Littlest scholars miss out as pre-K cut in many districts
With public school districts facing tighter budgets in recent years, some of the Austin area's youngest students are feeling the pinch.
Pre-kindergarten programs, which have fewer requirements related to class sizes and length of day, are one place districts cut when trying to balance their budgets.
The Georgetown school district will undergo one of the biggest shifts in this area, switching from a full-day program at six campuses to a half-day program at three this fall after losing about $275,000 in state money. The number of teachers will be about 10, compared with 24 in 2010-11.
Cheryl Lang, the district's executive director of elementary education, said that after lots of thought and discussion, the district determined that even though some parents might not be able to participate, the program could still provide the same three hours of core instructional time that it had previously.
"Obviously, if we could support the program that we had in the past, we would stay with that," she said. "But with this and all the cuts, we were trying to look at options that would have the least impact on instruction."
The program reductions come as a result of the state Legislature's $4 billion in cuts to education during the 2011 session. They included the elimination of a $200 million state grant program that supported the extension of pre-kindergarten to a full day. The state still pays for half-day pre-K for certain eligible students.
A study released this year by the group Children at Risk, citing Texas Education Agency data, said that since the state cuts, school districts statewide have eliminated more than 1,100 pre-K teaching positions.
State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, long a proponent of pre-K, says that next session he will push again for more support.
"Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, economists, and even military and police leaders have looked at the data and concluded that quality pre-K is one of the most effective strategies available for putting at-risk kids on a path to succeed in school and life," he said.
"It appears that the state's revenue crisis is over, so next session we should be in a position to start undoing some of the cuts to education. I would put pre-K at the top of the list for restoring funding."
Some groups have concerns about the cost and the effect on businesses, including day care providers that offer pre-K.
Instead of full-day programs, some groups, including the Texas Public Policy Foundation, have pushed stronger private partnerships in creating half-day programs.
Specifically, the foundation has called on lawmakers to better examine student outcomes in such programs, increase spending transparency and transform current early childhood education spending into grants that allow parents to choose the appropriate preschool setting for their children.
Cuts in Central Texas
Locally, Georgetown was one of the few district of its size that provided a full-time program. Austin and other large urban school districts offer full-time pre-K, but most local districts have only half-day programs.
Some have made smaller adjustments in recent years.
■ At the start of the 2011-12 school year, Del Valle turned a full-day pre-K at two campuses into a half-day program, resulting in a decrease of enrollment from 641 to 594 students. The program went from 20 pre-K teachers in 2010-11 to 16 in 2011-12.
■ Leander has also cut pre-K teachers, increasing class sizes. Though the overall budget didn't change much, Leander's pre-K enrollment is expected to go up by about 100 students this fall and went from having pre-K at 17 locations in 2010-11 to 16 locations in 2011-12 and from having 10.2 to 12.3 students per class.
■ In Pflugerville, where the district's enrollment in pre-K went up by about 50 students in 2011-12 while its budget dropped more than $400,000, the district has been able to maintain staffing ratios and class sizes while increasing locations by partnering with private child care providers.
Laura Koenig, the director of school readiness for E3 Alliance, a group of education and business leaders aiming to improve education in Central Texas, said local research has shown the benefit of pre-K.
The collaborative's kindergarten readiness study found that children who attended a pre-K program were twice as likely to be ready for kindergarten. The study, which looked at the 10 school districts that make up the Austin Community College service area, also found that districts could increase enrollment by 18 percent by going from a half-day to a full-day program, giving parents who work the ability to send their children.