Officials discuss early education for low income children

WESLACO — Children in the Rio Grande Valley are at an economic disadvantage compared to their peers in the rest of the state and that’s a significant problem, according to Children at Risk, a nonprofit that met with Valley educational leaders here last week to discuss strategies to ensure government funds that are allocated to early education produce positive results.

Data presented Tuesday to a group of representatives from local school districts, workforce solutions and early head start programs show most Valley cities have a number of children living in poverty that’s higher — sometimes far higher — than the rest of the state.

The data says 22% of Texas children under the age of 5 are living in poverty. In comparison, 17% of children in Edinburg are living in poverty, 28% in McAllen, 40% in Harlingen and Weslaco, and 46% in Brownsville.

For the percentage of children under 18 living in poverty, the data puts the state’s number at 21%. In the Valley, 26% of Edinburg children in that age range live in poverty, 31% in McAllen, 36% in Harlingen and Weslaco, and a whopping 48% in Brownsville — over double the state’s figure.

“The importance cannot be overstated,” Anna Hardaway, educator and organizational strategist with Children at Risk, said after the panel. “That means that the youngest and neediest in the communities are beginning school with a disadvantage potentially and facing various challenges in life, so the state’s investment in early education is even more important for these children.”

Those statistics could have serious consequences economically as well as educationally.

“When we engage into economic development with early education, the outcomes show that that direct investment improves the state of being for our children and also our future economy,” Hardaway said.

Hardaway said last week’s meeting brought together Valley educational leaders to discuss subsidy providers in early childhood education.

“Today we had a panel of people here to talk about the supports of education, and some of the changes that have been made and some of the changes that still need to be made,” she said.

According to a release from Children at Risk Texas received an additional $230 million in Child Care Development Block Grant funding in 2018, increasing the total to over $747 million. However, out of 1.5 million low-income children, only 152,297, about 10%, are receiving related subsidy assistance.

“The low income children specifically are starting school farther behind their peers, so this investment ensures that we’re investing in the most important time in their lives. It’s primetime for us to invest between the years of zero to five,” Hardaway said.

Data presented by Hardaway says out of just over 17,000 child care providers in the state, less than half accept subsidy funds and only a fraction of those subsidized providers are certified by the state’s quality rating improvement system. That means most low-income children are enrolled in centers that are not quality certified by the state, a certification that provides parents with greater transparency regarding the quality of childcare at facilities and increases accountability for government dollars spent in subsidies.

“One of the major initiatives that we talked about today was the state’s quality childcare system called Texas Rising Star. We want to make sure that as many centers as possible that are receiving subsidy children on a daily basis are participating in Texas Rising Star as a way to document the quality of childcare they are being provided,” Hardaway said.

According to Hardaway, the efforts by the state have already created a dialogue in the Valley.

“One of the most important things that we’re seeing already happen in the community — as a result of these initiatives and recommendations and the investment by the state — is … more conversations happening between those school districts who serve pre-K and all the child cares in the area,” she said. “Number one, I think parents are going to see more communication between those folks as their child moves through the stages.”

Adolfo Santos, assistant provost at Texas A&M University Higher Education Center at McAllen and board member with Children at Risk, spoke after the meeting.

“This is very exciting to have Children at Risk down in the Valley. It is a very important advocacy group in the state of Texas,” Santos said. “This was a very exciting conversation that we had. One of the great things about the Rio Grande Valley is that we have a very, very young population. That makes us the future of not only the state but also the country, and so providing a very strong foundation on which to build later in life for these young people becomes very important.”

According to Santos, the educational partnership between the public and private sectors discussed at the meeting could have a serious impact on the quality of education for economically disadvantaged children throughout the state.

“The funding that the state has provided is really quite wonderful. It’s a great starting point to see growth in improving the quality of life for young people. We’re hoping that in the years to come we’re able to build on that even more,” he said.

Santos said the Valley faces a few specific issues when it comes to early education.

“Language is one that can cause some challenges as well. Being able to communicate and advocate through some of the changes, especially for those that are providing home daycare services that only speak one language, will have some challenges that will have to be addressed,” he said.

Technology, Santos said, can also be a barrier in the Valley.

“Technology, we heard earlier today, could be another issue. We’ve got some home daycare providers that don’t have the technology in place to submit applications and receive some of the training that’s necessary today,” he said.

A full report on the organization’s findings will be released in a report at the end of March