Educators worried how proposed Texas 'school choice' bill will impact public school pre-Ks

Texas lawmakers have not prioritized establishing pre-K for all students this legislative session, but FOX 4 has learned about a provision in the school choice bill that would make millions of tax dollars for private school pre-K funding available.

Families of any income would be eligible to apply for $8,000 if they used it at a private or home school, but not their neighborhood public school.

While kids whose families are low income can qualify for free pre-K, the state does not provide pre-K funding for kids in middle income families, but that could change under SB 8 if a family chooses private pre-K.

Many public school districts are now offering tuition based pre-K.

Under school choice bill, Senate Bill 8, families of any income could apply for $8,000 if they choose a private school over a public one.

For middle-income families, going to pre-K in Texas, even at their public schools, will cost thousands of dollars. 

That's because the state only funds pre-K for children in low-income families. 

But under SB 8, the state would provide $8,000 a year for a child to attend private school pre-K. 


School Choice: Texas lawmakers proposing bringing taxpayer funding to private schools

Any student could qualify to receive $8,000 for private or home school expenses, but two-thirds of the $500 million allotted under the bill would be prioritized for students at poor-performing campuses. The remainder would be available for any student.

"We need to see pre-K and public schools fully funded before money starts being given for school choice," Lewisville ISD Superintendent Dr. Lori Rapp said.

Rapp said the state has it backwards. 

"To prioritize money for school choice before you fully fund your public schools that are setting up pre-K programs, that is not utilizing money to the best benefit of students," Rapp added.

In Lewisville ISD, the tuition for 10 months of pre-K is $8,200.

Under SB 8, parents could apply for $8,000 a year through an Education Savings Account to pay for private school tuition and related expenses. 

Rapp said the options need to be expanded. 

"If a parent is choosing a public school for their pre-K provider, then public schools should be able to receive the $8,000 that that family would have received," Rapp said.

Some public schools have taken a novel approach, like Arlington ISD, by offering free full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds. 


Arlington ISD to offer free, full-day pre-k for all students in the fall

Beginning in the fall, all 4-year-olds in the Arlington school district will be eligible for pre-k, regardless of family income.

But Arlington supplements state funding for eligible students with money from its own budget for the other students.

While SB 8 clearly states a child entering pre-K would be eligible for the private school Education Savings Account, State Senator Brandon Creighton, who authored the bill, did not talk about that eligibility during the initial discussion on Wednesday.

"A young child in that household, coming into kindergarten, can use this ESA," Creighton said. "Home school families as well qualify for this ESA, as long as it is a child going into kindergarten."

A spokesperson for the senator confirmed by email that the bill does apply to students entering pre-K.

Crystal Bernard started Braveheart Christian Academy in Arlington with her husband last year.

She said SB 8 would be transformative for pre-K through 7th grade schools like hers. 

"With this Education Savings Account, we could triple our student body, hire additional seven-eight teachers and staff, and give students what they need," Bernard said while testifying before the Texas Senate Education Committee. "Our students, they are excelling,"

Sen. Creighton was not available to do an interview with FOX 4 Friday about why, under his bill, the state is offering funding for private school pre-K before making public pre-K available for all Texas students.

In addition to the pre-K funding disparity with public schools under SB 8, Dr. Rapp said Lewisville ISD also wrote a letter to lawmakers pointing out the overall per student funding difference.