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Powell, others praise local pre-K effort

Houston Chronicle
September 26, 2014

By Ericka Mellon

A Houston-area coalition working to improve early childhood education and expand pre-kindergarten classes drew praise from former Secretary of State Colin Powell Friday.

"What you are doing is godly work," Powell told a crowd of business leaders, educators and others at Rice University. "What you are doing is vital work for the future of this country."

The group, called Early Matters, has a long way to go to secure an estimated $700 million so that all of Texas' disadvantaged 4-year-olds can attend full-day pre-K classes.

The coalition - supported by the city's leading business group, the Greater Houston Partnership - also is pushing for higher preschool standards, parent education through health care providers and teacher training.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, in short speeches, expressed general support for the early childhood initiative.

"Money is not sufficient, but it is necessary," Parker said. "So we're going to have to have hard conversations about how we fund what we need to do."

Parker said later that she did not intend to commit city funds to the effort.

Leaders of Early Matters have said they don't plan to turn to the city or county for significant funding in the short term. An effort last year to get a 1-cent tax increase on the Harris County ballot under an obscure law failed after Emmett said that approach wasn't legal.

"Early Matters is a program worthy of all our support," Emmett said Friday of the new initiative, "and we need to make sure that it bears fruit and actually becomes a reality."

$700 million price tag

Organizers of Early Matters, Jim Postl and Scott McClelland, have said that offering full-day pre-K to all the disadvantaged 4-year-olds in the state - including those from poor families and those with limited English skills - would cost an estimated $700 million.

The amount could go as high as $750 million, depending on student enrollment. That would double the amount the state now spends on pre-K.

The group estimates it would cost an extra $3,000 per student for the state to fund full-day classes instead of half-day ones.

'Children don't vote'

McClelland, president of H-E-B Houston, said the group wants state lawmakers to start by restoring the $170 million they previously cut from pre-K. That could affect an estimated 57,000 children.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find an elected official in Austin who doesn't speak out in favor of education," McClelland said. "But small children don't vote … [W]e have to speak up for those who are too small to speak up for themselves."

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has said he is considering applying for a federal pre-K grant that could net the state up to $30 million a year for four years.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, the state's attorney general, has proposed tying increased funding to pre-K programs that meet certain high standards. Under his proposal, qualifying districts could get an extra $1,500 per child.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, has made quality, full-day pre-K classes for disadvantaged children a priority. She also has proposed a sliding-scale tuition plan for wealthier families.

Some school districts, including Houston, Aldine and Spring Branch, already offer full-day pre-K.