Amid School Finance Scuffle, Pre-K Measure Returns

Expect the Texas House to revisit old battles over school finance — and open a new one, for the lower chamber at least, over pre-kindergarten accountability — when it takes up Senate Bill 1 today on the floor.

Among the swarm of amendments offered to the fiscal matters bill will be several aiming to modify key elements of the state’s plan to distribute $4 billion in cuts across public schools — significantly one that eliminates the across-the-board reductions districts face in the first year of the biennium and replaces it with the sliding scale of the second, and one that keeps the state guarantee to repay districts in the next biennium when it comes up short. The architect of the House’s approach thus far, Public Education Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, told the Tribune Wednesday that he would oppose any changes to the compromise plan agreed to between the House and Senate.

Most of the attention will be on school finance, but an amendment from Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth, that would require the Texas Education Agency to develop accountability standards for pre-K programs will likely generate some heat, pitting House members’ regard for efficiency against their disdain for bureaucracy.

The measure leaves it up to the TEA to decide what those standards would look like but would use existing diagnostic reading tests to judge students’ school readiness. Schools that had proven success rates with their pre-K programs, Shelton says, would be exempt; defining what “success” means would be up to the education commissioner. Districts would absorb the cost for developing the standards, which he says would amount to about 1.7 percent of their state funding, or about $64 per child enrolled in early childhood programs. (There’s about $3 billion in state and federal funds allocated to pre-K in the 2012-13 budget.)

This proposal should sound familiar. Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, had a similar one in her original school finance plan, which failed to make it into the compromise that came out of the conference committee.

 

It has generated the support of big voices in the education community. The Texas Association of Business, Raise Your Hand Texas, the Texas Association of Charter Schools, Stand for Children, and the Texas Institute for Education Reform have all signed on to a letter urging lawmakers to pass it.

"This is about trying to have quality control standards for pre-K that is publicly funded in Texas,” says Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond, adding, “Is it babysitting, is it just kids sitting on bean bags watching Barney? Or is it giving skills they will need so they can successfully complete first grade?”

Susan Kellner, the president of Houston-area Spring Branch Independent School District’s Board of Trustees, has been the most outspoken opponent of the proposal. She calls its timing — when districts are facing historic cuts and she says there is “no real crisis” in pre-K —  “puzzling.”

“My district laid off 50 pre-K aides, so while I'm laying off classroom teachers, they are going to charge every pre-K student $64 for a testing program that we don't know what it looks likes, we don't know what is the goal here, what is the intent," she says.

Kellner, who testified against Shapiro’s proposal in committee during the regular session, agrees that the state should study the effectiveness of its pre-K programs, but not through what she estimates would be a $15 million new system. The state should look at existing data, she says, like the eighth-grade test scores of the children who have gone through pre-K programs, to learn about the most effective programs.

“From a Republican perspective, this is just another layer of bureaucracy,” she says, adding, “For legislators … to say in one breath the districts need to limit bureaucracy and focus on the classroom, and then say we need to have a new testing program —  it makes no sense.”

 

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