Lege update: Pre-K bills caught in legislature

San Marcos CISD changes provide lesson in adaptation From left: Gavino Romero, Kimberly Leyva Aviles and Audrena Gaitan work at a coloring station in a San Marcos CISD pre-K classroom. The district’s pre-K program is currently housed in Hernandez Elementary, but a dedicated pre-K campus is slated to open in the spring semester at 1225 Hwy. 123.[/caption]

A bill filed by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would provide universal prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds and some 3-year-olds in the state of Texas, if it survives the lawmaking process. Under the state's current rules, children 4 years old and younger qualify for free pre-K if they are economically disadvantaged or have limited English proficiency.

Senate Bill 23 was referred to the Education Committee on Jan. 26. It has yet to be heard in committee.

"Many years ago, children were expected to learn to read in first grade," Zaffirini said. "Now children are expected to know how to read when they start first grade. By offering quality pre-K programs we enable the children to learn to read and to start first grade on a level playing field."

Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, is the chair of the education committee. Taylor will decide whether the bill is heard in committee.

San Marcos CISD opened the new Bonham Prekindergarten School in February. Previously the district's pre-K program was housed at Hernandez Elementary. The district will begin allowing families to pay tuition to send their children to the pre-K program. Tuition will cost $504 per month, district officials said.

House Bill 4, which would provide additional funding to school districts that have already implemented a high quality pre-K program, was approved in the house on April 9. Sen. Zaffirini and Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, will carry SB 801, the senate version of the bill.

Passage of HB 4 would mean additional funding for the existing San Marcos CISD pre-K program, Superintendent Mark Eads said.

Grace Mueller, a former president of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said the group is in favor of bills that strengthen early childhood education throughout the state.

"Anything that promotes pre-K is important to us because if we can have a firmer foundation there, it makes it easier on everybody after that," Mueller said. "If kids start behind they stay behind a lot of times. Establishing a more inclusive pre-K bill and adding money like House Bill 4 talks about, that would be something we definitely stand behind."

Michelle Hamilton, director of the Center for P-16 Initiatives, a Texas State University program that looks at educational outcomes for students in pre-K through college, said universal pre-K guarantees a level playing field for all students. Because many families live slightly above the economically disadvantaged threshold but cannot afford to pay tuition, they miss out on high quality pre-K for their children.

"The only way to equalize education for all students is to provide a universal pre-K program for all students," Hamilton said.

Zaffirini said two of her top areas of focus are early childhood education and higher education. The two are linked, she said.

"What's the connection? I believe that the best way to succeed in higher education is to start strong," Zaffirini said. "If a child starts behind, that child is always, always going to have to work hard to keep up."

Community Impact Newspaper will be providing updates on bills throughout the legislative session. Check back on Friday, April 17, for an update on SB 21 and HB 100, which would fund construction projects at university campuses throughout the state.