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by MORGAN SMITH

6:17 p.m. THURSDAY, MAY 7: A key early education bill backed by Gov. Greg Abbott has cleared both chambers of the Legislature, with the Texas Senate on Thursday capping funding for the pre-kindergarten grant program at $130 million and approving it 25 to 6.

The money is intended to coax school districts into improving existing pre-K programs, which the state currently funds for students from low-income, English-language learning, military and foster families. The measure offers up to $1,500 per child to school districts that agree to implement certain teacher quality and curriculum measures over the next two years.

The House must decide whether to accept changes made by the Senate before the bill can head to Abbott’s desk.

The six votes against House Bill 4 all came from Republicans: Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, Van Taylor of Plano, Konni Burton of Colleyville, Don Huffines of Dallas, Bob Hall of Edgewood and Brandon Creighton of Conroe.

“I applaud Governor Abbott’s efforts to enhance the pre-kindergarten program for families that do not have the luxury of keeping their child in a home-learning environment, but our current pre-kindergarten funding level of $1.5 billion is more than sufficient to reach that goal,” Creighton said in a statement after the vote.

The bill has encountered opposition from a number of conservative groups that view the program as a step toward requiring pre-K for every child.

The bill’s supporters — including its Senate sponsor, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels — have repeatedly stated that is not the case.

“I want to send a clear message that these dollars are for quality, not expansion,” Campbell said as she introduced the legislation on the floor.

The plan has received lukewarm reviews from early education policy experts, who say it stops short of promoting two reforms they view as fundamental to quality pre-K: class-size limits and full-day programs.

Critics also say school districts may not make long-term investments in higher standards because the funding comes in the form of grants that are subject to the whims of the Legislature, rather than through relatively more stable school finance formulas.

The $130 million likely to be included in the final budget for the plan is a little over half of the $208 million the Legislature cut in 2011 from grants that helped districts expand their pre-K programs.

Shortly after the vote on Thursday, Abbott issued a statement praising the Senate’s action.

“Today’s vote is essential to implementing high-quality education standards for Texas pre-K students, providing them with the tools necessary to succeed, and improving accountability and transparency measures for participating pre-K programs across the state,” he said. “Working together we can – and will – strengthen the foundation for the future success of our state’s early education system for generations to come.”

PHOTO: State Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican whose district includes western Hays County, at a Senate Education Committee hearing on April 9. PHOTO by BOB DAEMMRICH

PHOTO: State Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican whose district includes western Hays County, at a Senate Education Committee hearing on April 9. PHOTO by BOB DAEMMRICH

Earlier

5:45 p.m. THURSDAY, MAY 7: This just in from Amelia Chasse, a spokesperson for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott:

“The process of elevating our state’s education system to be first in the nation begins in the critical early learning years of Texas children and I applaud the Texas Senate for getting us one step closer to ensuring HB 4 becomes law. Today’s vote is essential to implementing high-quality education standards for Texas pre-K students, providing them with the tools necessary to succeed, and improving accountability and transparency measures for participating pre-K programs across the state. Working together we can – and will – strengthen the foundation for the future success of our state’s early education system for generations to come.”

11:42 a.m. THURSDAY, MAY 7: After surviving Tea Party-backed opposition in the House, the early education bill that Gov. Greg Abbott has called his top priority this session could face its final test in the Texas Senate as early as Thursday.

The legislation sets aside $130 million over two years for an early education grant program, offering up to $1,500 per child to eligible school districts that agree to implement certain teacher quality and curriculum measures in their pre-kindergarten programs. House Bill 4 is primarily intended to coax districts into improving existing programs, not necessarily to expand state-funded pre-K, which currently includes students from low-income, English-language learning, military and foster families.

Until recently, most criticism directed at the plan cast it as too modest.

While heartened by the governor’s interest, early education advocates gave the plan largely tepid reviews at the start of the session, hoping it would be strengthened as it advanced.

But it now appears unlikely that the bill will change significantly, or include the two reforms — class-size limits and full-day programs — many view as fundamental to quality pre-K.

Critics also say school districts may not make long-term investments in higher standards because the funding comes in the form of grants subject to the whims of the Legislature, rather than through relatively more stable school finance formulas.

The $130 million likely to be included in the final budget for the plan is a little over half of the $208 million the Legislature cut in 2011 from grants that helped districts expand their pre-K programs.

And if the measure does succeed, it will be over the objections of conservatives in the Legislature. The effort to improve the quality of pre-K in Texas has become the latest target of conservative interest groups seeking to weed out so-called Republicans-in-name-only from true believers within the GOP.

Its opponents have questioned research showing the effectiveness of early education, and view the program as a step toward requiring pre-K for every child.

“A lot of children at that age should be at home learning from their parents. I just don’t agree that the government should be coming forward and taking responsibility, especially when it comes to children,” said state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, shortly before he voted against the proposal in the House.

When it came time for the bill’s Senate hearing, two Republicans on the chamber’s education panel, Don Huffines of Dallas and Van Taylor of Plano, voted against it. They expressed reservations about its necessity and asked for more evidence showing the long-term benefits of pre-K.

In an interview Wednesday, Taylor said his questions about the bill remained.

“I’ll certainly listen to how it’s amended on the floor. It wasn’t changed in committee, and I haven’t heard any answers on which school districts are not doing what’s in the bill,” he said. “If you are trying to go somewhere, you have to know where you are starting.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick himself has kept quiet publicly about the bill. But when it was set for a hearing, he replaced longtime pre-K advocate Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, with conservative favorite Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, as the Senate sponsor of the bill.

The Senate hearing came after tensions flared between Abbott, Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus at a weekly breakfast meeting one day after a group of Patrick’s grassroots advisers released a letter calling the plan “a threat to parental rights.”

“We are experimenting at great cost to taxpayers with a program that removes our young people from homes and half-day religious pre-schools and mothers’ day out programs to a Godless environment with only evidence showing absolutely NO LONG TERM BENEFITS beyond the 1st grade,” read the letter, which Patrick said he had not seen before it was made public.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, the Houston Republican carrying the bill, said in an interview last week that he had not spoken directly to Patrick about how the legislation might fare in the Senate.

“He knows how important it is to the governor. And the governor didn’t ask for many things,” Huberty said. “I’m confident that they will pass it – I hope they do.”

Huberty attributed conservative opposition to a misunderstanding of what the legislation set out to do.

The bill would help improve the quality of existing pre-K programs by setting quality standards, he said, not expand them.

“We worked very closely with the governor’s staff. This was his number one item, number one priority,” he said. “The same people who are criticizing the program in a sense are criticizing the governor. And I would think that most of us would agree he that he is a very conservative man.” — MORGAN SMITH/THE TEXAS TRIBUNE

MORGAN SMITH reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.

COVER: Children at the Children’s Learning Center in Commerce. PHOTO via TEXAS A&M-COMMERCE

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