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House budget proposal would defund Gov. Abbott's pre-K program

The House has proposed cutting all funding for a pre-K grant program that Gov. Greg Abbott has discussed as a priority this legislative session — setting the stage for a battle in the Legislature.

Gov. Greg Abbott signs House Bill 4, which adds funding for pre-kindergarten, into law at the Anita Uphaus Early Childhood Center in Austin on May 28, 2015.

Gov. Greg Abbott is facing strong resistance in the Legislature to his plan to increase funding this legislative session for high-quality pre-K.

The latest House budget proposal would cut all funding for a pre-K grant program that Abbott wants to see doubled in the next biennium. The House base budget publicly released in January had allocated $118 million for the program, but by the time that budget was officially filed last week, all funding for the program had been cut.

The House instead put that money into supplemental funding for pre-K, which would distribute money to almost all school districts for their pre-K programs based on the amount of students enrolled, without any strings attached. While the Senate budget plan includes some money for the pre-K grant program, the allotment isn't near what Abbott is calling for.

Over the past couple of weeks, Abbott has been publicly pushing the Legislature to fund the early education program he had championed in 2015. Last session, House Bill 4 set aside $118 million total in one-time grants for school districts for pre-K programs that met state standards. Those standards include using certain curricula, setting specific teacher-student ratios and pledging to report student progress to the Texas Education Agency.

As school districts clamor for more money this session to meet those standards, Abbott wants to double HB 4 program funding to $236 million total in 2018-19. Advocates for expanded pre-K funding will see an uphill battle this session, with legislators in both chambers unlikely to shell out much more on a divisive issue.

“It’s clear that the governor’s statement to do this right or not at all was misinterpreted by the House," Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement Wednesday. "The governor believes they should either fully fund high-quality Pre-K, or eliminate Pre-K funding altogether. The House needs to explain why they want to spend $1.5 billion on unproven, lower quality Pre-K. If their constituents don't like high quality Pre-K, they certainly shouldn't like a lower quality version of the program.”

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who was named House Public Education Committee chairman this month, authored the previous session's bill creating the grant program. He said funding supplemental pre-K instead of the grant will allow more districts to use the money, with more flexibility on how it is spent.

House Speaker Joe Straus' office offered the same reasoning. "The House budget prioritizes pre-K programs that serve almost 90 percent of school districts and give local communities and parents greater discretion over how to allocate funds," said spokesman Jason Embry in a statement.

The Senate's budget proposal starts with $75 million per year in 2018-19 for the grant program, which holds pre-K programs to high standards, including teacher certification and a parental engagement program. The Senate also includes an additional $15 million in supplemental pre-K funding.

In addition to the $118 million for high-quality pre-K, the House's initial budget proposal included $15 million to supplement the program. But the official budget filed Feb. 10 includes no funding at all for high-quality pre-K. Instead, the House put about $73 million per year in supplemental funding for pre-K, which would not require school districts to meet the same strict quality standards.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing for pre-K advocates who have criticized the grant program for its sparse funding, said Chandra Villanueva, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. "It's a little more equitable. Everyone gets the funding, and they can really invest it in the way they want," she said. "It still has the same downfalls as the HB 4 grant money."

Advocates have argued that Abbott's funding plan is not enough for a high-quality program. Districts that applied for shares of HB 4 funding in 2015 received $367 per student annually, much less than the $1,500 per student originally envisioned for the program. More than 20 districts turned down the grant money because it wasn't enough to cover improvements to their programs.

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, said he would soon file a bill that addresses major pitfalls of the current pre-K funding by incorporating the money into the school funding formula instead of as a separate program. "That's why I'm consistently pushing back on this notion that the governor is a champion of high-quality pre-K," he said. "He offered to underfund his own legislative priority."

Johnson also wants to fund full-day pre-K programs statewide, so low-income working parents are more likely to utilize them. "There's no advocacy group that will say you can have a high-quality program if it's only operating for a few hours a day," he said.

Many school districts used their HB 4 grants in the past two years for one-time expenses, including buying instructional materials and technology.

"In general, they're worried about those ongoing investments when the funding is in the form of a grant program," said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of policy organization Texans Care for Children.

Some Republican legislators have strongly opposed public funding for statewide pre-K, arguing it would mean government interference into parental rights to educate their young children.

Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, voted against funding the pre-K bill in 2015 and said she would vote the same way this session. Burton "would prefer to leave any pre-K programs to private providers and allow parents who desire to place their children in those programs to do so on their own volition," said Elliott Griffin, her chief of staff, in a statement.

Edgar Walters contributed to this report.

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Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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