With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Andrea Brauer is the early education policy associate at Texans Care for Children, where she focuses on children's early opportunities. Brauer worked at the Texas Legislature for six years, with three-year stints as a policy analyst for the Sunset Advisory Commission and director of projects for former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. She has also worked for nonprofits whose work included helping foster children and children with disabilities.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: The governor made improving pre-K one of his top priorities for the session. In your opinion, how fundamental of a shift was this session for pre-K?
Andrea Brauer: It was really important. To have that focus and leadership from our governor is perhaps unprecedented, certainly since I’ve been around. It was fantastic to have him say it was his top priority, so everybody was excited about that. Everybody in the early education community was thrilled to have that kind of focus. As you’ve probably seen, it’s grown around the country. We’re seeing increased investments across states, red and blue states across the country from both Republican and Democratic governors, so we’re glad that Texas is following along with that.
Trib+Edu: Why do you think there is this nationwide trend of increased investment in pre-K, and why might it have taken a while?
Brauer: I think all the research shows that starting early is key, especially for kids that are disadvantaged and start off with an unlevel playing field. I think we're not seeing the results we want to in K-12, and we’re concerned about competition and having our students graduate and be prepared for a qualified workforce. So much research has shown that if you invest early, the benefits extend far down the line to adulthood, to job security, college attendance. There's long-term studies and research that has come out about that, not to mention what you save K-12 in decreased remediation costs, special education costs, dropouts, juvenile justice system. So I think people are just finally looking at the research and looking at it as a way to tackle education. Prevention works. Prevention is always a tough one for health and human service folks to kind of prove, but having data has been a huge boost for early education.
Trib+Edu: Yet your group and others have said this legislation didn't go far enough. What more would you like to see or what should’ve been different?
Brauer: I would have loved to have seen at least the $208 million that was cut in 2011 restored. What Gov. Abbott and what the Legislature allocated is restoring about half, so that’s significant, and we appreciate it, but we would’ve liked to see full restoration. I would've also liked to have seen funding for all districts. We did an analysis, and if we would've taken those funds and just provided a bump to every single district, we could’ve gotten every district up to the national average pre-K spending because right now we’re below that. We’re at $3,650 per student, and the national average is $4,026. The grant funding, the estimates are that it will only help less than half of all kids in all districts, so the kids who are currently served. So we would've liked to have seen a bump for everybody.
We would've also liked to have seen increased quality improvement for all districts. We’re quite behind other states in what we require for our money. We’re one of the only states that you get money for pre-K, and you really don't have to account for it or have to do much for it. It’s just given to you, and it’s very, very, very much locally driven, locally district led. And there’s still, with this, there aren't many district-wide mandates. The good thing is there's data collection involved this time, and that’s going to be for every district. But the quality improvements are only for districts that opt in so you only have to be quality if you want to.
Trib+Edu: How many districts do you think will opt in and what are the implications of this opt-in program?
Brauer: I think that a lot of districts will, because from what I understand from talking to districts across the state is what the plan requires, a lot of districts are already doing it all, so it’d be pretty easy. I mean, why not, right? That being said, I think it depends on how TEA structures it and how they write the rules. There’s a lot still to be seen.
Again, I think an estimate was that they will only serve 43 percent of students. If you did $1,500 per student, it would only serve 43 percent of students. However, the bill says, "up to," so how TEA is going to determine if they give one district $1,000 per student and one district $1,500, I really don't know. That would be, I think, difficult. I think it would've been much easier if we would've just said, “Here’s some more money for everybody, and you all have to do these quality measures. Period.”
I really don't understand why it has to be complicated like this. Most states just require the funding, and they also require the districts to do certain things like class size and caps and ratios, for example. We have no limit in that, so that's a problem. That’s a big quality driver. We have some classes that are 25 and 30 kids to a teacher, so it’s really hard to create a quality learning environment with classes like that.
Trib+Edu: So what is the right level of staff-to-student ratio in these pre-K programs, and why is bringing that down so important?
Brauer: The National Institute for Early Education Research, they have 10 benchmarks for what a quality preschool program should include — and ratios and class size caps are pretty high up there, from my conversations with NIEER. And these kids — remember they’re disadvantaged, a lot of them — and they need some one-on-one help. That's key, and even from child care from early on, you see that student teacher interaction is one of the most important indicators of student success and classroom success. So when you have huge classes, and you have little ones, 4-year-olds, clearly it’s tough to manage getting them to sit in a seat and to learn. It's just hard to have those quality student teacher interactions when you have so many children. As you can imagine, there's a lot of classroom management and not learning going on.
Trib+Edu: Would you like to see an expansion to who is eligible for pre-K programs?
Brauer: I think that would be fantastic. I think that definitely should be looked at down the line. Some cities are already doing that. Amarillo is doing it, I think Dallas is considering doing it, I just got a call from someone from Houston, and they’re considering doing it. So they have the option of doing this on their own, of course, and I think it is important to look at down the line. But I have to say, I agree with Gov. Abbott when he first came out with his plan that we need to make sure our current program is high quality before we expand it. I don’t think HB 4 gets us there as much as we need to because it doesn’t address all districts, and it doesn't use research-based quality measures. So I think we have a ways to go.
I also see Texas way behind just even our early education system. We have about six different agencies involved in early education, very little coordination and consolidation. We have one person at TEA that handles pre-school. So we're the only one in the top 10 states that doesn't have an office of early learning. That was a bill that we worked on this session and that was introduced, but it didn't get a hearing, unfortunately. So I think that we need to build our structure and technical assistance for districts at the state level before that happens.
Trib+Edu: When you say the law doesn’t address all districts, why is that?
Brauer: What I mean is nothing is a requirement. In my view, they should’ve just said if you get funding from the state, even if we give you $3,650 per student, you have to do A, B and C. You have to use the pre-K guidelines, you have to offer a parental engagement plan, you have to have a class of even if it's 20 or 25, it's better than 30. You have to do these things. Otherwise we’re not giving you state money because that’s taxpayer dollars.
That’s what I’m saying about helping all districts, about benefiting all districts. Certainly, every district can apply for this grant money. Now, we know even if all apply, they're not gonna all get it. The money will run out. Perhaps they could all get it, but it’s a very cumbersome process. We have over 1,100 districts in our state. This bill adds one full-time employee to TEA to handle it. When they had the pre-K Early Start Grant before 2011, they had four staff at TEA to manage it and even then, they said it was difficult. Because grant programs inherently create winners and losers. Some districts are disappointed they don't get it. It’s a cumbersome system.
But if you as a state just said, “Here’s your increased money, and you have to do this and report to me that you did it,” to me, it would just be a lot easier. That’s what I would’ve liked to have seen. But we’re very much about local control, and they didn’t want to take that away from districts. The bottom line is seeing our students’ educational opportunities advance and for them to succeed. So if you put those measures in place for every district and ensure that everyone has the funding they need, you’re more likely to see results across the board, not just for the ones that said, “I did this. Now give me $1,500 extra per student.”
I also see the whole structure problem. They don't get the money until the second half of the biennium. The district can come and say, “Look I’ve done these four things” on their own within their current funding, and then they get more money. They can use that money to improve quality. They can use that money to go to full day or decrease class sizes or hire a teacher's aide, and I’m sure that’s going to happen. So don’t get me wrong. It will help, but I just wish it would've been more equitably managed. I think we already have a crisis in this state with our school finance system, so we could’ve started here.
Trib+Edu: Your group wrote in its wrap-up of the legislative session that this session marked a “first step towards stronger pre-K policies.” How hopeful are you that future Legislatures will actually take that next step and build on the work this session?
Brauer: I hope so. I think as long as Gov. Abbott is there and continues to make it a priority, I think it’s certainly in the realm of possibility. I think in the next session or two, there might be a kind of, “We dealt with this in 2015 so let’s wait and see.” I’m not sure if much movement will happen next session. I think they're going to be waiting for results, and I don't think they'll have those in 2017.
But there’s always going to be early education and pre-K bills filed, and there's some very strong proponents of pre-K in the Legislature that always file legislation and will champion this cause. So it’s going to continue to be a point of conversation for many years to come.
And hopefully with the governor's office, I know we at Texans Care want to keep the dialogue going, and we’re going to closely follow the HB 4 implementation and we’re going to keep it in the forefront of TEA. It’s a priority, not just HB 4 and this grant program, but early education in general. That’s not just pre-K at TEA. That's childcare also that’s a big focus of us. There's preschool in the childcare setting, which many more kids take advantage of and are in, actually. There was no movement on that this session.