Texas Republican senators sparred over the benefits of pre-kindergarten on Tuesday, with some GOP members of the Senate Education Committee saying far more data is needed to prove it is worth the investment, while others said it is too soon to judge the effectiveness of a new grant program Gov. Greg Abbott championed aimed at spurring quality programs.
The $118 million initiative, requiring certified teachers and a parental engagement plan among other things, faced an uphill battle last year in a highly conservative Legislature where many Republicans dismiss pre-K as unnecessary government overreach. The program ended up passing overwhelmingly, but so little money was allocated that 21 mostly smaller school districts declined funding because it didn’t cover the cost of compliance.
Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, on Tuesday repeatedly questioned the investment, citing a recent Vanderbilt University study indicating that the benefits of pre-K quickly dwindle. School officials and teacher groups, meanwhile, pointed out that the study was not randomized and that numerous other studies reach opposite conclusions.
“The conclusion was completely contrarian to the studies out in late 2015,” Bettencourt said. “I would really hope that we take a real serious look at getting data collected ... because if gains had evaporated by the end of kindergarten then we just spent $118 million for what? ... Now there may be other bodies of work to look at, but this is certainly an eye-opening study to me.”
"We didn't have these facts 18 months ago," he added, referencing the passage of Abbott’s program.
But Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, who sponsored Abbott’s pre-K grant program in the Senate last session, said it’s too soon to judge the program's effectiveness.
“We have just started to implement it so you can go back and say, Sen. Bettencourt, that we didn’t have these numbers, but at the same time we know we could do better with pre-K. We all knew that,” she said, later adding “I believe we will see an improvement.”
"I think we are very early in the process, so I’m not ready to call it heads or tails or winners or losers at this point," Taylor said.
But Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, joined Bettencourt in expressing skepticism about the return on investment, abruptly cutting off a witness who cited a 2015 University of Texas study showing existing pre-K programs saved the $142 million in a single year — $127 million less on special education programs and $15 million less because fewer students were held back a grade.
Taylor compared that to the $700 million the state spends on pre-K annually — a half-day program for kids who are needy or from military families.
"If I'm a business person ... is that a good deal or a bad deal?" he asked Chandra Villanueva, an education policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a progressive Austin-based think tank.
“I think it’s a good deal,” she replied, later noting via Twitter that “no one expects a 100% return on investment in one year.”
"OK, well see me later. I've got a deal for you,” he shot back.
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