Early learning on fast track in Austin

Early-childhood education has become one of the favored causes in the beginning weeks of the legislative session in Austin, and for good reason.

“The literacy and mathematics skills children learn in pre-kindergarten through third grade form the foundation for their futures, both in school and in life,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in the budget he submitted to lawmakers Feb. 17. “Our primary goal should be to ensure all Texas students perform at grade level by the third grade in reading and math.”

His points are consistent with his positions in last year’s election campaign. Now the Legislature must follow through with the right programs — and enough funding to give them a real chance to work.

Abbott has made early-learning initiatives one of five emergency items for the session, meaning bills can be fast-tracked. This week, Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, responded with HB 4, what could be the session’s primary vehicle to improve pre-K education.

Huberty outlined a High Quality Prekindergarten Program, under which school districts can qualify for additional pre-k funding.

The state currently pays for half-day pre-k for students from low-income, English-language-learning, military or foster families.

Huberty said current funding is $3,650 per student. HB 4 would qualify schools for as much as an additional $1,500 per student, he said.

But according to the Texas Tribune, he also said House budget writers intend to put $100 million into the program, which is far from enough to provide $1,500 for each of the 225,000 eligible students. In fact, it would provide less than $450 per student.

Abbott has called for $118 million for high-quality pre-k programs. He also wants another $64 million for “world-class” professional development programs for teachers in pre-k through third grade.

The session ends June 1. There’s plenty of time to develop improved early learning programs for Texas children, but it won’t be cheap.