Magazine article The American Prospect

High Enrollment, Low Standards: The Bad, the Ugly, and Texas Pre-K

Magazine article The American Prospect

High Enrollment, Low Standards: The Bad, the Ugly, and Texas Pre-K

Article excerpt

For a state with an infamously threadbare social safety net, Texas is surprisingly good at getting kids into prekindergarten. With more than 227,000 children enrolled, Texas has the largest publicly funded pre-K system in the country. Families qualify if they're economically disadvantaged or if a parent is in the military; children who have been in foster care, do not speak English, or are homeless are eligible as well. Any district with 15 eligible students must have a program. With 51 percent of four-year-olds covered, Texas appears to be doing well when it comes to providing pre-K. That is, until you consider what these programs look like.

By almost every measure, Texas has one of the lowest-quality pre-K programs in the country. The state offers funding for only three hours a day; it did away with the funding for full-day programs. In addition, Texas places no limits on class size for pre-kindergarteners. (By comparison, Head Start requires a teacher and an aide per 15 three- to four-year-olds, and the state mandates a 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio for kindergarten through fourth grade.) A recent survey of Central Austin school districts turned up one school that had a pre-K class of 26 children presided over by one teacher; most teachers are lucky if they have 22 students.

Anyone who has ever spent time with four-year-olds knows that the challenges teachers face under these circumstances are daunting. Rebecca Palacios, who taught pre-K in Texas for 24 years, says with only one teacher in a classroom of 20 or more, any issue--a tantrum, an illness--can uproot the entire class. "If one kid throws up, who's going to stay with the other 21?" she says. "You have to find a floater teacher. You only go to the restroom at lunchtime."

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), which surveys pre-K programs throughout the nation, Texas meets only two of ten benchmarks for quality. The state, for instance, does not require that teachers specialize in early childhood education or that programs provide auxiliary services for children, like vision or hearing exams. Spending per child in Texas ranks among the lowest in the country, which means there are few funds to go toward teacher professional development. …

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