Just how important is full-day pre-kindergarten for the state’s youngest and most disadvantaged kids? Is it more important than after-school tutoring? Than canceling music and art classes? As public school officials brace for a proposed $10 billion less in state funding, that’s one decision they'll have to make.

“It's choosing between bad and worse and bad and bad,” says Daniel King, the superintendent of the Rio Grande Valley’s Pharr-San Juan-Alamo district, “It's definitely not a good day when we are sitting around talking about whether class size going up could help salvage all-day pre-K, or vice-versa.”

The Texas Education Agency's $1.3 billion in discretionary grants, which fund a variety of special initiatives from full-day pre-K to teacher incentives to high school completion efforts, are among the state programs sent to the guillotine in the introductory budget proposals from both the House and the Senate. The former slashes all funding for the grants, while the latter reduces the total amount to $400 million to be spread across all of the agency’s competitive grant programs. The grants currently allow districts to extend the state’s standard half-day pre-K to a full-day program at a cost of about $200 million per biennium. Last year the program funded full-time pre-K for approximately 101,000 children of the more than 190,000 enrolled in state-funded pre-K.

Advocates argue that pre-K, where students learn fundamentals like counting, the alphabet, sharing and taking turns, makes kids less likely to drop out, repeat grades and need remedial classes as they move through the education system. Developing these skills early, says Libby Doggett, who oversees the Pew Center on the States pre-K advocacy efforts, can result in up to $7 return for every dollar the state invests in pre-K programs. (In Texas, a 2006 study from Texas A&M University showed at least a $3.50 yield on every dollar invested.) She says any cuts to funding for pre-K will hurt the state for “years to come” in increased costs for parents who must alter work schedules to take care of their children during the day, schools that must deal with unprepared students and communities that have to tackle higher dropout rates.

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"There's no educational program that has a better basis in research and a better return in investment," Doggett says. “Smart states will get out ahead, smart legislators will make sure the money is there, because it really will make the rest of the school system better.” 

While district officials say they’re largely in wait-and-see mode as they watch what happens in Austin over the next four months, some say that in their districts, early childhood education programs will only be cut as a last resort. “We're not going to close the door on 4-year-old students,” says Diane Boyett, a spokeswoman for Victoria Independent School District, where 65 percent of children qualify for pre-K. "Pre K will not end in VISD. I think what you'll see instead is a prioritization of programs." 

The Legislature doesn’t spell out how the reduction in state public education funding will be implemented across the districts. That’s left for when it revamps its school financing formulas. The standard half-day pre-K program, which Texas offers to all children who can’t speak English or are from low-income, foster or military families, remains intact for now — and Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, says she doesn’t expect the formula funding for the half-day program to be cut at all in the final budget.

The grants for full-day pre-K are a different matter, says state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. "Given that school districts are being expected to cut about $30,000 from each classroom,” says Hochberg, who is the vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee, “it's pretty hard to argue that we should carve out a certain amount of money for a small group of school districts to do something special when everyone else is being told to cut."

King’s Pharr-San Juan-Alamo district received about $3 million in discretionary grants for its pre-K program last year. The students there are 99 percent Hispanic, and 86 percent are from economically disadvantaged homes. The majority, he says, enter with limited English skills. "When you're a district almost entirely comprised of students who really need that extra boost to get started, it is a critical issue," King says, noting that in other districts where only a small number of students qualify for the program, it may be easier to offset the detrimental effects.

He also worries that if grant funding for full-day pre-K is eliminated this session, it could set back future efforts to pass legislation to permanently fund expanded pre-K for all economically disadvantaged kids through the state’s core school funding formula.

"Because it's a grant and not all districts get it, it probably makes it more politically feasible to cut. On the other hand, if it is cut, then we go backwards who knows when, if ever it will be able to come back in,” he says, “We go from where there was a push to expand it to become part of the state's foundation program, to going completely the other way where it moves completely off the agenda."

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