Legislature directs some pre-K spending on quality standards

The 85th Texas Legislature last year eliminated funding for a grant program designed to improve the quality of prekindergarten (pre-K) programs but adopted a budget rider requiring all districts and charter schools offering pre-K to use a portion of their regular formula funding to meet the program’s established high-quality standards. These standards, contained in Education Code, secs. 29.167 – 29.171, include requirements for curriculum, student progress monitoring, teacher qualifications, and family engagement.

Rider 78 in Article 3 of the 2018-19 general appropriations act directs the commissioner of education to ensure that school districts and charter schools use not less than 15 percent of their pre-K formula funding on programs consistent with the grant program’s statutory requirements. The rider estimates the 15 percent set aside will total $236 million of the $1.6 billion budgeted for pre-K for fiscal 2018-19. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has provided on its website answers to common questions about Rider 78, including guidance on expenditures that may be included in the 15 percent requirement. For instance, TEA advises that pre-K teachers’ salaries may not be counted unless the hiring of a new teacher reduces the overall student-to-teacher ratio for the program.

Texas funds half-day pre-K for eligible 4-year-old children. Under Education Code, sec. 29.153, an eligible child is defined as one who does not speak or understand English, qualifies for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, is homeless or in foster care, or is the child of an active-duty member of the military or a member of the military who was injured or killed on active duty. Districts receive funding based on pre-K average daily attendance of 4-year-old children.

The high-quality pre-K grant program was created in 2015 by the 84th Texas Legislature to supplement regular program funding. HB 4 by Huberty authorized the commissioner to award grants to districts and charter schools if they meet all high-quality pre-K standards. Lawmakers in 2015 appropriated $118 million in general revenue funds for the program. According to TEA, in the 2016-17 school year, it provided $734 per eligible pre-K student to about 159,000 children.

During budget deliberations last year, the governor proposed appropriating $236 million in general revenue for high-quality grants. The House Appropriations Committee proposed $147 million in enhanced pre-K capacity funding to be distributed to districts and charter schools on the basis on average daily attendance. The Senate proposed spending $65 million for a new public-private pre-K partnership program. The Legislature did not include these proposals for new spending in the final budget agreement and instead directed schools to pursue the quality standards using existing resources.

by Janet Elliott

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