Amid Turbulent Year, State and Regional Leaders Reinforce Importance of Early Childhood Education

Michael Wood, Director, Education & Workforce

Beginning from birth, high-quality early childhood education opportunities help prepare children for long-term academic success and enable parents to participate in the workforce. However, providers of early education, from public school pre-K classrooms to childcare centers, have been uprooted by COVID-19.

During its second annual State of Early Education, the Dallas Regional Chamber (DRC) convened business, civic, and educational leaders to discuss the state of play for early childhood education throughout the region and state.

Recognition of early childhood education’s impact on both academic and economic outcomes has risen sharply over the past decade, due in no small part to former Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus. During his tenure as the Texas House of Representatives’ presiding officer from 2009 to 2019, Speaker Straus prioritized investments in early learning, helping to transform the once-controversial issue into one with widespread support throughout the state’s lower chamber.

“The politics of [early childhood education] have shifted in a good way,” said Speaker Straus. “It’s to a large degree because of the advocacy of the business community being proactive in voicing the connection between pre-K and workforce development.”

During his time as Speaker, Straus led the Texas House in approving various efforts to expand access to early learning, including Governor Abbott’s high-quality pre-K grant program in 2015. Mounting support for early childhood education culminated in the unanimous passage of House Bill 3 (HB 3) during the 2019 legislative session. The landmark school finance bill, in part, funded full-day pre-K statewide for eligible four-year-old students.

With the 87th Legislative Session now underway, Speaker Straus is hesitant to predict whether the state will make further progress on early education. The foremost priority must be protecting HB 3, both this session and beyond.

“Before talking about doing more, we need to find ways to make sure that what has been done is sustainable and sustained,” said Speaker Straus. “Once that it is achieved, I think there are other things that can be done, [such as] the ability to assist families with their childcare needs.”

Maintaining the state’s hard-fought progress in early education, however, will be an uphill battle.

During a panel conversation, regional education and civic leaders including Vickie Allen, President & CEO of Educational First Steps, Rafael Anchia, State Representative for Texas House District 103 and Chairman of the Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services Committee, and Dominique McCain, Managing Director of Best in Class for the Commit Partnership, highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on North Texas’ early learning systems.

Vickie Allen cited the adversity facing childcare operators in the face of the pandemic and the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri. While federal aid and local philanthropic support have offered much-needed relief to providers, many have still been forced to cut staff or close entirely as attendance has declined and operating costs have increased.

“The childcare industry is fragile, and it is going to require a higher level of investment,” said Allen. “All of us together [need] to pull together strategies to leverage our resources, talents, and skills to help an industry that we all know is instrumental to our economy.”

Public schools, too, are experiencing disruptions among their youngest learners. Dominique McCain noted that pre-K enrollment has fallen substantially – down 22% statewide and 16% in Dallas ISD. Students in pre-K through 3rd grade are much more likely to be learning via remote instruction when compared to their older peers and are likely to struggle the most with remote instruction.

These trends threaten key academic outcomes, such as kindergarten readiness and 3rd grade literacy, in both the short- and long-term. Bringing young students back on campus is central to reversing these declines.

“In general, we recognize and understand that for early grades students, the [learning] losses are great,” said McCain. “We have to put forth some really concerted efforts to make sure parents are aware that our campuses are safe.”

Despite these struggles, early childhood education stands to play a valuable role in facilitating a recovery from the pandemic. A broader return to in-person school and childcare for young students will enable many women, who have left the workforce in droves since the outset of COVID-19 to care for home-based children, to re-enter the workplace. Students, too, have suffered, and may need to fit two-years’ worth of learning into a single school year upon the resumption of in-person instruction to prevent a generational set-back in academic outcomes.

Recognizing the urgent need to protect the state’s investment in early education, a bipartisan group of lawmakers formed the Early Childhood Caucus ahead of the current Texas legislative session.

“We established [the caucus] for holding the legislature to the promise that we made in HB 3, and then improving on that promise,” said Chairman Rafael Anchia, a member of the new group. “We have to make sure that we don’t get discouraged by the pandemic or this most recent winter storm, and re-double our commitment to early childhood.”

Chairman Anchia also noted the importance of supporting the infrastructure of struggling childcare providers, as well as the quality of, not just access to, programs for children ages three and below.

Promoting learning opportunities for children before school is also a priority locally. During the event, Dallas ISD Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa unveiled Project Legacy 2050, a new initiative focused on providing quality early learning to all children from birth through age three in Dallas. The project is still in development, but promises to expand the district’s role in advocating, resourcing, and engaging in the birth through three space.

The program also featured recognition of Dallas Region companies that have earned the Best Place for Working Parents designation. The Best Place for Working Parents Dallas is an effort by the DRC to promote family-friendly workplaces and policies in the region. View the full list of designees.

The State of Early Education was presented by PNC Bank. Dallas College, Educational First Steps, Texas Instruments, and United Way of Metropolitan Dallas were VIP sponsors.