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Pre-kindergarten now free for military children

State will pay for children of active-duty members to attend pre-kindergarten.
Jason Embry
AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Children of active-duty members of the military now qualify for state-funded pre-kindergarten programs.

That provision, which also applies to pre-kindergarten children whose parents were hurt or killed during their military duty, was tucked into major legislation approved earlier this year that changes the state's school finance system.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said a retired U.S. Army general convinced senators of the need for the program when he came to testify on a later school-year start date.

"The desire to do something for our military families was the precursor to this," Shapiro said.

The state now provides free, half-day pre-kindergarten to children who are homeless, cannot speak or comprehend English, or come from families whose incomes are so low that they qualify for federal meal programs (about $34,000 per year for a family of four last year). School districts can charge tuition for other children to attend.

About 175,000 children statewide are in public school pre-kindergarten programs.

Legislative budget analysts predict that it will cost about $6 million a year to expand state pre-kindergarten to military children, and Shapiro said about 1,500 children are expected to use the program. The program will be open to children of active-duty military members, plus activated Reservists and members of the National Guard. The child can stay enrolled in the program if the parent leaves active duty.

The National Institute for Early Education Research ranked Texas third among states in 2005 for the access that 4-year-olds have to state pre-kindergarten programs and ninth for 3-year-olds' access. The institute ranked Texas 27th when it comes to the resources devoted to pre-kindergarten.

Ellen Frede, the institute's co-director, said the U.S. Department of Defense provides child care at military bases, and the quality of that care is considered high. But she said public pre-kindergarten programs in Texas have some advantages, such as the credentials required of teachers.

Public school pre-kindergart- en programs focus more on instruction, said Mary Keller, executive director of the Military Child Education Coalition, which was one of three groups that pushed for the military program. Keller said it also would help serve children who are living with other family members while a parent is on duty.

"You're looking at military families not being able to afford private pre-K programs, or maybe they don't even have access to private pre-K programs," Keller said.

Frede said the best thing Texas can do to further increase access to pre-kindergarten is to raise the income threshold for families who qualify.

"That population just above the cutoff in Texas are least likely to be attending preschool," Frede said. "They don't have disposable income; they don't have the money to put toward preschool, so they find other child care arrangements."

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