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Abbott's Pre-K Bill Headed to Full Senate

The bill that helped spark last week's blowup between the state's top officials is suddenly moving in the Senate, despite fierce opposition from Tea Party conservatives.

TPPF economist Dr. Arthur Laffer and Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, at the 2015 Policy Orientation session on School Choice on Jan. 7, 2015.

Legislation to add quality standards to the state's pre-kindergarten programs, dear to Gov. Greg Abbott and opposed by Tea Party conservatives, cleared a key Senate panel Thursday.

“It is the fiscally, morally, academically responsible thing we can do,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell, the New Braunfels Republican who wound up carrying the measure before the Senate Education Committee reportedly at Patrick's request. "Gov. Abbott made this bill his priority and we can help.”

Committee members voted 9 to 2 to send House Bill 4 on for consideration in the full chamber. 

The legislation sets aside $130 million over a two-year period for an early education grant program, with the goal of offering up to $1,500 per child for eligible school districts. To qualify, districts would agree to implement certain teacher quality and curriculum measures. 

Two Republicans on the panel, Don Huffines of Dallas and Van Taylor of Plano, voted against the bill, expressing reservations about its necessity and asking for more evidence showing the long term benefits of pre-kindergarten.

At one point, Taylor noted that several school districts testified that they had already implemented the reforms in HB 4. "I think it would be good to know, how transformative is this?" he asked. "We have the largest school districts saying 'we already do all this stuff.' It kind of makes me say ... why are we doing this if it’s already being done?"

The bill has become a target of conservative activists who question research showing the effectiveness of early education, and view the program as a step toward requiring pre-kindergarten for every child. The bill passed the House over the objections of Tea Party-backed lawmakers who attempted to derail it on procedural grounds. 

The Senate hearing came about after tensions flared between Abbott, Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus at a weekly breakfast meeting one day after a group of Patrick's grassroots advisers released a letter calling the plan "a threat to parental rights."

"We are experimenting at great cost to taxpayers with a program that removes our young people from homes and half-day religious preschools and mothers' day out programs to a Godless environment with only evidence showing absolutely NO LONG TERM BENEFITS beyond the 1st grade," read the letter, which Patrick said he had not seen before it was made public.

This week conservative favorite Campbell — instead of longtime pre-K advocate Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat — became the Senate sponsor of the bill.

The plan has received lukewarm reviews from early education policy experts, who say it stops short of promoting two reforms they view as fundamental to quality pre-K: class size limits and full-day programs. 

Andrea Brauer, a policy associate with the education research and advocacy group Texans Care for Children, said that most school districts already adhere to the standards put forward in HB 4.

"The reason the districts like this is because it is not a heavy lift. ... My question is, why don't we require this of every single school district?" she said. "I don't think they should have a choice to opt in to quality." 

While school officials largely testified in favor of the bill Thursday, many told senators that $130 million would not get far in advancing the goals of the legislation

"I don't think that it’s enough, I'll be honest with you," said Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier. "I think it's a start."

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