities to use their agency and think carefully, that does have an effect and prepares them all the way to college,” Dr. Adair said. “If the kids are able to design projects, to build things, to work with their friends, then yes, we have lots of evidence that there is a strong cognitive benefit from prekindergarten education.”
The Texas House passed the bill on a vote of 129 to 18, but not until the opposition voiced its many concerns.
State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, said prekindergarten educational benefits are disputed, referring to studies from the ’60s and ’70s done in the University of Michigan and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Rinaldi said long-term educational benefits were in question, so the state should be sure of results before encouraging parents to put their kids into these programs and implementing central control.
“Those studies have showed that while some educational outcomes were better, behavioral problems actually increased,” he said, “so there wasn’t always a benefit to it, and some of the educational benefits faded out by grade three.”
Rinaldi also said that we should leave education in the hands of parents and local school districts, instead of looking for a “one-size-fits-all” approach that decreases local innovation.
Adair said parental involvement is important, but social skills and interaction are vital in early childhood development.
“Kids need that kind of social interaction with a lot of kids that are different from them so that they can develop a lot of their social skills like being able to collaborate and learn from someone else’s idea,” she said. “They must learn to take something they see somebody else doing and applying it on whatever they are working on.”
Supporters of the bill used a 2006 study from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University to show that a high-quality program would yield $3.50 for every dollar invested in pre-K in increased earnings, reduced need for special education and reduced reliance on public assistance.
But Rinaldi argued this study’s attempt to support HB 4 defeats its purpose.
“When you look at the numbers and talk about this on the floor, when you look at the benefits, more than half of the quantifiable benefits of the program were due to its value as a day care program,” he said. “Supporters of the bill are running the value of day care to support a high-quality prekindergarten program.”
Adair said that not all day care programs are able to offer what is taught in prekindergarten. Pre-K has the intention of preparing children for school.
“What this is trying to do is to equal the playing field and get all children to have the opportunity to get this sophisticated and engaging learning experiences when they are about 4 years old,” she said. “In some really good day care centers, that’s what happens, but it’s only the ones that are expensive and only the elite have access to them.”
According to the official minutes of the meeting, state Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, argued that some key components that separate the pre-K high-quality program from day care are reduced special education referrals, fewer grade-level retentions and fewer children involved in remediation.
Gov. Greg Abbott declared early education as his first emergency item as governor of Texas, according to the Office of the Governor website. Shortly after HB 4 was passed, he issued a statement applauding the Texas House, looking forward to signing HB 4 into law.
“The road to elevating Texas to become first in the nation for education begins with pre-K,” he said, “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.”