Abbott's upgrade to Texas pre-K gets Senate approval



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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — After months of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, the Texas Senate on Thursday approved Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's proposed pre-K upgrade — a plan that tea party activists condemn as socialist and educators tepidly embrace as better than nothing.

Abbott doesn't get to sign his first flagship education initiative quite yet. But with the House only needing to agree to some minor tweaks, he is now poised to deliver a major campaign promise before the Legislature adjourns June 1.

Not everyone will enthusiastically celebrate.

Although Democrats and education groups support putting an extra $130 million on the table for schools that implement higher pre-K standards, they spent four months unsuccessfully trying to convince Republicans that far more is needed to make any significant impact.

Republicans on the far right, meanwhile, are flustered that any more money is going to pre-K. The Senate vote came only a few weeks after tea party activists who advise Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called Abbott's plan a "godless" idea that takes kids away from religious preschools. They also dispute that kids benefit from pre-K programs.

Patrick had one of his most conservative senators, Republican Donna Campbell, emphasize that the program wasn't mandatory for districts and stressed the cap on the cost while laying out the bill.

"I think this bill is a fiscally, morally and academically responsible thing to do," Campbell said.

During sweeping state budget cuts in 2011, Texas eliminated a $300 million pre-K grant program the state has yet to restore.

"We took a big step backward, and this is a little step forward," Democratic state Sen. Judith Zaffirini said.

Texas provides half-day pre-K to children who have language barriers, are financially disadvantaged or have parents in the military. Many of Texas' largest school districts offer full-day programs, which education groups say provide the biggest benefits.

Abbott says Texas shouldn't rush into pre-K expansion but wait a few years until the state can study the impact of his plan.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

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Paul J. Weber

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