Fort Worth shows why universal pre-k is worth it

In Fort Worth classrooms surrounded by brightly colored posters, books and decorated walls, exuberant 4 year olds in pre-kindergarten gush about what they’re learning: “Letters!” “Sounds!” “Reading!” “Writing!”

They’re featured on a video the school district produced to encourage parents to enroll their children in an early education program that will help prepare them for kindergarten and success beyond.

This week as districts throughout North Texas began pre-kindergarten enrollment for the fall, tension is building in Austin for another battle over state funding for the program. No one argues it’s a basic building block that may mean the difference in children reading or doing math on grade level several years later. But in Austin the legislature has not made full pre-k funding a priority. We’d like to see that change when the legislature meets in January.

In 2017, the legislature eliminated a $118 million dollar grant supported by Gov. Greg Abbott for districts meeting high pre-k standards. That made it even more difficult for many districts to provide pre-kindergarten instruction to all children whose parents want it.

Children in Fort Worth are unusually lucky. The district has gone the extra mile to locally raise the money needed to make a full-day of education available for every child, which is what most educators recommend.

Fort Worth did it by combining its limited state funding with a grant, voter approved bond money and a generous donation from the Rainwater Foundation.

The state only requires and pays for a half-day of instruction for 3-year olds and 4-year olds who are considered high need: limited English proficiency; homeless; in foster care; military children; or economically disadvantaged.

That’s all many districts can afford which means children in working families who earn a little too much are left out. We’re not talking about high wage earners. In many cases, a child of a single mother who earns more than $30,044 annually would not automatically be admitted.

It’s the case in Keller which has many affluent residents but also has schools where 40 to 60 percent of the children are low income, qualifying for free or reduced priced meals.

“I know it’s hard for those families sitting on the (financial) bubble, but it all comes down to funding from the state,” said Keller ISD Early Childhood Program Director Karin Mahlenkamp.

Some area districts like Arlington and Hurst-Euless-Bedford offer families who don’t qualify for the state-required free program pre-kindergarten for a price.

In Arlington ISD, the cost is $263 a month for a half day or $527 monthly for a full day.

In Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD, open seats cost $275 a month for the half day program and $650 a month for the full day one.

Yes, that’s pricey, and may be hard for some families to afford. But it’s often cheaper than day care and children are learning.

Fort Worth says it’s seeing the results of its full-day program free to all district children. When staff assessed new kindergartners last fall, they found those who attended pre-k could better identify letters and sounds. They were further ahead in reading, math and science.

If we really care about kids, and creating a skilled workforce for tomorrow, let’s look for ways to help all Texas school districts find the funding to do what Fort Worth ISD has done. We hope state lawmakers will finally provide money that makes full-day pre-k available to all children. But based on their track record, we aren’t holding our breath.

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