After pandemic dip, pre-K could be key to boosting school enrollment, economy

María Méndez
Austin American-Statesman

After the pandemic disrupted education and the workplace, enrollment in schools dipped, particularly in kindergarten and preschool, as parents opted to keep their kids at home. 

Now, with schools reopened to in-person learning and as some workers slowly return to the office, prekindergarten could be key to helping parents go back to work — and boosting school enrollment. 

Several Austin-area school systems already saw pre-K enrollment recover in the fall, but for many families who don’t qualify for government assistance, the costs of preschool remain a barrier.

In Texas, children generally qualify for free pre-K if they are at least 3 years old by September and are either a nonnative English speaker, economically disadvantaged, homeless, in foster care, or the child of an active-duty member of the military or a police officer, firefighter or other first responder.

That leaves some families who don’t meet those requirements and can’t afford tuition-based pre-K, which can cost several thousand dollars a year, without many options.

Kira Brockman, instructional assistant at Faubion Elementary, calls students in after morning recess, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, in Cedar Park.

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion Build Back Better bill included $109 million to cover the federal share of preschool costs for pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds. But it appears doomed after Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia, said he wouldn’t support the bill, leaving Democrats without enough votes to move the legislation forward in the evenly split Senate.

Democrats are pushing forward, and the Senate is expected to take up the legislation in January, according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY.

As introduced, the bill would require states to opt in and contribute a match of up to 40% by fiscal 2027. Some fear governors in Republican states will refuse to opt in, as occurred in Texas with efforts to expand Medicaid for those who don't qualify but can't afford health insurance.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin said he has worked to try to ensure that local governments could still access the funds if state leaders refuse.

"We have what we call the coverage gap because of the failure to expand Medicaid," he told the American-Statesman. "I don't want a coverage gap in early education and child care."

Advocates for the federal spending bill hope it supplements local efforts to make preschool more accessible.

“In the absence of state and federal resources, our local governments have had to step in,” said Austin City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who helped secure $1.5 million from the city of Austin and Travis County to expand free pre-K in the Del Valle school district.

Expanded free pre-K in Del Valle

Brittany Clay wasn’t sure if preschool would be an option for her 4-year-old daughter Norah, but then Clay came across a news release announcing that the Del Valle school district in southeastern Travis County had secured funding for dual-language, pre-K classes.

The city of Austin and Travis County each awarded the district $750,000 from federal COVID-19 relief funds over the summer, which the district used to expand its pre-K programs at no cost to families who normally wouldn’t qualify for free pre-K under the state’s requirements.

In the fall, Clay’s daughter was one of 55 kids enrolled in Del Valle’s pre-K program.

“She's absolutely loving it,” Clay said. “She's coming home and she's saying stuff to us in Spanish, and she's talking to herself in Spanish, and it's the sweetest thing.”

Teacher Diana Solis works with Aylin Diaz, 4, left, and Kasey Soto, 4, in her bilingual English and Spanish pre-kindergarten class at Newton Collins Elementary School on Wednesday November 17, 2021.  Del Valle Independent School District is expanding access to full-day dual-language pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds thanks to funding from the City of Austin and Travis County. Through the American Rescue Plan Act, the city and the county dedicated dollars to meet the need for child care. Enrollment is now open for eligible students this school year and opens in January for Fall 2022.

Clay, who works in communications for the University of Texas, said she’s been able to save almost $5,000 in child care costs thanks to the expanded free pre-K programming. That’s been a relief for her and her husband, who also have an infant daughter and began increasingly working outside of their home in the fall.

Under a hybrid work model at UT, Clay had been going to her office twice a week, while her husband, who works at an education nonprofit, began returning to schools in the fall.

"And so those days, I have to kind of scramble to arrange care," she said. She said she was waiting for the pandemic to ease to place her younger daughter in child care, which she expects to cost $1,500 per month. 

For the first two weeks of the spring semester, she said she will be working fully remotely, as the university takes precautions because of the latest COVID-19 surge. She expects to return to the hybrid model Jan. 31.

The savings on pre-K also allowed her to donate and give back to the school district, Clay said.

"I think this one of the primary solutions to getting people back to work," she said. "With the Del Valle district then putting these programs in place, it helps keep these families bringing in income."

Del Valle Superintendent Annette Tielle said the funding helped the district grow its pre-K program because the state only allots funding to school districts for students who qualify for free pre-K.

"You still have the same expenses of a teacher, the classroom, the resources and materials, so you have to budget for that," she said. "And if you're not allotted a lot of that money from the state, it's difficult to sustain it, so that's why this is so crucial to our community, that the city of Austin's providing this to us."

The city has a track record of helping fund early child care and development programs, but Fuentes, who represents Southeast Austin, said the $750,000 was the most Austin has invested specifically in Del Valle.

Maria Nieves Alvarez teaches a bilingual English and Spanish pre-kindergarten class at Newton Collins Elementary School on Wednesday November 17, 2021.  Del Valle Independent School District is expanding access to full-day dual-language pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds thanks to funding from the City of Austin and Travis County. Through the American Rescue Plan Act, the city and the county dedicated dollars to meet the need for child care. Enrollment is now open for eligible students this school year and opens in January for Fall 2022.

The one-time funding will be rolled out over three years, so Tielle said the school district is working on finding a long-term plan to sustain the expanded pre-K, and Fuentes said she will continue advocating for more local investments.

Matt Worthington, Fuentes' appointee on the city’s Early Childhood Council, said this first step is still important because Del Valle is a growing area and lacks child care providers that are rated by the state’s Texas Rising Star quality certification program.

“Even if it's just this one-time funding, that's what the rescue plan is meant to do. It's meant to spark investments,” said Worthington, who is also a candidate for Texas House District 51.

“And if you can get families back to work, especially if you can increase the number of women that want to go back to work, then that has the potential to make families more sustainable and possibly be able to afford child care,” he said. “And for businesses to realize, ‘Hey, this is good for productivity, this is good for us. Maybe we should start making investments.’”

Pre-K enrollment rebounding

Tielle said many families were still hesitant to send their kids to in-person classes in the fall and instead opted for the district’s limited virtual academy, which served more than 500 students.

The district discontinued the virtual academy for the spring semester, so she expected the pre-K program to grow with those preschoolers joining campuses. Tielle said the district doesn't plan to cap the program.

Ja'Nova Davis, right, and Gabe Watts, left, raise their hands during reading time in Heather Freeman's pre-kindergarten class at Faubion Elementary, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, in Cedar Park.

“A lot of people don't realize the importance of prekindergarten, but prekindergarten impacts third grade reading,” she said. “And third grade reading has been a predictor of income and success for adults, so we want to make sure that we give our students that strong foundation now, which is going to lead to a very strong future.”

Other public school districts and charter schools also reported increased demand for pre-K, but some have limited space.

The Round Rock and Pflugerville school districts and the NYOS and KIPP Austin charter schools don’t offer tuition-based pre-K.

Public school districts like Round Rock and Pflugerville are required to offer pre-K classes if 15 or more eligible 4-year-olds are identified. School districts also can choose to create a pre-K program for 3-year-olds if at least 15 eligible students are identified.

The Pflugerville school district opened a pre-K program for 3-year-olds this year with a grant from the city of Austin, district spokeswoman Tamra Spence said.

Both Round Rock and Pflugerville saw their pre-K enrollment rise in the fall, and Round Rock officials expect to see that trend continue next year, according to district spokeswoman Maritza Gallaga. 

Meanwhile, some charter schools such as NYOS didn’t see enrollment dip during the pandemic and have seen waitlists grow. 

“Our demand has actually gone up,” NYOS Executive Director Kathleen Zimmermann said in November. “So from last year to this year, in pre-K 3 (prekindergarten for 3-year-olds), the waitlist numbers have more than doubled from 89 to 210."

The waitlist for pre-K for 4-year-olds also rose from 200 to 262, she said.

KIPP Austin, which opened KIPP Paseo, a primary school with pre-K, in 2020, struggled to maintain enrollment levels last school year, said Vanessa Barry, chief operating officer for KIPP Texas. 

“But we are hearing and seeing just a bit more return to families looking into traditional school options such as pre-K and kinder as well,” she said in December, adding that the charter school network in Austin expects to enroll about 400 preschoolers next school year from a lottery of applications.

The Austin, Leander and Lake Travis school districts offer some tuition-based pre-K seats, and the Hays school district offers tuition-based pre-K seats for its employees' children. 

The Austin school district, which has seen declining enrollment generally over the past decade, fell short of its projected pre-K enrollment target for 4-year-olds, but it enrolled 232 more 3-year-olds than it had expected. 

The Hays and Leander school districts enrolled more pre-K students this year than last year, and Leander’s waitlist for tuition-based pre-K is full. The Hays school district is considering opening a tuition-based program for families who don’t qualify for free pre-K, depending on the number of seats available next school year, district spokesman Tim Savoy said. 

Additional government funding would help the district make more seats available, he said.

“As a fast-growth school district, in addition to funding for operational costs, one of our challenges is keeping ahead of the demand for physical classroom space at our campuses, including the space to offer pre-K programs,” Savoy said.