Pre-k Works for Texas Kids and Taxpayers, By Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children

As the 2017 Texas legislative session gets underway, business leaders, educators, community leaders, and parents are eager to see state policymakers’ next move on pre-k. As national and Texas research shows, high quality pre-k helps kids get off to a strong start. Effective pre-k programs are proven to boost academic and social emotional outcomes as well as graduation rates. They also save money by reducing grade retention and the need for special education.

As we documented in our recent report, the state’s new pre-k grant program got off to a promising start in the fall of 2016, but there’s more work to do to ensure that the program is successful and more Texas kids are ready for school. In particular, legislators must provide $236 million over the course of the next two-year budget to maintain current per-student funding levels (which are already one-half of the amount originally envisioned) and take steps to improve quality, such as lowering student-teacher ratios and class sizes and expanding access to full-day pre-k.

As the Legislature discusses early childhood education, it can draw on substantial research showing that pre-k is effective. Here are a few highlights:

- As reported in the Houston Chronicle and elsewhere, our colleagues at Children at Risk recently published a report analyzing data on 47,000 Texas pre-k kids. It found that economically disadvantaged students who were in high-quality pre-k classes scored higher on third grade reading tests than their peers who missed out on pre-k or attended lower quality pre-k.

- As the Dallas Morning News recently reported, Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman’s latest analysis of early childhood education in North Carolina found that every $1 invested yielded a return of $6.30 in terms of higher earning power for the students, lower taxpayer costs for public assistance and criminal justice, and more. However, the research made clear that many early childhood education programs do not have that same return on investment. The key is ensuring that the programs include essential ingredients for maximizing students’ success.

- Details on many other research studies on pre-k are outlined in our policy brief, “The Research is Clear: High-Quality Pre-k Pays Off.” The brief includes research from around the country and here in Texas, including one analysis showing that in a single year pre-k reduced statewide spending on special education and grade retention by $142 million.

- A multi-year evaluation of the Tennessee pre-k program showed that kids in pre-k were more ready for Kindergarten than their peers who did not attend pre-k, but some effects did not sustain several years into elementary school. In response, legislators and the Governor championed investment in pre-k and passed legislation to boost quality monitoring and teacher professional development. The Tennessee study reminds us that kids and communities will get the greatest benefit from pre-k programs that have high quality standards, effective teachers, strong quality monitoring, and are aligned well with the K-3 curriculum.

It’s clear that investing in pre-k is a smart policy strategy. Communities all across Texas want to partner with the state to ensure more children experience high quality pre-k and get the strong foundation they need to succeed in school. Now it’s time for state policymakers to fully fund HB 4 pre-k grants, sustain the investment over time, and continue to improve quality standards. If they do, more Texas kids will be successful in school and Texas taxpayers will get a big bang for their buck. High quality pre-k is one of the smartest public investments we can make, and our state’s future depends on it.