Kindergarten Cop-Out

The full-time pre-K bill seems like a slam dunk. The price tag: $300 million.

Update: The bill was voted out of committee on April 16th.

A few years ago, when I was interviewing Juliette Garcia, the president of UT-Brownsville, she said that when demographers give speeches about Texas becoming majority Hispanic she would get a grin on her face—then she would look around the room and see that the feeling wasn’t widespread. “Why are they scared?” she said. “They are scared because a Hispanic that doesn’t go to college isn’t productive in the labor market, does not pay taxes as a result, doesn’t participate in voting. All of the negative characteristics that you attribute, what if we changed that?”

Anyone who looks at the demographics knows that something has to be done about the education of our state’s poorest children or Texas as a whole will become poor. (Hispanics are usually singled out because more than half in Texas lack a high school degree, resulting in lower incomes.) The flip side is if we can take the young population and close those education gaps, we’d be at an advantage because we’d have a young population that’s bilingual and bicultural at a time when that’s becoming increasingly important. We could be ideally positioned.

GOP State Rep. Diane Patrick’s HB 130 sets us on the right course. It brings full-time pre-K to qualifying children, targeting the population that is most critically in need: the homeless, children from military families, the economically disadvantaged, those who lack English skills, and those who live in foster homes. These are the kids who generally enter kindergarten behind their peers and stay behind.

Patrick has convinced an awful lot of people that full-time pre-K is the way to go. The bill has more than ninety co-authors. For-profits, nonprofits, advocates, public schools, principals, teachers, superintendents, school boards, the United Way, and the business community all agree that this is good policy. (One person I spoke with pointed out that both Leo Berman and Lon Burnam are on the team—how’s that for bipartisan support?) 

This bill is a slam-dunk. So why is it still in committee? Well, the price tag: $300 million.

Still, some version of this bill needs to pass. Plenty of folks post diatribes against pre-K on news sites complaining that Joe Taxpayer won’t benefit because his kids won’t be eligible. These people need to focus on long-term results of their investment. In 2006, the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University conducted a cost-benefit analysis of universally available pre-K. According to the study’s summary : “Our analysis was very conservative, overestimating the costs and underestimating the benefits of the program. For every dollar invested in universally-accessible, high-quality pre-Kindergarten, the State of Texas will receive $3.50 in return.”

Here’s a case study that will hit close to home. Hidalgo ISD is 98% poor, with half of the students beginning school as English language learners. Almost 20 years ago, wanting to avoid the sad expected fate for its students, the district implemented free pre-K. It was expensive. But down the road the investment has paid off. These days, Hidalgo ISD’s students are bilingual and reading in English by Kindergarten. More importantly, the long-term results show a graduation rate of 88.7 percent—ten points higher than the Texas average. The dropout rate is less than 1 percent. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say the same thing about the rest of Texas’ schools?

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