Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.
Despite a rocky start — and multiple efforts by Tea Party-backed lawmakers to derail it — key early education legislation endorsed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott overwhelmingly passed the Texas House Wednesday.
An almost five-hour debate ended with a fierce denunciation of conservative interest groups’ influence on policymaking from the bill’s author, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.
“We should not to be beholden to a conservative group…or any outside interest group,” he said, shortly before the chamber approved House Bill 4 on a vote of 129 to 18. “We are the House of Representatives, we should make these decisions.”
The legislation would give about $130 million in additional funding to school districts that adopt certain curriculum and teacher quality standards in their pre-kindergarten programs, as well as a "parent engagement plan."
It came to the floor only after state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, failed in three separate procedural challenges to delay its consideration. When he was finally able to introduce his bill, Huberty immediately set out to correct what he called “misinformation” about the measure, stressing that it was about quality control, not expanding early education in the state.
“I’ve been hearing from a lot of my colleagues that it’s okay for us to spend billions of dollars on the border, and it's okay for us to spend billions of dollars over here,” he said. “Let me ask you to spend $1oo million to get a program that makes sense.”
Amid an onslaught of questions about its cost and purpose, he also repeatedly emphasized Abbott’s support for the proposal. “This is a plan that we worked with the governor’s office on,” he said. “This does not expand pre-K. This is not universal pre-K. This is creating a high-quality, gold standard program for educating our most vulnerable children.”
But that did not dissuade several Republicans from attempting to block the measure, which has drawn the opposition of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. The conservative advocacy group sent out a notice to lawmakers earlier this week, that a vote in favor of the measure would reflect negatively on their end of session scorecards.
“Throwing money at a problem does not solve a problem,” said state Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, who suggested piloting the program for two years instead.
State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, cast doubt on studies indicating that investment in early education resulted in lower remediation costs later on, likening pre-kindergarten to daycare. Others, like state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, expressed alarm that the bill could lead to the expansion of government.
“A lot of children at that age should be at home learning from their parents. I just don’t agree that the government should be coming forward and taking responsibility, especially when it comes to children,” he said.
One Democrat, state Rep. Eric Johnson of Dallas, who has called for much broader reforms to pre-kindergarten in the state, was among those who opposed the measure.
After the vote, Johnson said in a statement that the bill's funding — which he said amounted to just $640 dollars per eligible, enrolled student — was inadequate.
"When I began this fight to improve pre-K education in Texas, I knew that there might come a day when I would have to stand alone. That day was today,” he said.
Wednesday’s floor debate provided a contrast to criticism the bill received during its committee hearing just a few weeks ago.
Then, many education advocates said they hoped it could be strengthened — noting it stops short of major reforms viewed as crucial to high-quality programs like expanding state funding to make half-day programs full-day, limiting class size or setting student-teacher ratios.
The debate also casts doubt on the likelihood of lawmakers adding any more money to the proposal, which appeared to be a possibility when the House passed its budget last week.
Shortly after the bill passed Wednesday, Abbott issued a statement saying he looked forward to signing it into law.
“The road to elevating Texas to become first in the nation for education begins with pre-k,” he said. “And I applaud the Texas House of Representatives for recognizing the critical importance of providing high-quality pre-k for our children to build a strong foundation for future success.”