Davis, Abbott battlefield moves to early education

AUSTIN — With a busy elementary school playground as a backdrop, public education advocates argued Tuesday for the importance of full-day day pre-Kindergarten — in particular for children from low-income and English-learning families.

“Getting to kids early at age three and four with high quality education works,” said Louis Malfaro, secretary-treasurer of the Texas American Federation of Teachers. “We should be funding it here in Texas.”

It’s an area in which those who gathered Tuesday morning in front of the Lucy Read Pre-K School believe the Republican candidate for governor’s vision falls short. Representatives from the Texas AFT, Texas State Teachers Association and Education Austin voiced unanimous disapproval with a set of policy proposals for early education released by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Monday.

“Education for the kids I taught is not a waste,” said Montserrat Garibay, a former pre-K teacher and current vice president of Education Austin.

The characterization of “waste” criticized by the morning’s speakers refers to a particular line in Abbott’s 26-page policy paper following a section casting doubt of the effectiveness of “universal prekindergarten.”

“While fostering early childhood development is an important educational goal, studies show that existing prekindergarten programs fail to produce lasting benefits,” the paper says. “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 proposes instead to create a “gold standard” for pre-K programs which “meet specified requirements in terms of curriculum, teacher quality, academic performance, and parental involvement.” Such programs would also be required to measure and track student progress and submit to an overall evaluation after five years. Schools which met the standard would receive an additional $1,500 per student. Abbott’s campaign says the plan’s estimated $118 million cost would be found in current funding.

“We don’t need Greg Abbott tinkering with pre-K as an excuse to deny the resources needed to expand the program,” said TSTA president Rita Haecker, who noted the attorney general’s continuing role in defending the state against a school finance lawsuit filed by school districts in response to the $5.4 billion in public education funding cut by the Republican-led Texas Legislature in 2011.

“It seems to be that he’s saying, ‘I’m willing to do something on a small scale and study this some more,’ when we have a very clear idea about what quality looks like and are impeded by a lack of resources,” said Malfaro, who argues that high standards and programs for measuring progress are already in place.

The three participating organizations voiced preference instead for the proposal released by the Democratic candidate for governor in February. State Sen. Wendy Davis’ proposals suggests offering statewide full-day pre-K. Families making more than 185 percent of the poverty level who wish to participate would be charged tuition on a sliding scale.

Abbott’s campaign released a video Tuesday afternoon accusing Davis of offering spending instead of solutions, and criticizing the candidate for not offering an estimate for the cost of her plan. Texans for Greg Abbott communications director Matt Hirsch released an accompanying statement offering his own comparison.

“As Greg Abbott travels across Texas to share his education plan — a detailed set of proposals that aim to make Texas number one in education — the substantive deficiencies and complete lack of fiscal responsibility in Sen. Wendy Davis’ plan are clearer than ever,” wrote Hirsch. “Her proposals lack substance, throw more money at the status quo, and she is unable or unwilling to tell Texas taxpayers how much her plan would cost. Sen. Davis does not have an education plan, she has a spending plan.”

Yet public education advocates overwhelmingly believe that substantially more funding is needed. After cutting $5.4 billion in 2011, the Texas Legislature returned some $3.4 billion in 2013.

“The state of Texas is going to go into the next legislative session with somewhere between eight and fifteen billion dollars in surplus,” said Malfaro. “We have money. The question is do we have the political will to invest the money?”

There won’t be any recess for this debate any time soon.

For Abbott’s plan, click here. For Davis’ plan, click here and here.

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