The first study measuring the impact of Pre-K 4 SA is out, with glowing reviews for San Antonio’s locally-funded preschool program.
Researchers from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Urban Education Institute found that the first cohort of Pre-K 4 SA students scored higher on state achievement tests than students from similar backgrounds that didn’t attend public preschool. They also missed fewer days of school and were less likely to be placed in special education.
“If lawmakers in Austin are listening, here is an effective way to move the needle in creating the workforce of the future, certainly in STEM and for the larger economy of Texas,” said Mike Villarreal, director of the Urban Education Institute, during a news conference Monday.
2018 was the first year a cohort of Pre-K 4 SA students were old enough to take state achievement tests.
“It’s really exciting because I think it shows that San Antonio’s investment in early learners is paying off,” Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray said. “It’s just our first year of results, but it sure is positive.”
Researchers usually look at several years’ worth of results to have more reliable results, but Villarreal said it was important to release initial findings as soon as possible.
“Right now we have a state legislature that has convened and is debating whether the state should invest in early education, and so while this is not the end of the story this adds to the evidence they need to consider in deciding whether to increase funding for public pre-k,” Villarreal said.
He added: “We’re going to be coming back with more data and more analysis, and actually my expectation is that the positive effects that we are seeing here are going to be larger when we look at cohort two and cohort three and cohort four. Why? Because in the first year of the program you’re still building the program.”
On the first year of standardized tests, the number of Pre-K 4 SA students scoring at or above the state average was 12 percentage points higher in reading and 15 percentage points higher in math, compared to students who didn’t go to public preschool.
Villarreal said the increases were especially noteworthy in math and among low-income students.
The number of students scoring at or above the state average in math was 6 percentage points higher in math for students who attended other public preschools. The results for reading scores were not statistically significant.
In 2013 — the year after San Antonio voters approved a dedicated sales tax to fund Pre-K 4 SA — researchers found a 9 percentage point increase in the percent of Bexar County 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-k.
Villarreal said the research doesn’t explain why more students were enrolled in preschool programs all across the county, but “I got to imagine it was all the time and effort and resources spent educating our neighbors about the importance of early education.”
Between kindergarten and third grade, the first cohort of Pre-k 4 SA students missed 33 fewer days of school than students who didn’t go to public preschool.
In addition to helping students learn, Villarreal said the increased pre-k enrollment and higher attendance rates qualified San Antonio schools for an additional $23 million under the state’s school funding formula.
“That is a reinvestment of funds that would not have been there but for this initiative,” Villarreal said.
Researchers also found that the Pre-K 4 SA cohort was two-thirds less likely to be placed in special education compared to their classmates that did not go to public preschool.
Just 7 percent of Pre-K 4 SA students were placed in special education, compared to 23 percent of students who didn’t attend preschool. About 7 percent of students that attended other public preschools were also classified as needing special education services.
Although Texas has recently been found at fault for placing an effective 8.5 percent cap on the number of children in special education, Baray said the decrease in classification is positive for Pre-K 4 SA because the students it serves are over-represented.
“As a former special education teacher … I believe special education is an important program when used appropriately for children who have clearly identified needs,” Baray said. “But we do know that within the special education system there is and has been for a long time a problem with over-identification particularly in those categories such as learning disabilities and those associated with behavior because those are less clear than physical disabilities or visual impairments or hearing impairments.”
Nationally, about 13 percent of students are in special education.
Camille Phillips can be found at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Urban Education Institute study was funded by Pre-K 4 SA and Raise Your Hand Texas, a non-profit founded by H-E-B President Charles Butt. H-E-B is also a contributor to TPR’s Education News Fund.