By MARY JALONICK AND LINDA EVANS published in The Dallas Morning News
Michael Williams — the outspoken and charismatic Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency — announced recently that the Texas Education Agency would be applying for new funds available from the U.S. Department of Education to support pre-kindergarten quality in Texas.
As the head of the state agency with the biggest budget, Commissioner Williams is responsible for billions of dollars representing roughly 40 percent of the money the state spends each year. He is a proponent of market-driven solutions to improve educational outcomes and supports many of the education reforms proposed by the most conservative members of “The 181,” as he likes to call the Texas Legislature.
As partners and investors in supporting pre-kindergarten and early childhood education efforts, we applaud and thank Commissioner Williams for applying for these funds. In response to budget cuts to public education in 2011, 25 foundations and philanthropists from across Texas joined together to create the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium (TEGAC). The Consortium’s goal is to support objective research and promote smart policies for improving public education in Texas. In fact, every year much of the more than $2 billion invested annually by Texas philanthropists is directed toward public education.
Like Texas taxpayers, as philanthropic organizations we expect a real return on our investments. Therefore, we choose to support pre-kindergarten. The research is clear. High-quality pre-kindergarten improves short-term and long-term educational outcomes, narrows the achievement gap between socio-economic groups and reduces taxpayer costs.
In order to invest in what works, you have to understand what is currently happening. However, little information is collected about the quality of pre-kindergarten programs offered by school districts. This year, through the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, foundations from across Texas joined together to support objective research on Texas pre-kindergarten programs.
According to Children at Risk — the nonpartisan organization that contacted almost 1,100 school districts directly to ask about the quality of their pre-kindergarten programs — Texas school districts and the local taxpayers who support them believe in pre-kindergarten education and they believe that the quality of pre-kindergarten matters. Amazingly, the state currently does not collect this information despite annually investing hundreds of millions of dollars in pre-kindergarten.
The report reveals that across the state, local school boards are choosing to invest in the cornerstones of pre-kindergarten quality: manageable class sizes, teachable adult-to-student ratios and full-day pre-kindergarten. However, due to cuts in formula funding, many districts are supporting pre-kindergarten by cutting elsewhere, spending reserve funds and implementing other non-sustainable funding strategies.
Quality pre-kindergarten programs should be expanded and encouraged. The voters of Fort Worth approved a massive pre-kindergarten bond last year. The Houston business community is embracing a citywide effort called Early Matters to improve pre-kindergarten class sizes and ratios and to promote full-day pre-kindergarten. A Dallas public/private partnership is working to boost pre-kindergarten enrollment. An Austin mayoral candidate is running on a platform largely based on expanding pre-kindergarten, modeled after San Antonio’s successful model. Politicians ranging from gubernatorial candidates Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis have come out forcefully in support of quality pre-kindergarten. A pre-kindergarten groundswell is building and Texans of all kinds and from all kinds of cities and towns want action.
Pre-kindergarten is not a conservative or liberal issue. Republicans and Democrats alike are coming out strongly for pre-kindergarten. Pre-kindergarten is not a partisan issue; it is a future issue. Texans clearly want quality pre-kindergarten.
If we want to reduce the costs of remedial education and spend our tax dollars wisely, we should support Commissioner Williams and his efforts to bring federal pre-kindergarten funds home to Texas.
Mary Jalonick is president of the Dallas Foundation. Linda Evans is president of the Meadows Foundation in Dallas.
Other members of the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium:
Greg Kozmetsky, chairman and president, RGK Foundation, Austin
Linda McDavitt, president, Genevieve and Ward Orsinger Foundation, San Antonio
Victoria Rico, trustee, George W. Brackenridge Foundation, San Antonio
Beau Ross, Kathryn and Beau Ross Charitable Fund, Austin
Caroline Sabin, executive director, Powell Foundation, Houston
Jennifer Sampson, CEO, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas
Clay Stribling, president, Amarillo Area Foundatin, Amarillo
Susan Thompson, VP-grants, San Antonio Area Foundation, San Antonio
Katherine Wright, trustee, Wright Family Foundation, Austin