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Preschool Part of Education Funding Scramble

In light of the improved economic forecast announced recently by the state comptroller, education advocates are asking for more money to go to Texas' public education system — the state's preschools included.

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The 83rd Legislature started with good news from the state comptroller: Susan Combs told lawmakers they’d have more than $101 billion to spend in the next session. Education advocates are already asking for more dough to head to Texas classrooms, including preschools.

Kara Johnson, with Texans Care for Children, a child advocacy group, quotes a 2006 study from the Bush school at Texas A&M University that shows it’s smart budgeting to support early childhood education.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

“What the study found was that when you invest in high-quality care — the key is high quality — you get a 350 percent return on your investment," Johnson said. "Every dollar invested $3.50 back for local communities. And that’s at a minimum.”

State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, thinks that argument may be falling on deaf ears.

“Honestly, I think most legislators have tuned out those arguments because every expenditure comes with that argument," Strama said.

Don’t get him wrong: He thinks there can be a savings down the road getting kids better prepared for kindergarten, and he’d like to see a full restoration of state grants that helped school districts fund full-day pre-kindergarten.

But for now he wants to better use the federal money Texas gets for low-income childcare subsidies. He wants to rate child care providers.

“Right now we have high-quality providers and we have less high-quality providers, and we compensate them the exact same amount," Strama said. "And so what we’re really trying to do is put some incentives into the marketplace for child care provider to set higher standards and to provide more resources for kids.”

Get two stars and your reimbursement rate is 5 percent higher; get four stars, you get 9 percent more.

During an interview this week, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams agreed with the importance of early intervention, saying the greatest influence on student achievement isn’t how much money a school gets.

“It’s who they are when they come to the classroom, as opposed to how many dollars are spent on them," Williams said.

He said low-income students are less prepared for school than middle- and upper-income kids. But Williams won’t get into how much more money schools should get from the state to improve performance. Gov. Rick Perry doesn’t see a need to increase funding.

"I think under any scenario over the last decade, the funding that we have seen in the state of Texas for public education has been pretty phenomenal," Perry said. "I’m not sure there’s any state in the nation that’s had that type — certainly not any big state.”

Mind you, Texas public school enrollment is up more than 20 percent over the last decade. And lawmakers cut how much districts get by $500 per student in 2011.

Preschool quality and the state’s role in funding it are just a small part of the larger public education debate. So to get ready for what’s to come, let’s go over where we’re starting from.

“Last session lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from the public education budget," said Tribune public education reporter Morgan Smith. "That was 4 billion from the general revenue. And then about 1.4 from what are called discretionary grants.”

Those grants were given to school districts to pay for full-day pre-K or after-school tutoring from struggling students. The state’s Republican leadership is not calling for spending to return to pre-2011 levels.

“While it might kind of shore up the arguments of why we need to restore the cuts, you’re not seeing that affect the rhetoric from leaders in the Legislature just yet," Smith said.

A lengthy school finance trial is set to wrap up this spring. A final verdict is expected sometime this summer. The fact that a court is going to tell lawmakers how much schools should get may freeze legislative action, Smith said.

“Their hands are actually tied by this. Really, whatever they do, if they don’t put enough funding back in, that’s going to be undone by the courts," Smith said. "And if they do put more funding in, then it’s very likely that the structure of how that’s distributed to schools is going to be changed by the courts."

After the ruling, lawmakers are expected to come back to Austin for a special session to work it all out.

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