AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — In Texas, where pre-K is scorned by some conservative activists as "godless," Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's major education initiative is giving classrooms far less money than many once thought, causing even the district of the governor's high school alma mater to now rebuff his plan.
Texas handed out $116 million in pre-K grants to nearly half the state's school districts this week, delivering on one of Abbott's biggest pledges when he took office last year — that classrooms willing to implement tougher pre-K standards would be rewarded with as much as $1,500 extra per student.
But in reality, those schools are getting less — way less.
Districts will instead receive $734 per student, state education officials confirm. That's less than half of the potential maximum dangled in front of financially struggling school administrators and reluctant lawmakers in 2015, when the typically bipartisan idea of improving pre-K confronted pushback from influential tea party activists who called preschool something "historically promoted in socialistic countries."
So diminished was the ultimate amount of funding offered that even the Duncanville school district that claims Abbott as one of its most famous alumni— he lent the governor's mansion in April to host his high school's 40th class reunion — was among more than 20 districts that applied for but ultimately passed on the money.
"It kind of became diminishing returns," Duncanville school district spokeswoman Lari Barager said Wednesday of the decision to reject the funds.
Abbott spokesman John Wittman declined comment on how the funding turned out.
The chief reason schools received less is because so many districts sought funding — which early education advocates say speaks to the demand for more pre-K dollars, but also how much underfunded Abbott's idea was from the start.
Texas currently offers half-day pre-K to children from low-income households, military families and those learning English. The state's program is given generally low marks by the National Institute for Early Education Research, which heaps praise across the border on Oklahoma, which has offered universal access to pre-K since 1998.
Five weeks after being sworn into office, Abbott declared early education the first emergency item of his new administration, enticing schools with more money if classrooms adopt more rigorous pre-K benchmarks such as enhanced teacher training. "Our children and their future have no time for delay," he said then.
Texas gutted classrooms of $5.4 billion in 2011, and schools cheered a new governor putting more education dollars on the table. Yet the $130 million that Abbott proposed still wouldn't restore what the Republican-controlled Legislature cut from preschools four years earlier, nor would the money let districts enroll more pre-K students.
The plan also fell short of what education groups say are truly meaningful pre-K reforms such as low teacher-to-student ratios.
Meanwhile, conservative activists close to Texas' powerful lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, tried derailing the legislation with a letter scolding incentives to remove children from "half-day religious preschools" to a "Godless environment" that didn't produce results.
Nearly 600 school districts took the money in the end. At Duncanville, Barager said the district of 13,000 students near Dallas declined after being offered only one-fifth of about $1 million requested. She also said the money wouldn't have arrived until late August, which would be "too late for us to do anything with it."
The money will likely only be noticed by sharp-eyed parents in their children's preschools, said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children, an Austin children's policy group. She believes most districts "thought they would get" the $1,500 maximum.
"It's a good step forward, but the funding isn't enough," Rubin said. "It's not high enough, or promised for future years, to make big improvements."
Eds: This story has been updated to correct Ruben's first name to Stephanie, not Jennifer.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber