The Legislature has failed our youngest students

Photo by Robert W. Hart

The single greatest investment we can make in the future of our state is in prekindergarten. Numerous studies have shown the positive impacts high quality, full-day prekindergarten can have on closing achievement gaps for socioeconomically disadvantaged children. With a high quality, full-day prekindergarten program, children are more likely to be reading on a third-grade level by the time they reach the third grade and are then more likely to not repeat grades, more likely to not drop out of high school and more likely to have jobs later on in life as opposed to facing unemployment and incarceration.

A study conducted by the Obama Administration found that every $1 invested in prekindergarten yields $8.60 in economic return. The Urban Child Institute also conducted a study and found prekindergarten can have a return of $10 for every dollar invested. The economic return is based on increased school and career achievement by the child, resulting in decreased remedial education costs and reduced health and criminal justice expenditures by the state. Even the Texas Association of Business agrees and has consistently come out in favor of investing in full-day prekindergarten. The reasons for investing in prekindergarten are indisputable.

Despite this, the state of Texas has yet to make a meaningful investment in prekindergarten. In 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott named prekindergarten as one of his emergency items, citing its positive benefits for at-risk children. I filed a bill that would have completely overhauled the current half-day program, turning it into a gold-standard, high-quality, full-day program with research-backed national best practices to ensure maximum benefits for our youngest students. The 84th Texas Legislature and Gov. Abbott favored a much more minimal approach, which is what was passed. The grant program created as a result barely provided any money for school districts to make real improvements to prekindergarten.

The 85th Texas Legislature decided to completely eliminate the grant program from the budget passed for the 2018-19 biennium. All additional money for prekindergarten was stripped from the budget, leaving only the basic half-day funding for school districts.

What’s even worse is that at the eleventh hour, the Legislature decided to attach an unfunded mandate to the existing prekindergarten money school districts receive every biennium, stating that districts must achieve the “high-quality” requirements set by the governor’s bill passed in 2015 — but must do so without any additional funds. Instead of investing in prekindergarten, the Legislature is penalizing local school districts for its own failure.

It is clear the Legislature is not willing to invest in prekindergarten. We had a real chance in 2015 to make a meaningful investment in our youngest students, but instead decided to shortchange them. The 85th Texas Legislature made it even worse.

Eric Johnson

State representative, D-Dallas