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With Plan to Seek Pre-K Grant, State Changes Gears on Federal Funding

In a shift for a state that has shunned other federal education initiatives, Texas will participate in an Obama administration early learning program.

Pre-kindergarten students at the Dallas Independent School District's Cesar Chavez Learning Center.

In a shift for a state that has shunned other federal education initiatives like Common Core and Race to the Top, Texas will participate in a signature Obama administration program focused on early childhood education.

It’s a move that presents an opportunity to strengthen existing state programs, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams said.

“One way to begin closing the achievement gap in Texas is to better prepare children who are entering our public schools,” Williams, a Republican appointee of Gov. Rick Perry, said in a statement when the Texas Education Agency announced last week that it would apply for its share of $160 million in total federal funds earmarked to help states expand preschool programs.

“With many high-quality pre-K programs already established in our communities, this federal grant opportunity allows an avenue to enhance and build upon that success,” Williams added. 

But the news has already become a political football. The campaign of GOP gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott called it “yet another example of the federal government attaching strings and mandates that should be left to educators and state officials.” 

Asked for comment, the campaign of Abbott's Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis, did not directly address the TEA's decision to apply for the grant, but said the candidate would "invest in our schools so that every child is better prepared for the future."

Texas has refused to sign on to other Obama administration education initiatives — most prominently, ongoing rounds of the Race to the Top competition — for the very reason Abbott cites. Designed to push states toward a number of education reforms focused on overhauling failing schools, the competition met fierce resistance from Texas leaders because of a concern about a potential federal takeover of public education in the state.

Shutting the door on a potential $700 million in federal funding when the state first declined to apply in 2010, Perry said participating in the program would mean putting the state’s future “in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special-interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington.”

When asked about the recent announcement from the TEA, a spokeswoman for the governor, Lucy Nashed, said it represented merely the first step in an application process.

“Our office will continue to work with TEA to ensure any application for participation in this program will be in the best interest of Texas,” she said.

Available through the Preschool for All initiative, the early education policy agenda the president first highlighted in his 2013 State of the Union address, the federal money is meant to expand access to pre-K for low-income students.

Texas currently pays for half-day preschool programs for public school students from low-income, non-English-speaking or military families. If Texas is awarded a federal grant, it will be eligible to receive up to $30 million annually over a four-year period to expand those programs.

But just what that would look like is not yet definite — TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the details of the application, which is due Oct. 14, are “still to be worked out.”

“What we’ve done to date is essentially to announce our intent to bid, that we intend to apply for it,” she said.

In the 2011 legislative session, state lawmakers slashed roughly $200 million in grants that had helped school districts expand from half-day to full-day pre-K programs. Two years later, they restored $30 million of that money. They appear poised to fund it at the same level in 2015: In an initial budget proposal submitted this summer, the TEA again requested $15 million a year for pre-K programs for the upcoming two-year budget cycle. 

How much more money a federal grant might mean for pre-K in Texas is also unclear. The grant prioritizes the applications of states that offer to match federal funds with their own dollars. But that is not a requirement, so Texas could feasibly use the federal funds to supplant state funding.

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