Over half of Texas children between the ages of three and four don't go to preschool, according to the annual Kids Count report released this week from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Texas schools offer free pre-K programs to 4-year-olds, but primarily only offer programs for 3-year-olds on a tuition basis. Those low numbers and access have drawn scrutiny from education advocates, lawmakers and even the candidates running for governor.
Despite the recent focus on preschool access for Texas children, efforts to expand access may to wait until after the upcoming legislative session.
Early childhood development experts say there are a few reasons for the low numbers of Texas children in preschool: a parent may stay home, pre-K programs may be too expensive, or families without citizenship may be concerned about sending their children to school.
Children not in preschool are not necessarily at a disadvantage. Parents may be reading to their kids or taking them on trips. But Frances Deviney with the Center for Public Policy Priorities says, unless kids are getting enrichment at home, pre-K is vital.
“A lot of kids, the parents can’t afford pre-K or early childhood programs and they don’t have pre-K option," Deviney says. "And so they have to keep their kids or use family, friend and kids aren’t getting early childhood education they need to prep them for school.”
Deviney says pre-K programs also allow parents to work full-time, especially full day programs.
Preschool education has become a hot topic in the race for Texas governor, and many early education advocates say the fact that politicians are even discussing the issue . And, as with many issues, it comes down to funding.
Republican candidate Attorney General Greg Abbott wants to tie preschool funding to the success of an early childhood program, while Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis wants full day pre-K for all Texas kids – though, it’s unclear where the money would come from. Chris Brown of the University of Texas' Early Childhood Education program says funding will be an issue heading into the next legislative session.
“Until we have a firm grasp on how we want to fund K -12, I don’t think pre-K will become as important issue as that is right now,” Brown says.
Experts say until the courts weigh in on the ongoing trial about how Texas funds public K-12 education, lawmakers are unlikely to make any large changes to education funding.
"Pre-K is one piece of a larger puzzle that we need to think about," Brown says. "As we focus on the K-12 system and the larger debate, I hope we don't forget the children who aren't enrolled, but are a part of our state who need a high quality education."