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Battle For Governor Shines A Light On Pre-K

Dallas and Fort Worth school districts are ramping up efforts to enroll more eligible children in pre-kindergarten.  The push comes as gubernatorial candidates Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis spar over who has a better plan for early education. 

Inside the pre-kindergarten class at Dallas’ Good Street Learning Center, it might seem like the 4-year-olds keeping time with rhythm sticks are just playing a game.

But as they follow teacher Sara Tinsley, tapping two sticks together, they’re developing motor skills and learning to follow instructions for changing up the beat and paying attention.

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
DISD Pre-K Teacher Sara Tinsley prepares four-year olds for kindergarten in her classroom at Dallas’ Good Street Learning Center.

As they put the sticks away they practice counting, then the alphabet. Tinsley gives each of her 13 students a card with a letter on it

“Now, I want them to tell me 'A' says ‘ah’ and 'apple' starts with 'A,'” she explains.

For most of her pint-sized scholars, this lesson is a breeze.

One little girl dressed in the bright red shirt worn by all the children proudly identifies “I”, mouths the phonetic sound for the letter, then a word that begins with that letter -- a four-syllable word, at that.

“Invisible!  Great word,” Tinsley says.

Preparing children for reading the following year in kindergarten is a primary goal for this pre-K class.

“They also learn their colors.  They learn their shapes.  They learn number recognition and quantity,” the teacher says. She also describes math exercises that include addition and subtraction.

Tinsley follows a special curriculum approved by the state. That’s required for school districts like Dallas that want to receive state funding for their pre-K programs.

But Texas policy for pre-K doesn’t mandate a specific course of study, and this is just one of four states that don’t require teachers to measure pre-K student achievement and report it to the state.

The Greg Abbott Plan

Abbott, the Republican attorney general who's running for governor, says he’d change that.

“The problem with most taxpayer-funded pre-K programs is that they provide no provable, lasting, measurable results,” Abbott said as he rolled out his early childhood education plan in San Antonio.

Under Abbott’s plan, districts could continue to receive the same amount of state money for providing the required half-day of instruction, free of charge, to qualified students.  That includes 4-year olds from the lowest-income families, homeless children and kids with parents on active military duty.

Abbott would offer extra money to districts that meet what he calls a yet-to- be designed “gold standard.” He says it would include a rigorous curriculum and a way of measuring and reporting student achievement.

What Abbott doesn’t call for is an expansion of pre-K. Davis, his Democratic opponent, does.

The Wendy Davis Plan

“I will ensure every Texas student has access to quality, full-day Pre-K,” Davis said in a press conference as she contrasted her pre-K plan with Abbott’s.

She wants to increase the state’s three-hour, half-day requirement to a full day or seven hours of pre-K.  She cites research showing children in quality programs are more likely to read on grade level and eventually graduate.

Davis also wants to make pre-K available to children from families who earn a little more and are willing to pay a sliding fee based on their income.  Her campaign says that would allow children from a family of four with earnings up to $43,500 to enroll.

Abbott says Davis’s plan is too costly.  She says available federal money and an expected surplus in state revenue next year would pay the tab.

“It’s time for Texas to support investments like this, and we can cover full-day pre-K for $750 million annually,” Davis said during a February speech in San Antonio. 

Testing 4-Year Olds?

One of the candidates’ biggest slugfests over pre-K has focused on Abbott’s call for assessing what 4-year-olds have learned and how that would be done.  A paragraph in his 22-page plan says standardized testing is one way of doing that. 

Davis has highlighted that reference, claiming Abbott would subject 4-year-olds to the kind of state-mandated tests used to rate schools and determine whether teachers are doing a good job.

Abbott insists he doesn’t want that kind of testing for pre-K and says it was only mentioned as one of many ways academic achievement can be measured.

Dallas teacher Sara Tinsley isn’t required to test her kids. But she does, though they may not know it.

“It’s a fun game time to sit down with Miss Tinsley one on one,” she explains.  “I’ll ask them their alphabet. I’ll ask them their numbers and they get to show me what they’ve learned.”

Tinsley, who’s taught in public and private schools, is so passionate about the benefits of early education that she goes even further than either candidate.  She believes the state should mandate pre-K for all Texas children -- and not single out the poor.

A report by the Pew Charitable Trusts says 49 percent of children who don’t recognize letters of the alphabet when they enter kindergarten are middle income or higher.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.