Despite a rocky start — and multiple efforts by Tea Party-backed lawmakers to derail it — key early education legislation endorsed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott overwhelmingly passed the Texas House on Wednesday.
An almost five-hour debate ended with a fierce denunciation of conservative interest groups’ influence on policymaking from the bill’s author, Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.
“We should not to be beholden to a conservative group … or any outside interest group,” he said shortly before House Bill 4 was approved 129-18.
“We are the House of Representatives. We should make these decisions.”
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The legislation would give about $130 million in additional funding to school districts that adopt certain curriculum and teacher quality standards in their pre-kindergarten programs, as well as a “parent engagement plan.”
It came to the floor only after Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, failed in three procedural challenges to delay its consideration. When Huberty was finally able to introduce his bill, he immediately set out to correct what he called “misinformation” about the measure, stressing that it is about quality control, not expanding early education in the state.
“I’ve been hearing from a lot of my colleagues that it’s OK for us to spend billions of dollars on the border, and it’s OK for us to spend billions of dollars over here,” he said. “Let me ask you to spend $100 million to get a program that makes sense.”
Amid an onslaught of questions about its cost and purpose, he also repeatedly emphasized Abbott’s support for the proposal.
“This is a plan that we worked with the governor’s office on,” he said. “This does not expand pre-K. This is not universal pre-K. This is creating a high-quality, gold standard program for educating our most vulnerable children.”
But that did not dissuade several Republicans from trying to block the measure, which has drawn opposition from Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. The conservative advocacy group sent out a notice to lawmakers this week that a vote for the measure would reflect negatively on their end-of-session scorecards.
“Throwing money at a problem does not solve a problem,” said Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, who suggested piloting the program for two years instead.
Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, cast doubt on studies indicating that investment in early education resulted in lower remediation costs later, likening pre-kindergarten to day care. Others, like Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, expressed alarm that the bill could lead to the expansion of government.
“A lot of children at that age should be at home learning from their parents. I just don’t agree that the government should be coming forward and taking responsibility, especially when it comes to children,” he said.