Texas districts preparing for full-day pre-K funding

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — School districts across Texas will likely see an increase in pre-K enrollment now that the state has set aside funding for full-day pre-K, experts say.

“We’re going to see more children opt into this free pre-K program across the state and we’re going to see enrollment jump from about 11 to 20 percent, depending on the district,” said Laura Koenig, senior director of community relations with E3 Alliance.

Funding for full-day pre-K was part of House Bill 3, the school finance bill that Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last week. The state previously only funded half-day pre-K for low-income students and English language learners.

Koenig says half-day pre-K programs usually provide around three hours of instruction.

“With the passage of HB 3, what we’ll see is a longer instructional day, which gives children more time to discover, explore and what we really see as a difference is that they have a huge boost in their language and communication skills,” she said.

“This step will ensure that more Texas kids start kindergarten ready to learn and become strong readers by third grade,” David Feigen, early childhood policy associate at Texans Care for Children, said in a statement. “A child’s experiences during the first few years of life, including the experience of high-quality pre-k, provide the foundation for the rest of her life.

There are also other changes outside of classroom instruction.

“The full-day pre-K means that children will have access to two hot meals a day versus one hot meal a day,” Koenig said. “For families who are at or near the federal poverty level, this is going to be a huge boost to them and their whole family nutrition program.”

For districts like Wylie ISD that already use general funds to offer full-day pre-K programs, this new law is a welcome change.

“We’re going to have a lot of funding that comes into the school district from the state,” Superintendent Joey Light said. “This is going to allow us to better provide for students at all grade levels.”

Light acknowledges the changes may not come as easy to some other districts that may need additional space and educators to accommodate more students.

“Teachers are harder and harder to come by every year,” he said. “So there’s no doubt that’s going to put some school districts in a tight situation.”

Though the recommended student-to-teacher ratio for pre-K classrooms is 11 students to one instructor, E3 Alliance says students can still experience improvements with having 15 students to one adult. Wylie ISD currently has two adults — a teacher and an aid — serving around 16 to 18 students in each classroom. Backing from the state could help districts implement a similar setup, Koenig said.

“In pre-K, you can also have that second person in the classroom be a paraprofessional and our outcomes are still high,” Koenig said. “You can do things around the teacher shortage.”

Several policy briefs published over the last few years point to benefits for Texas kids savings for the state due to the impact of pre-K programs.

Experts with the Child and Family Research Partnership at the University of Texas at Austin conducted a study in 2015 and estimated that in the 2013-14 school year, the state was able to save around $142 million on special education programs and retention efforts because of pre-K.

A 2017 analysis posted online by the Texas Education Agency states that the agency found that pre-K attendance was associated with a six-percentage point higher likelihood of graduating high school on time and was also associated with a 16-percentage point higher likelihood of demonstrating the knowledge and skills to be considered ready for kindergarten upon initial kindergarten enrollment.

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