Keeping Full Day Public Pre-K Alive, With Fees

The 82nd Legislature delivered a fatal whack to state grants for full-day pre-kindergarten. But some public schools are refusing to let the budgetary machete finish off their early-childhood programs, choosing instead to charge tuition.

The state offers half-day pre-K for children who cannot speak English or are from homeless, low-income, foster or military families. That remains fully financed in the budget, according to the Texas Education Agency. 

Many districts opt to expand this standard half-day to a full-day program, which studies say increases the benefits of early-childhood learning, making students less likely to drop out, repeat grades or need remedial course work. Last biennium, the state awarded about $208 million in grants to support full-day programs. In the 2012-13 budget, that money is completely eliminated.

In August, the Austin Independent School District will expand an existing pilot program to become the latest of 23 districts statewide to charge tuition for a full-day program. Eight elementary schools in the district will accept students on a lottery basis once all children eligible under the state’s half-day requirements have been served.

Under a tuition-based public pre-K model, parents who can afford pre-K will be charged for their child’s education. That tuition can subsidize full-day programs for low-income students.

 

Pre-K advocates argue that the involvement of higher-income parents will improve early-childhood education for all students.

“Programs for poor kids are all too often poor programs,” said Jason Sabo, a spokesman for the United Ways of Texas, a nonprofit group that supports early-childhood-education outreach. “So if we are beginning to include more middle-income kids whose parents vote, it will drive up the quality of the program.”

But they acknowledge that charging tuition for a public program can raise concerns about equity, in particular for children from families who may be just above the cut-off for free pre-K but cannot afford tuition.

Some districts, like Spring Branch ISD in Houston, which has offered a tuition-based program since the early 1980s, address that by offering scholarships. But those are likely to dry up next year because of reduced financing, said Susan Kellner, president of the Spring Branch school board.

And charging tuition is not an option for the poorest districts, which can keep full-day programs out of reach for the students who need them most. At Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD in the Rio Grande Valley, 90 percent of students qualify for the federal government’s free and reduced meal programs. Superintendent Daniel King said that charging their parents to keep pre-K in place is not an option.

King, who believes full-day pre-K is vital for his district, said his board has decided to cut back in other areas to find the estimated $3 million it received in pre-K money from the state.

Then there is the chance that in the face of successful tuition-based programs, future legislators could decide against expanding or reinstating state financing for full-day pre-K.

Albert Wat, a project manager for Pre-K Now, a campaign of the Pew Center on the States, cautioned against that, saying parents can be “caught between a rock and a hard place” when faced with paying for early education. “Just because families are doing it,” he said, “policymakers shouldn’t assume they can afford to do it.”

 

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