This week students from across the city returned to school. At Waco Independent School District that means kids in pre-kindergarten too. But this year’s a bit different. A bill passed during the state’s last legislative session will send more than $116 million dollars to 578 districts and charter schools in the state. The money is intended to boost pre-kindergarten programs in the state.
Waco Independent School District will see nearly $650,000 in funding for its preK program over the next two years. This year alone they’ll receive just under half of that amount. In order for a school to have been eligible for the funding, districts and charters needed to meet certain standards like maintaining a strong curriculum base and monitoring academic performance, which Mary Konrad says Waco ISD is already doing. Konrad is the district's early childhood education coordinator.
“But new with the grant are teacher qualifications," Konrad says. "The difference with that is that, our teachers are already certified to teach in our early childhood classrooms, but the grant is asking that they’re also qualified so that they have more coursework in just early childhood."
In this area, pre-kindergarten teachers must not only be certified under the Texas Education Code but have at least one of several additional qualifications. This includes things like having a Child Development Associate credential or completing 150 hours of professional development that centers on the state’s updated pre-kindergarten guidelines.
"When it looks like it could be daunting, the number of hours they want teachers to have in early childhood if they don’t have an early childhood degree," Konrad says. "So that was my big job yesterday, just allaying their fears and that we have time for them to meet the qualifications for them to be a pre-k teacher and we will absolutely support them in that."
That support, according to district officials, includes offering course work throughout the school year for teachers to meet these additional qualifications. These requirements and funds are all part of House Bill 4, which Governor Greg Abbott signed into law back in May. Enhancing early education has been on the Gov.’s radar since the campaign trail. He even addressed it in his state of the state address, recorded by the Texas Tribune.
"To improve our schools we must begin by building a strong foundation from the very beginning," Abbott said. "Our goal should be to ensure that all students in Texas are performing at grade level in reading and math by the time they finish the third grade.”
“To begin that process my budget provides additional funding for schools that adopt high-quality pre-k programs in the state of Texas," Abbott said.
Critics of the bill saw it as an expansion of state funded pre-k, and others said it simply wasn’t enough.
Ultimately, the bill sent more than $116 million to 578 districts and charters in the state. That grant money from can be used to improve the quality of a district or charter’s pre-kindergarten program but can't replace existing funding. For example, the state already funds half-day pre-kindergarten programs across Texas. Some districts could potentially use the grant to fund the second half of daily instruction for pre-kindergarten, but at Waco ISD that’s not an option. That’s because the district’s board already funds the additional hours needed to provide a full-day pre-kindergarten program. But all in all, Konrad says the grant wont necessarily change or grow the district's pre-kindergarten program, but will strengthen it and allow them to do some of the things they’ve already been doing -- just better.