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Gov. Greg Abbott signs pre-k bill into law

HB4 sets standards for state-wide, high-quality instruction

Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 4 into law Thursday, creating a standard for a high-quality prekindergarten program throughout all Texas public school districts.

The law requires each school district with at least 15 eligible students to offer a free, half-day prekindergarten program and promises additional funding — up to $1,500 per child — will become available in the 2015-16 school year.

However, in order to qualify for any state dollars, the public school districts and open-enrollment charter schools must meet many new requirements that define “high-quality” pre-k education.

“They’re labeling it ‘high-quality’ because of all the new guidelines they’ve established for our prekindergarten students,” Charlie Jehlen, president elect of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals, said Thursday. “To qualify for any additional funding, the pre-k programs must implement a TEA-approved curriculum and a parent engagement plan that will increase parents’ involvement in their children’s early education.

“The teachers must measure the progress of students — not just allow them to run around for a half-day, but to receive a measurable amount of instruction — and the teachers must become certified and receive a child development associate credential.”

State Rep. Joe Deshotel said the new state-wide standards outlined in Abbott’s flagship education initiative will prove a “significant investment in our future,” ensuring the Texas workforce remains prepared and competitive.

“This is a big step forward for the children and parents of Southeast Texas and across the state,” Deshotel, who co-authored HB4, said in a press release Thursday. “I am honored the governor entrusted me to carry this important piece of legislation that will improve access to education and strengthen our economy.”

Districts and open-enrollment charter schools will be required to provide a free, half-day prekindergarten program if at least 15 children meet the following four requirements, according to the House Research Organization:

• Their families earn less than 185 percent of the amount stipulated in federal poverty guidelines

• They are unable to speak or comprehend English

• They are homeless or in foster care

• Their parents are on active military duty

“The hard thing to understand is even this new pre-k program is not actually for every child,” Jehlen said, “but it will almost certainly impact every public school district in the state. Between the four criteria — especially with the rule for pre-school aged children who are unable to speak or to understand English — this will affect every district.”

Stuart Kieschnick, Nederland Independent School District assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the new eligibility requirements will open up NISD’s pre-k program to more students.

“It’s going to be a major shift for how we do things right now, because we have a limited list of students that attend our half-day prekindergarten now,” Kieschnick said Thursday. “We’re going to have to look at the funding qualifications and determine how our schools will handle the additional students.”

Staci Gary, Port Neches-Groves ISD elementary curriculum and pre-school coordinator, said any additional funding toward pre-k instruction will benefit students and districts throughout the state.

“We already have a high-quality pre-k program, so additional funds will definitely help us further our own standards of instruction,” Gary said Thursday. “We haven’t seen any standards that we don’t already include in our program yet, so this is a great day for PN-GISD. We’ll remain a half-day program, and we already have a strategic parent involvement plan. This will help us sustain our existing program.”

Mark Porterie, Port Arthur ISD superintendent, said he’s excited to review PAISD’s program to ensure it meets every new requirement set forth by the state. In addition to its Wheatley School of Early Childhood, the Port Arthur ISD offers a full-day prekindergarten program.

“We’re very happy for education in the state of Texas,” Porterie said Thursday. “With the higher standards we have in the upper grades, it is only natural — and tremendously important — to raise the quality and the standards of your early education.

“We’re going to review our operations to make sure we meet every requirement and conform to what the state wants us to do. I haven’t seen anything that doesn’t match our own standards now, but if we find something we don’t already include in our program, we will address those issues.

“I’m just glad HB4 got signed into law. We are more than willing to do anything we can to improve the quality of education for our pre-k students, and any time you can get more funding to your students, that’s always a good thing.”

Twitter: @crhenderson90