by Alexa Ura, Texas Tribune
Announcing the first of his education policy proposals Monday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott called for reforming pre-kindergarten programs before expanding access, saying that additional funding should be tied to academic outcomes.
Abbott’s plan, which was unveiled in Weslaco, proposes providing an additional $1,500 per student on top of the funding the state already provides for half-day pre-K programs if the program meets performance requirements set by the state.
“Expanding the population of students served by existing state-funded programs without addressing the quality of existing prekindergarten instruction or how it is being delivered would be an act of negligence and waste,” Abbott’s policy proposal reads.
Abbott’s proposal comes with a $118 million price tag in the 2016-17 biennium and includes a focus on annual reviews for children beginning school in 2016.
His pre-K proposal flies in the face of state Sen. Wendy Davis’ proposal for increased access to full-day pre-kindergarten programs in February.
The Democratic gubernatorial contender’s plan, which proposes that school districts across the state offer full-day pre-K programs beyond the three hours a day the state already funds, pivots on her push for further restoration of $5.4 billion in spending cuts made by the Legislature in 2011, which included a cut of more than $200 million to the state’s Pre-K Early Start Grant program. The fund, which the Legislature created in 2000, had funded pre-K expansion in schools looking to extend their programs.
While the Legislature restored $30 million in funding for the program in 2013, Davis has called for the restoration of more funds and has called on Abbott to settle an ongoing school finance lawsuit, which was prompted by the cuts.
The lawsuit was filed against the state by a coalition of more than two-thirds of Texas school districts, which claim the state’s funding system is inadequate. As Texas’ attorney general, Abbott has represented the state in the lawsuit.
In the proposal he announced Monday, Abbott said that “very high quality” statewide half-day pre-K must be achieved before the Legislature mandates full-day programs, leaving the decision to expand pre-K programs to local school districts, which can do so through federal funding or municipal bond packages.
On Monday, Davis was quick to respond to Abbott’s call for reforming pre-K instead of expanding access.
“The fact that Greg Abbott thinks it’s a ‘waste’ to ensure all Texas children have access to pre-K explains why he’s still fighting to defend nearly $200 million in cuts to pre-K in the courtroom,” Davis said in a statement. “Abbott’s plan of pre-K for the chosen few but not for all hardworking Texas children would set our state backwards at a time we need to prepare for a 21st-century economy.”
Earlier in the day, Davis also attacked Abbott before he released his proposal, calling his policies hypocritical given his defense of the state in court as part of the school finance lawsuit.
The Abbott campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Davis’ statements.
Abbott’s plan also focuses on improving literacy and math scores in Texas schools through professional development and the creation of teacher “academies” that mirror the Texas Reading Initiative, created by then-Gov. George W. Bush, to help boost performance scores by providing additional training for teachers who teach kindergarten to third grade at a cost of $15 million per year.
Abbott is expected to release additional education policy proposals related to public education and higher education in the coming weeks.