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Texas Governor's Preschool Plan Called 'Godless' by Lt. Gov.'s Advisers

Some powerful folks in Texas have come out in "strong opposition" to the Texas legislature's plan, endorsed by the governor, to expand public preschool in the state.

Earlier this week, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's "Grassroots Advisory Board" sent an open letter to the Texas State legislature calling on lawmakers to halt the progress of a plan to spend $130 million (more than originally proposed) on a public preschool program that has received bipartisan and bicameral support.

More importantly, say observers in Texas, the plan has been a top priority of the state's Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

"I think attacking the legislature, that's 'nothing to see here, keep walking.' But Patrick attacking Abbott or Patrick's people attacking Abbott, that's more news," said Evan Smith, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of the Texas Tribune in that news organization's weekly podcast, TribCast.

The April 21 letter does not mince words. First, it attacks the state's full-day kindergarten program, which is optional for children under age 6, as evidence that the State of Texas is already too involved in the lives of young children. Then it takes down the proposed preschool expansion.

"We are experimenting at great cost to taxpayers with a program that removes our young people from homes and half-day religious preschools and mothers' day out programs to a Godless environment with only evidence showing absolutely NO LONG TERM BENEFITS beyond the 1st grade," the letter said.

In fact, there is a large and growing body of evidence that high-quality preschool programs do offer long-term benefits beyond the 1st grade. But that aside, the other interesting point is that the legislation as it stands would do little more than restore preschool funding lost in 2011. It also sets quality guidelines. Texas' preschool program is aimed at children from the state's lowest-income families and is optional.

Both House Bill 4 and Senate Bill 801 enjoy bipartisan sponsorship in their respective houses. House Bill 4 passed on April 9. The Senate Education Committee is considering its version of the bill now. Both bills, which propose essentially the same thing, have the strong support of the governor, who named early-childhood education his top legislative priority at the start of the session.

The lieutenant governor told Texas Tribune reporters in an emailed statement that he hadn't seen the letter before it was released to the public and that he generally supported preschool. He gave no further details.

Denying responsibility is tricky for Patrick, though, given that he appointed the tea-party-heavy advisory committee that sent the letter.

"You get your posse together, you give them badges, you put them on horses, and you're responsible for what they do at the hill," said Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune's executive editor, in this week's TribCast.

As states across the country have created or expanded on public preschool programs, the argument put forth in Texas—that small children are better off with their families than in state-funded care—has been surprisingly absent. Now mostly confined to op-eds in states with strong tea-party constituencies, the argument once held much greater sway.

In 1971, when President Richard Nixon vetoed a federal bill that would have provided universal preschool, he explained his decision by saying there would be "No communal approaches to child-rearin," in America, according to a summary in a book on public preschool by David Kirp called The Sandbox Investment.

Advocates have credited the change in conversation partly to changing social views, but more notably to economic necessities. Few middle-class families and even fewer working-class families can afford to have one parent stay home and commit to childrearing full time any more.

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