Podcast Transcript: Pre-K: The Essential Pandemic Response

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Wendy Detenbeck: It finally felt like pre-K had a voice, and a new life, and a purpose, and that people were going to talk about pre-K and not just when you send your kids to school, it’s K through 12, it’s like we’re part of that range now.

Libby Cohen: With Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Libby Cohen, and you’re listening to IntersectEd. Welcome back to our podcast series looking at Raise Your Hand’s key legislative priorities for the 2021 session.

Here at Raise Your Hand, we are still focused on how we’ll be championing critical issues for Texas kids over the next six months. We started out this series looking at school finance because it’s really the big, foundational issue–it kind of sets the parameters for everything else. Today, we’re going to take a deeper dive into the issue that begins public education: pre-Kindergarten. Here to guide us through the conversation is Lauren Cook. She works in the strategy department for Raise Your Hand but has also been working on early childhood education policy for more than a dozen years. Hey, Lauren!

Lauren Cook: Hey, Libby.

Libby: So, Lauren, that opening clip was about pre-Kindergarten in Texas having a voice as a policy issue, having a purpose. Why are we talking about pre-K today? What is pre-K’s voice trying to tell us?

Lauren: Well Libby, I think pre-K is saying, “Remember how hard you fought for me? Remember all those many years? Let me be part of the pandemic response instead of a victim of pandemic cuts.”

Libby: I know it has been a lot of years fighting for pre-K. So Lauren, remind us just how we got here and about that fight. What’s that fight look like?

Lauren: Well, let’s start with this:

KVUE news clip: Today 40 organizations converged on the State Capitol saying the ups and down in state funding is hurting the state’s disadvantaged 4-year-olds.

Lauren: This was the last legislative session, back in 2019, when Raise Your Hand held a big rally day at the Capitol advocating for high-quality pre-K. We had tons of partners there with us, like Texans Care for Children, United Way, Commit and so many others.

KVUE news clip: Full-day pre-K can be the difference between these competitive yo-yo artists and these novices.

Lauren: At the Capitol that day, our message was straightforward: Stop the yoyo and fund full-day pre-K. Pre-K funding had been up and down for years, hence the yoyo. Efforts to expand pre-K with new grants or new funding had been passed, vetoed, passed, funded, defunded, passed again, and cut again. This happened over and over in the Texas legislature between 1999 and 2017.

So when we headed to the Capitol in March of 2019, we asked the legislature to stop the yoyo and finally invest in pre-K for the long-term. That meant expanding half-day pre-K, which is about 3 hours a day, to a full day of learning. And not just for some districts or some classrooms, but for all eligible four-year-old students at districts across the state.

Libby: I remember we had identified purple as the color of pre-K. So, all of us were there in the capitol, sporting our purple, cheering on legislators who were also wearing purple ties or purple shirts, all of us just really excited to showcase the importance and power of full-day pre-Kindergarten.

Lauren: And, one of the most compelling speakers we had at our press conference on the South steps of the Capitol was a pre-K teacher. She’s from Clear Creek ISD, and her name is Wendy Detenbeck.

Wendy: As half-day pre-K educators we are working against the clock. Three hours is just not enough time. As teachers we need more time with our youngest learners, With three more hours, Oh what we could do. Dive deeper into social-emotional development, expand our scientists through STEM activities, provide more time with math exploration, have more time and opportunities for parents to be a part of our school day. Do not underestimate what our pre-K students can achieve.

Lauren: So, I spoke recently with Wendy about the experience of being at the Capitol that day.

Wendy: It felt really at peace and at home, and that’s weird because that’s a scary place to be. But I felt at peace because I knew what I was going to say was going to hopefully change or help change. It finally felt like pre-K had a voice, and a new life, and a purpose, and that people were going to talk about pre-K and not just when you send your kids to school, it’s K through 12, it’s like we’re part of that range now.

Lauren: What was it like for you to speak on behalf of the whole field?

Wendy: It felt monumental. It felt life-changing for the system. I was hoping to represent what we do and speak of it and the importance for all those teachers, and not just teachers, but paraprofessionals and all the support staff. It’s felt like we were never represented. It did feel monumental.

Lauren: So then, Libby, House Bill 3 passed.

Speaker Dennis Bonnen: Have all members voted? Gavel hits. There being a 148 ayes and 1 nay, House Bill 3 is finally passed.

Lauren: As you know, it was a big deal. Here is what Governor Abbott said at the bill signing:

Governor Abbott: We can not overstate the magnitude of the bill I’m about to sign.

Lauren: So, part of why HB 3 was a big deal was that it finally stopped the yoyo. It included 800 million dollars for early literacy initiatives, including a requirement for full-day pre-K. Needless to say, those in the early childhood education field were ecstatic.

Wendy: It was amazing. It was shouting from the rooftops that this happened. It was like winning an election for pre-K.

Libby: Yes, “winning an election for pre-K.” I love that!

Lauren: And then, the cool thing was, Wendy herself and her own pre-K class; they were direct beneficiaries of the bill. So, prior to 2019, she was teaching a half-day pre-K class, meaning she would only have her students for only a few hours a day. But, after HB 3 passed, her class was expanded to a full day of learning.

Wendy: That was pretty amazing. It’s been so much better for the kids because they’re there longer. I learned how to weave concepts and different TEKS throughout the day. You could just see just a change and how quick they catch on and how they’re ready. They know their ABCs, “We’re ready to go, Miss Detenbeck. What’s next?” You know? It’s like, “What’s next is my class,” that’s what I have this year. I love that the full-day program provides that, “What’s next, teacher?”

Lauren: So, we can’t emphasize this point enough. The reason Raise Your Hand advocated for more than a decade for full-day pre-K funding is because the research shows how important it is for early learning and to level the playing field. Our go-to expert in the field of early childhood education is Dr. Robert Pianta. He’s the Dean of the School of Education at the University of Virginia and is one of the top pre-K experts in the country. Here’s what he says about full-day:

Dr. Robert Pianta: Just from a kind of research and academic standpoint, we now have dozens of studies that have looked at this question of full-day and part-day. Over and over and over again, full-day programming, regardless of its quality, is much more effective than part-day programming.

Libby: Okay, so it sounds like we’re cruising. We finally got full-day pre-K funding, Wendy has her students all day, and now when her students say, “What’s next, teacher?”, she actually has time to answer the question. So, what’s the hitch?

Lauren: Well, we’re kind of worried about this again. The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty. Comptroller Hegar recently talked about it:

Comptroller Greg Hegar: Uncertainty is one word I use very frequently, as there remains a great deal of uncertainty about future economic outlooks here in Texas, in the United States and obviously worldwide.

Lauren: So, there’s concern that if there are budget challenges this session, HB 3 investments could be vulnerable, and then we’re back to the yoyo effect. But hopefully, Libby, that won’t be a problem because we’ve worked so hard to establish pre-K as essential, both academically and to the Texas economy. We spoke about pre-K to someone who knows a lot about Texas business and Texas politics, former Speaker of the House, Joe Straus.

Joe Straus: When I was in public office, I’d say, “What’s the number one challenge you’re facing?” They would inevitably say, “I can’t find enough qualified workers for the jobs that I have.”

For any business person, particularly, they recognize the benefit of early childhood education. You don’t just wake up as a 17- or 18-year-old high school senior, ready to go to college or ready to go to work. It starts much, much, much earlier. The best investment that can be made is the one that’s the earliest investment.

I think that it’s clear that children who have access to high-quality programs like Pre-K 4 SA in San Antonio, do better immediately, and they do better later, and they do better all the rest of their lives. Their test scores are better, the attendance rates are better. Every study has shown that.

Lauren: Do you remember learning how to read?

Straus: I do. I had some challenges. I was slightly dyslexic as a child. I was fortunate to have two very attentive parents and teachers, who caught it early and were able to give me some extra help. But, not every child has that, far from it.

Lauren: So, like you said, since not every child has the same support and doesn’t enter kindergarten on the same level, would you consider pre-K an equity tool?

Straus: I think it’s the most important equity tool there is. Again, if we can catch kids as early as possible, that’s the most important, most efficient investment that we can make with education dollars.

Lauren: So Libby, let’s go back to House Bill 3 and the investment that expanded Wendy’s half-day pre-K class to a full-day for all the reasons that Dr. Pianta and Speaker Straus talked about. We spoke to a current member of the Texas House, Representative Matt Sheehan, about the importance of pre-K and why early childhood investments should be protected in the 2021 legislative session.

Matt Shaheen: When I look at education, I look at it from a few different lenses. Of course, I look at it through the lenses of a dad and my children. I really view education in the state of Texas is really an economic driver. That’s generating our workforce of the future. Obviously, that’s a significant importance to our state.

Lauren: Your kids are older, but do you remember when they were that kind of learning-to-read age? Do you remember what it’s like? Do you feel like they had the support they needed back then?

Matt: Yes, my children are really interesting in that regard. I had a middle daughter that was actually dyslexic or is dyslexic. So, we were blessed. Again, when she was at Plano ISD schools, we were able to discover that. I was a young Dad, I didn’t know what that was even all about, I had to Google it, and all that type of stuff. They really were able to take us through that and do assessments, give her the special treatment that she needed. She’s doing fantastic. She graduated with honors from college and now she’s working at our local church and going to get her master’s.

The reality is, though, there’s a lot of families out there that don’t have that stable environment. The hardest job in America is a single mom that’s working multiple jobs. Maybe they can’t spend as much time with their children like I was able to do, my wife was able to do. All that’s really important and pre-K is a great strategy for that.

Lauren: What have you seen in your local school districts?

Matt: Well, I had the opportunity to talk to teachers, specifically about pre-K. They all said the thing that was most striking to me is they could tell a child that had gone through pre-K and the ones that hadn’t. It has a significant impact on our kids, especially those that we worry about falling behind. They can definitely tell the difference. So, there’s more work to do, but we’re really off to a good start. I’m just really excited about this.

Lauren: Let’s talk about moving forward. You know, we’ve kind of established the importance of pre-K, so many people overwhelmingly supported House Bill 3, and it’s pre-K supports. Moving forward and looking at this next session, there might be some budget challenges, there may be some tough decisions. Why should pre-K supports, pre-K investment as part of what was in House Bill 3 be sustained and supported?

Matt: I think that some other things that we did in HB 3 are really going to have a profound impact on our students, on the future workforce. I think we’re going to see that as a state in just a few years from now. I’m really just excited about a lot of things that we did about HB 3. I would look at education from a budget perspective as those are investment dollars.

Libby: It sounds like Representative Sheehan is really serious about protecting HB 3.

Lauren: I think he is and with good reason. I want to share one more thought from our expert Dr. Pianta about the final reason why we must protect pre-K investments:

Dr. Pianta: You know, in some ways in this pandemic, we’ve created this term, “essential workers,” and I think it’s also important to think about “essential resources.” Everybody’s going to lose some learning as a result of the shift to online over the course of now what is almost an entire academic year, and that the more vulnerable kids are going to lose much more, up to 50 to 100% more.

So, when you think of that and think of the consequences of that, one of the things we know about schooling is that it’s just, once you get behind it’s harder and harder and harder and harder to catch up.
The other thing we know is that it’s easiest to close gaps early on. All the arguments that you would make about pre-K are illuminated even more so under the conditions of the pandemic. So, anything that you could do that would help mitigate those gaps as early as possible, and to do so to the point about full-day, as intensively as possible, would be a really, really important intervention to be considering.

Libby: Okay, so now we’re talking about pre-K as a pandemic response. That sounds pretty critical.

Lauren: It is, Libby, and we’ve only hit the academic side. Now let’s talk about the economic side. Again, let’s go to Dr. Pianta.

Dr. Pianta: The importance of this to the economy is critical. The importance to families. You know, this is particularly some of our more vulnerable families, who are many of the essential workers that are doing the work of our economy.

Lauren: So there you have it, Libby. We can’t go back to the yoyo. Beyond all the research we’ve had for decades about how effective pre-K is, now it will be an essential pandemic response. It’s how we’re going to address learning loss before it becomes a problem.

Libby: Yeah, it makes sense to me to think about pre-K investment in those terms. And we know that pandemic responsiveness is going to be a top priority of the Texas legislative session. So, maybe framing pre-K in that way helps its political chances as well.

Lauren: Former Speaker Straus was optimistic about legislators protecting the pre-K investment of 2019, and he has a message for education advocates:

Straus: Advocates for public education can never go to sleep. There are a lot of competing interests. There’s always a limited amount of resources that our state government has at its disposal, and so it’s really, really critical that advocates keep the voice loud and the volume turned up.

Libby: “Loud and turned up.” Sounds like a great charge for education advocates as we get ready for the session.

Lauren: Absolutely, Libby. We can’t take for granted how hard advocates fought for full-day pre-K and how we must keep the momentum going. And on that note about public education advocacy, we’re going to end this episode with a dedication. This year, we lost one of Texas’ greatest advocates for early childhood, and we lost her much too soon.

Jacquie Porter was a wife, a mother, a former kindergarten teacher, and principal. She was Director of Early Childhood Education at Austin ISD, and most recently, she was the Statewide Director of Early Childhood Education at the Texas Education Agency. Jacquie passed away in July of this year after a short battle with cancer. The education field was shocked and so, so sad. We spoke about Jacquie with Laura Koenig from the E3 Alliance. She worked with Jacquie for more than a decade on early childhood issues that impacted Central Texas and then the state as a whole. Laura shared with us what made Jacquie stand out among early childhood education advocates.

Laura: I was always struck with the ability of Jacquie to think big-picture, to think of all the kids in this very large district, but also her wonder and ability to understand what it was like to be a child within that system. That’s really what we saw with her when she moved to TEA, and she was working to make pre-K a real priority at the Texas Education Agency, which it hadn’t been for a long time.

Lauren: So, Laura, tell us about Jacquie’s impact at TEA.

Laura: One of Jacquie’s legacies is to really look at the capacity of the Texas Education Agency in Early Childhood, which went from a team of 1 to a team of 10, and one of the largest changes that we saw on Jacquie’s leadership there was full-day pre-K, which she knew from her time working with the districts was critically important.

Lauren: I know that was such a long journey. Did you talk to Jacquie after that full-day pre-K funding passed as part of HB 3? Do you remember what her reaction was?

Laura: Well, Jacquie after we passed the full-day funding and HB 3, Jacquie was absolutely thrilled, but she was also rolling up her sleeves because this meant that those hours needed to be high-quality.

Lauren: What do you think it looks like to roll up our sleeves now and continue Jacquie’s legacy?

Laura: For me, the call to action is being an unstoppable voice for what is right for children, and that is what she did all the time. How do we continue that relentless pursuit of what is right for kids, and how do we ensure that the right people are at the table and listening and knowing it? It’s a stronger advocacy stance than I think that we’ve had because we think of a state agency as kind of being status quo, and it’s not. The state agency can be a champion for quality, and we need to support and demand that.

Libby: You know, listening to the reflections on Jacquie Porter’s life and legacy really reminds me just how many hands are involved in making and implementing good education policy. And it reminds me that as we head into the legislative session, we all have a role to play to make sure that we’re doing the best we can by our kids.

Lauren: Yes, it’s really incredible to think of all Jacquie did. For individual children, like you were saying, all the way up to successfully advocating for full-day pre-K for hundreds of thousands of Texas children and their families. And now it’s our turn.

Libby: Thank you, Lauren. Thanks for listening to IntersectEd. Today’s podcast was produced by Lauren Cook with Executive Producer Laura Mellett and Sound Engineer Brian Diggs. I’m Libby Cohen.

To get involved in supporting Texas public education, visit raiseyourhandtexas.org.


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