The Fight for Universal Pre-K Remains a Moral and Economic Imperative

Giddings_SmallOver the course of last year’s Legislative Session, I was proud to see quality pre-K improvements be thrust into the spotlight as a bipartisan priority. Through emotional and sometimes heated debate, we were able to approve House Bill 4, a grant program of $130 million to Texas schools, in an effort to bolster existing pre-K programs.
Although many of us argued this did not go far enough, it became clear that this was the best solution that the majority would embrace, and it passed with a 129-18 vote. It remains significant that we came together to create a new program to invest in kids across Texas.
Unfortunately, this victory was not nearly enough.
Although I am excited to see how districts take advantage of the available grants, our kids demand a far bolder change of course.
Last year, the National Institute for Early Education Research released a study showing that Texas ranks dead last in the country in delivering quality pre-K. In the ten policies of its quality standards checklist, Texas met only two- for teacher in-service and early learning standards. In areas from class size to teacher specialization, we continue to fall woefully short.
We also fail to get enough kids in the door. Although we have seen incremental progress over the past decade, about half, 48%, of Texas 4-year olds still do not attend any pre-K whatsoever, and state spending per pupil has plummeted since 2011.
To this day, there remains naysayers who find pre-K to be an unnecessary luxury. Why does it matter, they say, if a child stays at home when he or she is waiting for kindergarten to start?
Research shows that 90% of a child’s brain development happens by the time they turn five, and their access to education during those early years has turned out to be an incredible predictor of their future growth.
A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that economically disadvantaged Texans who attend pre-K were 23% less likely to be retained in the first, second, or third grade and 13% less likely to be assigned to a special education program.
These outcomes are not just morally encouraging, they are smart economic policy. Among economically disadvantaged children alone, Texas pre-K saves the state upwards of $142 million due to these lower rates of grade retention and assignment to special education programs.
Pre-K students are given an enormous head start in reading, math, and verbal and nonverbal communication skills. They are given a head start in working in groups and respecting others. They learn empathy and compassion and the golden rule. Is it ever too soon to begin these lessons?
We cannot allow pre-K to be considered “last session’s issue.” We cannot stop demanding far better for Texas children and families, and universal, full-day pre-K is the most critical investment we can make.
Many who do not go as far as denying the irrefutable benefits of universal pre-K will simply argue that it’s a worthy, but unaffordable cause. They will use phrases like “fiscal responsibility” and “waste of taxpayer dollars.” As a senior member of the House Appropriations committee who wrote the state’s budget, I unequivocally reject this notion.
We can afford a revitalized pre-K system. We cannot afford continued inaction.
We cannot afford providing the lowest quality pre-K in the country. We cannot afford half of our children being denied education in the most critical stages of their development. Their future and opportunities are in the balance. Complacency is unacceptable.
Let’s find common ground on new and innovative ways to make Texas early-childhood education the best in the nation. Let’s not stop at funding. Let’s train and certify more quality early-childhood teachers and encourage them to teach in our most vulnerable communities.
HB 4 was an important step forward. Let’s not let it go to waste.

Helen Giddings represents District 109 which includes Cedar Hill, DeSoto, Lancaster, Wilmer, Hutchins, and portions of Glenn Heights and Oak Cliff. For more information, please call 512.463.0953.