Dallas’ pre-K proposal mostly benefits children who don’t need pre-K

In a new Dallas ISD policy that trustees will vote on Jan. 28, the only significant change to the district’s pre-K efforts would be that English-speaking, affluent families whose children don’t qualify for free pre-K (and, statistically, show up fully prepared for kindergarten) would be able to pay tuition for empty seats.

That’s not the sound bite district leaders are touting, nor is it the crux of DISD’s ramp-up over the last two years, which has doubled pre-K enrollment and increased readiness among economically disadvantaged children, who are statistically unprepared for kindergarten, by 13 percentage points.

THIR-TEEN. That’s huge. There is no way to overstate how significant this gain is, especially in such a short period of time. No other acronymic initiative has produced those kinds of results.

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And yet, though Dallas trustees and administrators know this full well, they spent December’s board briefing arguing over whether fully funding their own pre-K strategy is a good idea.

Alan Cohen, the assistant superintendent who heads the district’s early childhood initiatives, has told us, “There’s no way around this —excellence is expensive.” And the general consensus is that Cohen is the main reason Dallas has made such significant strides.

It is Cohen’s plan that calls for adding $6 million each year, over the next decade, to the pre-K budget. Ultimately this would mean spending $60 million more on pre-K than it spends now. The endgame would be to have every Dallas ISD kindergartner reading at a third-grade level by third-grade (a mere 30 percent of students do now) and, therefore, statistically much more likely to succeed in school and to graduate.

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So Trustee Miguel Solis wrote a policy that would require the district to provide this funding — “no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Solis says. Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, however, balked at this demand. He argued there isn’t enough wiggle room in the district’s annual $1.8 billion budget to find $60 million, even if it’s the most constructive new tool in the district’s belt.

So Solis sat down with Hinojosa and wrote a new policy that states pre-K is a priority but leaves it up to administrators to budget for it, rather than forcing them to. He says he did this in an attempt “to get the balance right between what we mandate to the superintendent and what we give him flexibility on.”

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“I would have liked the policy to have more meat in tying the policy to the budgeting,” Solis says, but even so, he adds, “the policy still has a significant amount of teeth.”

“I want to make sure we’re not just paying lip service to this idea of expanding pre-K,” he says.

The compromise policy morphed into a directive rather than an imperative, but Solis remains optimistic, partly because of language in the policy that requires an annual conversation between administrators and trustees on how pre-K will be funded in the coming year — which is not the norm for most budget items — and because he expects that DISD’s pre-K efforts will continue to show substantial gains.

New funding from the state will cover DISD’s pre-K expansion next year. Strategic cuts from “programs we know we’re not getting the greatest return on our investment” should cover it the following year, Solis says. By the third year, “this conversation around budget really gets serious,” he says.

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“We’re not going to be able to identify $45-$50 million from our general operating fund without some sort of support, either from the state or from the community,” he says. “If we build a base of empirical evidence that our pre-K is continuing to work, we may be able to go to the community and ask for help from a funding standpoint.”

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In the meantime, there is one new funding source the proposed policy would tap — parents who can afford pre-K. Though the district doesn’t have enough pre-K seats for children who qualify, it still isn’t able to fill the seats it does have since pre-K is a new and non-mandatory phenomenon, like full-day kindergarten was in the ’80s. So the policy instructs administrators to outline a plan that, once eligible families have a chance to enroll their children, could fill some of the leftover seats with paying customers. (The tuition fee is to-be-determined.)

This means parents of 4-year-olds who want their children to get a head start at Rosemont’s beloved primary campus, for example, might have that chance.

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Would this actually help pre-K funding? It wouldn’t hurt. The main thing it does is “give supply to a demand that is out there,” as Solis puts it, and perhaps it would act as early recruitment for the middle- and upper-class families the district continues to lose.

Because it doesn’t look like DISD will be able to fund its pre-K strategy unless families who don’t need it are willing to provide the political and financial support.

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