A key early education bill backed by Gov. Greg Abbott has cleared both chambers of the Legislature, with the Texas Senate on Thursday capping funding for the pre-kindergarten grant program at $130 million and approving it 25 to 6.
The money is intended to coax school districts into improving existing pre-K programs, which the state currently funds for students from low-income, English-language learning, military and foster families. The measure offers up to $1,500 per child to school districts that agree to implement certain teacher quality and curriculum measures over the next two years.
The House must decide whether to accept changes made by the Senate before the bill can head to Abbott’s desk.
The six votes against House Bill 4 all came from Republicans: Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, Van Taylor of Plano, Konni Burton of Colleyville, Don Huffines of Dallas, Bob Hall of Edgewood and Brandon Creighton of Conroe.
"I applaud Governor Abbott's efforts to enhance the pre-kindergarten program for families that do not have the luxury of keeping their child in a home-learning environment, but our current pre-kindergarten funding level of $1.5 billion is more than sufficient to reach that goal," Creighton said in a statement after the vote.
The bill has encountered opposition from a number of conservative groups that view the program as a step toward requiring pre-K for every child.
The bill’s supporters — including its Senate sponsor, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels — have repeatedly stated that is not the case.
“I want to send a clear message that these dollars are for quality, not expansion,” Campbell said as she introduced the legislation on the floor.
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.
Critics also say school districts may not make long-term investments in higher standards because the funding comes in the form of grants that are subject to the whims of the Legislature, rather than through relatively more stable school finance formulas.
The $130 million likely to be included in the final budget for the plan is a little over half of the $208 million the Legislature cut in 2011 from grants that helped districts expand their pre-K programs.
Shortly after the vote on Thursday, Abbott issued a statement praising the Senate's action.
“Today’s vote is essential to implementing high-quality education standards for Texas pre-K students, providing them with the tools necessary to succeed, and improving accountability and transparency measures for participating pre-K programs across the state," he said. "Working together we can – and will – strengthen the foundation for the future success of our state’s early education system for generations to come.”