More than 20 Texas school districts have turned down state grant money to bolster their pre-kindergarten programs because the amount offered isn’t enough to cover required improvements.

Under Gov. Greg Abbott’s “gold standard” pre-K program, which the Legislature approved last year, qualifying school districts and charters were supposed to receive $1,500 per pre-kindergarten student each year in exchange for implementing certain improvements — certified teachers, a quality curriculum and parental engagement among them.

The program would cost up to $59 million per year, Abbott estimated in early 2014 when he first unveiled it on the campaign trail, acknowledging the proven effectiveness of pre-K and saying he wanted “next year’s pre-K class to graduate from high school in the top-ranked school system in the country.”

But because so many school districts applied for shares of the $118 million lawmakers budgeted for the program in 2015, they will receive a fraction of that — $734 per student over two years, or $367 per student per year. (Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced last week that 578 applicants had qualified.)

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That’s not enough to cover the cost of implementing the required improvements, according to several superintendents from districts that turned down the funding. There are 21 in all, according to the Texas Education Agency, including Abbott’s hometown district of Duncanville. The vast majority of them are smaller and rural.

With fewer than 10 preschoolers, Penelope schools was looking at getting a few thousand dollars, which “just doesn’t add up at all,” said Superintendent Scot Kelley, noting Abbott's program didn’t expand the number of kids eligible for free pre-K or mandate — or fund — a full-day program. The state currently funds half-day programs for low-income kids or those who are from military families or learning English.

“If I thought it was going to provide something for my kids they wouldn’t get otherwise, I would do it,” Kelley said. “But it wasn’t going to provide anything for the kids.”

Brazos schools superintendent Earl Jarrett said his district “cannot afford to make up the difference” in cost.

We had hoped to benefit from significantly more per-student funding through the grant,” Springtown schools Superintendent Mike Kelley wrote in an email. “Upon receiving notification of award and reviewing the proposed allotment, it was determined that the resource allocations (human, fiscal, and physical) required to meet the enhanced standards and curricular requirements were too significant. ... We simply could not afford to implement the program.”

Asked if the program was unfair to smaller school districts, Kelley — the Penelope schools chief — said it's simply underfunded. Critics of Abbott's program have argued the same, noting it is funded less than a $200 million pre-kindergarten grant program lawmakers gutted in 2011.

“Pre-K as a whole is underfunded, plain and simple,” he said. “In an impoverished, rural district, pre-K is a necessity and it’s not funded adequately.”

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