After surviving Tea Party-backed opposition in the House, the early education bill that Gov. Greg Abbott has called his top priority this session could face its final test in the Texas Senate as early as Thursday.
The legislation sets aside $130 million over two years for an early education grant program, offering up to $1,500 per child to eligible school districts that agree to implement certain teacher quality and curriculum measures in their pre-kindergarten programs. House Bill 4 is primarily intended to coax districts into improving existing programs, not necessarily to expand state-funded pre-K, which currently includes students from low-income, English-language learning, military and foster families.
While heartened by the governor’s interest, early education advocates gave the plan largely tepid reviews at the start of the session, hoping it would be strengthened as it advanced.
But it now appears unlikely that the bill will change significantly, or include the two reforms — class-size limits and full-day programs — many view as fundamental to quality pre-K.
Critics also say school districts may not make long-term investments in higher standards because the funding comes in the form of grants 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.
And if the measure does succeed, it will be over the objections of conservatives in the Legislature. The effort to improve the quality of pre-K in Texas has become the latest target of conservative interest groups seeking to weed out so-called Republicans-in-name-only from true believers within the GOP.
Its opponents have questioned research showing the effectiveness of early education, and view the program as a step toward requiring pre-K for every child.
“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,” said state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, shortly before he voted against the proposal in the House.
When it came time for the bill’s Senate hearing, two Republicans on the chamber’s education panel, Don Huffines of Dallas and Van Taylor of Plano, voted against it. They expressed reservations about its necessity and asked for more evidence showing the long-term benefits of pre-K.
In an interview Wednesday, Taylor said his questions about the bill remained.
“I’ll certainly listen to how it’s amended on the floor. It wasn’t changed in committee, and I haven’t heard any answers on which school districts are not doing what’s in the bill,” he said. “If you are trying to go somewhere, you have to know where you are starting.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick himself has kept quiet publicly about the bill. But when it was set for a hearing, he replaced longtime pre-K advocate Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, with conservative favorite Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, as the Senate sponsor of the bill.
The Senate hearing came 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 pre-schools 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.
State Rep. Dan Huberty, the Houston Republican carrying the bill, said in an interview last week that he had not spoken directly to Patrick about how the legislation might fare in the Senate.
“He knows how important it is to the governor. And the governor didn’t ask for many things,” Huberty said. “I’m confident that they will pass it – I hope they do.”
Huberty attributed conservative opposition to a misunderstanding of what the legislation set out to do.
The bill would help improve the quality of existing pre-K programs by setting quality standards, he said, not expand them.
“We worked very closely with the governor’s staff. This was his number one item, number one priority,” he said. “The same people who are criticizing the program in a sense are criticizing the governor. And I would think that most of us would agree he that he is a very conservative man.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Legislature cut $300 million in 2011 from grants to help school districts expand pre-K programs. The correct figure is $208 million.