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Senate panel tentatively votes to defund Abbott's pre-K program

The Senate Finance Committee gave initial approval to budget items that would cut $180 million from state-funded pre-K in favor of a $40 million public-private partnership.

Gov. Greg Abbott signs HB4, which adds funding for pre-K, into law at the Anita Uphaus Early Childhood Center in Austin Texas May 28, 2015.

Editor's note: Updated with comment from the governor's office.

The Senate Finance Committee tentatively decided to defund Gov. Greg Abbott’s pre-kindergarten grant program, a month after the House filed a proposed budget doing the same.

The panel unanimously voted to approve a set of public education budget items Wednesday evening, cutting $180 million the Senate had allocated for pre-K funding in a January version of the budget. Instead, it voted to put $40 million into a separate partnership with nonprofits to support districts and charters implementing pre-K programs.

Abbott had been pushing the Legislature to double the $118 million from the previous biennium for his early education program, which set aside grant money for school districts with pre-K programs that met specific state standards. Those standards included using certain curricula, setting specific teacher-student ratios and pledging to report student progress to the Texas Education Agency.

The Senate's original proposed budget designated about $180 million for pre-K — $150 million for Abbott’s grant program and $30 million in supplemental funding for all school districts. Abbott had asked for another $86 million for his grant program. The Senate Finance Committee voted 14-0 to include none.

The committee will next vote the budget out of committee, where it will then head to the full Senate.

According to the document detailing the budget items, the new partnership program would require the education commissioner to support schools providing pre-K and develop resources to enhance the quality of those programs. It would provide funding to districts through “competitive grants,” allowing them to focus on engaging families and expanding access to students.

Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, and Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, members of the workgroup that recommended the education budget cuts to the full committee, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The House base budget released in January did not include any funding for Abbott's program. Instead, it put $118 million in supplemental pre-K funding, which would be distributed to all districts and not require them to meet the same standards as Abbott’s program. House legislators said putting money into supplemental pre-K funding would allow school districts more flexibility in spending the money.

"It's incomprehensible that the Senate is jeopardizing the future of Texas students by depriving them of high-quality pre-K, instead forcing them into an unaccountable program," said Abbott's spokesman John Wittman in a statement.

Wittman also had sharp words last month after the House's base budget was released.

“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,” he said in a February statement.

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • 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.
  • Most school districts in Dallas County took advantage of a new state grant program to bolster early education programs, but limited funds produced limited results.

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