*Clarification appended

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a comment from a spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott.

Texas could ask public schools to make specific improvements to their pre-K programs — while cutting the grant program that would fund it.

After months of private deliberations, a committee of House and Senate legislators on Saturday unveiled a joint budget in Senate Bill 1 that includes no additional money for a high-quality pre-K grant program that has been one of Gov. Greg Abbott's priorities this session. Instead, it says districts should use a portion of existing school funding to meet the program's standards, including setting a low teacher-student ratio, avoiding Common Core curricula, hiring qualified teachers and reporting student progress to the state.

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The Legislative Budget Board, which prepared the pre-K proposal, said districts would not be required to meet program standards, and will get all funding they are projected to receive through pre-K enrollment.

But the governor's office disagreed, saying the proposal would expand his program, and that the Texas Education Agency would enforce the standards.

"This budget expands the number of schools that will implement Governor Abbott's high-quality pre-K program to ensure that more kids have access to the best early education," John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, said late Monday. "The TEA will vigorously enforce high-quality standards on all schools that receive this funding."

Advocates for additional pre-K funding are unhappy with the proposal. "After families, business leaders, faith leaders, and others from across the state loudly called for a stronger commitment to quality pre-K, it is disappointing that the Legislature did not come through," said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of nonprofit Texans Care for Children.

Last session, House Bill 4 set aside $118 million total in one-time grants for school districts that agreed to make those specific improvements. When school districts argued they needed much more funding to comply with the law, Abbott asked the Legislature to double that funding to $236 million total in 2018-19. In fact, dozens of school districts turned down the grant money after last session, concerned that they could not afford stick to the associated requirements.

School districts received the $118 million in pre-K grant funding just for the second school year of the biennium; advocates say the governor's ask would keep their funding flat at $118 million for the next two years.

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But legislators didn't want to add funding to his program. Abbott fumed this session when the House, and then the Senate, decided to remove all money for his grant program in their budget proposals. He told them to fund "high-quality pre-K, or eliminate Pre-K funding altogether."

The carve-out of existing money for pre-K with quality standards was a quick fix to appease the governor, with no additional funds, said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. 

"The governor made it clear that without there being the funding he had requested for the high-quality pre-K initiative that we put in place this past biennium, that he would likely veto the budget based on that issue," Zerwas said. The governor had asked for $236 million for his program. So committee members carved that amount out of money districts already would receive.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Districts are projected to receive a total of $1.58 billion in the next two years, based on enrollment numbers, to run half-day pre-K programs for high-need 3- and 4-year-olds who struggle with English or come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. They received about $1.52 billion for that purpose in 2016-17, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

The state would allow them to take 15 percent of that funding, $236 million, to implement pre-K programs "consistent with the requirements of a High-Quality Prekindergarten program," as laid out by the governor last session, according to the proposal. The education commissioner would have the power to oversee the $236 million.

Advocates have questions about how this will work in practice at schools across the state.

"There's a concern that districts are going to have now about these requirements being mandatory or expected of them," said Chandra Villanueva, policy analyst for left-leaning policy group Center for Public Policy Priorities. Schools also don't know how the state would enforce the improvements.

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According to R.J. DeSilva, communications officer for the Legislative Budget Board, no school district would be required to make those improvements and all will get their full funding for pre-K, based on enrollment numbers.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Gov. Greg Abbott is looking to the budget conference committee to sort out a dispute over his prekindergarten initiative as it becomes clear he cannot rely on the House and Senate to fully fund the program in their spending plans.
  • 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.

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.

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify the schedule of the pre-kindergarten funding.

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