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School finance reform should include pre-K commitment

March 21, 2019

There is much to like in the school finance legislation being considered at the Texas Capitol: significant new resources for schools, fewer local tax dollars taken away by Robin Hood, and the reworking of outdated formulas. Each of these goals is commendable.

But there is one aspect of school finance legislation that is particularly critical to our children and our business climate, and that’s a sizable investment in pre-kindergarten for more children.

Fortunately, the school finance bill filed in the Texas House takes a major step in this direction, but we are a long way from a final product. As the Legislature completes its once-in-a-generation effort to overhaul the school finance system, all who understand that education is our greatest economic development tool have a responsibility to speak up and advocate for a robust investment in pre-k over the next couple of months.

Studies show that children enrolled in quality pre-k programs are more likely to be ready for kindergarten, and students who are ready for kindergarten achieve at higher levels for years after kindergarten. Pre-k helps to put children — especially low-income children — on an early path to success and improved academic performance. Providing high-quality pre-kindergarten today prevents many problems that only become more expensive to address later, from sagging academic performance to behavioral issues.

An investment in pre-k is like buying stock early in a high-tech start-up. Early investments can lead to the business’ future success and produce exponential returns. Texas grows twice as fast as the rest of the country, but our economic engine will sputter if we don’t have a large and diverse pool of well-educated workers. After all, about two-thirds of the jobs that will be created in coming years will require a two- or four-year college degree, according to Texas 2036, a group that is highlighting some of our state’s coming challenges. Today, only about 21 percent of Texas adults have some type of college degree.

One of the first things I did as a state legislator was to file a bill to make every child in the Texas foster care system eligible for pre-kindergarten. Thousands of our most vulnerable students have benefited in the decade since. In fact, there has been strong support for pre-k among legislators from both parties for some time. However, fierce opposition from some activists and a gubernatorial veto of a 2009 pre-k quality initiative deflated enthusiasm for pre-k, which slowed progress on significant investments and real reform until now. Even those of us who support pre-k could have done more to invest it in these last couple of years. But the funding on the table was less sustainable and less ambitious than what is now gaining traction at the Capitol.

Fortunately, the politics of pre-k have improved. The research on the effectiveness of pre-k has only become more compelling. The chorus for pre-k now includes educators, business, liberals, and conservatives. In fact, a recent poll from the education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas found that a resounding supermajority of Texans — 82.5 percent of poll respondents — believe pre-k levels the playing field for school readiness. Texans want pre-k and our elected officials are acting in response.

The major school finance legislation in the Texas House, House Bill 3, creates a guaranteed allotment for full-day pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds from low-income, military, homeless, and select other families. Instead of grant programs that come and go, this promise to our children would be the most significant commitment our state has ever made to pre-k.

The opportunity to strengthen early-childhood education is especially compelling this year. The state’s budget outlook is healthy, there is growing awareness of the need to reform school finance, and voters have expressed support for education. This moment cannot go to waste. Parents, business, educators, and all Texans should fight for our future by supporting a lasting investment in full-day, high-quality pre-kindergarten.

Joe Straus is a former state representative from Bexar County who also served as Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives from 2009 to 2019.