A national study is emphasizing the advantages of offering pre-kindergarten services to all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Published by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, the study, “Enriching Children, Enriching the Nation,” indicates a “fully funded pre-K program for the most at-risk children would start to pay for itself in just six years - and in nine years, in the case of universal program serving all the nation’s children.”

“A high quality pre-K program should be an integral part of a larger comprehensive public investment in early childhood development that spans that critical time period of prenatal through age 5,” economist and study author Robert G. Lynch said of his findings.

The Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities agrees with Lynch’s findings, noting in a supportive press release, “High-quality early childhood education would ultimately reduce costs for criminal justice, child welfare and remedial ad special education, and increase income earned and taxes paid.”

Texas school districts are required to offer a half-day pre-K program if they have at least 15 eligible students who are at least 4 years of age. Districts have an option to extend pre-K services to 3-year-olds if at least 15 eligible students are identified. Children are considered eligible if they are economically disadvantaged, unable to speak and comprehend the English language or are homeless.

Another option offered districts allows them to charge tuition for an additional half-day for children eligible for the free half-day service. Tuition-based half-day and full-day services for non-eligible children also can be offered at a district’s discretion. The state’s education commissioner must approve any tuition charged under any of these scenarios.

“A school district’s pre-kindergarten program shall be designed to develop skills necessary for success in the regular public school curriculum, including language, mathematics and social skills,” according to the Texas Education Code, Chapter 29.

At this time, Waxahachie ISD offers the state-mandated, half-day pre-K for eligible 4-year-olds but does not offer a tuition-based or pre-K for 3-year-olds.

WISD does offer a Head Start program for eligible 4-year-olds through a grant with the Region 10 service center for the Texas Education Agency. Head Start serves those children with even greater needs economically through a comprehensive program that provides additional assistance, including home visits.

Judy Brewster, executive director of curriculum/instruction for WISD, said the district had four pre-kindergarten classes at Marvin Elementary and two Head Start classes at Dunaway Elementary this past school year.

Those numbers could fluctuate for the 2007-2008 school year depending on the number of students who register at the upcoming roundup set for 9 a.m. Monday, July 30, at Marvin Elementary.

Enrollment averages about 20 per classroom, which each have a teacher and an aide. Typically two of the pre-K classes meet in the morning, with two meeting in the afternoon. This past school year, two of the classes were bilingual, with two English-speaking. The Head Start program meets in the afternoon.

“Our pre-kindergarten program provides additional support to the qualifying students in building readiness skills for kindergarten,” Brewster said. “This program, along with Head Start, is a wonderful opportunity for students who, without this program, would enter school without the learning experiences for success.”

Center for Public Policy Priorities senior policy analyst Don Baylor describes pre-K as “smart economic development.”

“We think it’s a worthwhile investment when you talk about all of the major goals the state has,” he said. “You look at closing the gaps, and one of the ways you close the gaps is that you start kids as early as possible.”

Citing data from Lynch’s study, the center notes that an investment in universal pre-K in Texas would generate $75.9 billion in total benefits by 2050. A more targeted pre-K program that would focus on vulnerable populations would yield $37.8 billion in total benefits.

Baylor said there are concerns pre-K funding could again be on the chopping block in the next legislative session.

“This (the 80th) session was somewhat of an anomaly in recent Texas budget history in terms of funding being available for certain things,” he said, noting pre-K did receive a small increase in funding after initially being recommended for a $20 million cut by the Legislative Budget Board.

“Most expect a tightening of the belt in 2009 in terms of funding and many things are possibly at risk,” he said. “I don’t believe anyone feels they’re through the woods.”

Typically, cuts occur in children’s programs, social services and health care when budgets tighten, Baylor said, noting, “Even though many areas of the budget saw some restoration (from the massive cuts in 2003), there is no guarantee obviously when it comes to the revenue for the next session.”

He said he hopes the Legislature will continue to increase funding for pre-K, possibly enlarging from a program based on special needs and income level to a universal one that offering any parent the option to enroll his or her child if desired.

“This new data underscores the importance of investing in pre-K programs in Texas,” Baylor said. “By delaying investment, Texas is forfeiting generous returns for our society and our future workforce.

According to the “Enriching Children, Enriching the Nation” study, children who participate in high-quality pre-K programs perform better in school, earn higher salaries when they enter the workforce and engage in less criminal activity.

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E-mail JoAnn at editor@waxahachiedailylight.com