Editor's note: This story was updated to include comments from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez.
In two new campaign ads, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott boasts about his efforts to bring pre-K — and funding for it — to schools across Texas.
Ha brindado al alcance de todos nuestros niños una educación preescolar de alta calidad, a narrator says in Abbott’s first Spanish-language radio ad, which started airing last week. “He has made high-quality pre-kindergarten available to all our kids."
A new TV ad, titled “Brighter Future,” makes similar claims, touting that the governor “increased funding for early education, so children can succeed in reading and math.”
But Abbott’s record on the issues tells a more complicated story. Early childhood education advocates say that the governor has not been able to permanently secure funding for pre-K programs.
“It’s gone up and it’s gone back down,” said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of nonprofit Texans Care for Children. “The governor increased funding for pre-K — which everyone was incredibly grateful for — but since 2017, we took a couple steps backwards.”
In 2015, Abbott introduced a “gold standard” grant program that gave school districts $118 million in pre-K funding in exchange for meeting certain standards of high quality, such as certified teachers and parental engagement.
But that program was not implemented universally. In 2016, over 20 districts had turned down funds because they weren’t sure they could meet the governor’s ambitious standards with such limited money.
During the 2017 legislative session, Abbott demanded that the Legislature set aside money in the budget to continue the program. Lawmakers, however, decided not to replenish the $118 million fund — and instead mandated that school districts meet the quality standards without giving them more money.
“What we got then in 2017 was a huge unfunded mandate,” said Chandra Villanueva, a program director at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. “It’s really disingenuous to say we brought high-quality pre-K when we’re really just asking everyone to improve quality with the funding they already have.”
John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott’s campaign, referred a reporter’s request for comment to the “ad facts” listed on the governor’s campaign website for each commercial. Both pre-K ads quote a line in the state budget that put forth the required standards.
But Rubin, of Texans Care for Children, said that there’s no clear way for the state to ensure that school districts comply with the standards.
“We don’t know whether all districts are meeting high-quality standards,” she said. “After the session, there were many districts that had no idea these new standards were put in place.”
R.J. DeSilva, communications officer for the Legislative Budget Board, told The Texas Tribune in 2017 that no school district would be required to adhere to the high-quality standards in order to get its full funding for pre-K.
Even then, Rubin said that challenges remain in ensuring that students who are eligible to receive free pre-K use it.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, two-thirds of eligible four-year-olds — and just 10 percent of eligible three-year-olds — are actually enrolled in the state’s half-day pre-K program.
“We still have a long way to make sure eligible kids participate in the program, let alone open it up to middle-income kids who would benefit,” Rubin said.
Texas currently funds half-day pre-K programs for kids who are low-income, from military families, learning English, in foster care or homeless. Although schools can provide pre-K for children who fall outside the eligibility requirements, they must charge tuition or use their existing district funds.
Rubin said she also took issue with the characterization of the pre-K program as “high quality” in the Spanish-language radio ad, noting that the National Institute for Education Research gave the state’s pre-K programs a quality rank of four out of 10.
Abbott's Democratic challenger, former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, said in a statement Tuesday that her opponent's ad "skates over" Texas' below-average rank on early education funding and per-student investment.
"This is simply more election year smoke and mirrors from Governor Abbott," Valdez said.
Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.