What Texas lawmakers can do to get kids ready for kindergarten

A new dashboard lays out challenges and 50 policy recommendations for legislators to consider.

Many Texas children aren’t showing up to kindergarten ready to learn, but a new dashboard highlighting challenges points lawmakers to changes that could help students.

Many also face challenges unrelated to education — lack of access to food and health care — that also affect whether they arrive ready to learn.

Teachers can quickly identify which kids need the most help but it’s a struggle to catch them up, said Michele Hand, a kindergarten and first grade interventionist for Whitehouse ISD in East Texas.


“When our kindergartners don’t get the eyeglasses they need or haven’t had enough to eat or their parents don’t understand the importance of regular conversations and counting with their toddlers, these students enter kindergarten behind,” she said.

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The new Texas School Readiness Dashboard by Texans Care for Children highlights where children are struggling most and provides recommendations for what policymakers can do. It was created with the help of the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Among the nonprofit’s recommendations are encouraging lawmakers to extend maternal health care coverage to 12 months after pregnancy; removing barriers that block families from enrolling in Medicaid or SNAP; and providing more funding to child care and pre-K programs to help make them more affordable for families and improve the quality of education they provide.


Such policy changes could help better prepare the state’s youngest kids for kindergarten and beyond, which in turn can positively affect entire communities, advocates say.

Texas has improved some access to child care and pre-K in recent years but more work must be done, said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of the child advocacy nonprofit Texans Care for Children.

“The big ask for this session is state investment in child care to help with affordability for families, to help child care programs sustain their business and expand to serve more families, especially in rural areas, and sustain their workforce,” she said.


More than half of low-income children (53%) in Texas under age 6 do not have reliable access to subsidized child care, and only 41% of 4-year-olds are enrolled in public pre-K programs, according to September 2021 data compiled in a Children At Risk report.

Of Texas families with children eligible for SNAP nutrition assistance, one in five are receiving the benefits. At least 7.5% of households have a young child who is going hungry, according to the data, part of the new dashboard. (The Meadows Foundation, which helped fund the project, is also a supporter of the Education Lab at The Dallas Morning News.)

One in three Texas children under age 6 live in poverty, and at least 12% of children who are eligible for Medicaid are uninsured.

Many advocacy groups and nonprofits already work to address underlying issues to help kids, but the state’s efforts sometimes lack cohesion, said Bethany Edwards, director of the Early Learning Alliance in Tarrant County.

“There is a growing recognition from our state leaders, whether that is elected leaders or people in other places of power, that there needs to be a comprehensive view of school readiness,” she said, “a multipronged way of thinking of children as full people and what it means for them to be successful.”

For example, more than 1 in 10 Texas babies are born early, increasing their risks of developmental delays or the likelihood that they’ll need special education services when they are older.

Texas also leads in gaps in maternal health care and programs, such as home visits, designed to support new families.


All of these challenges, combined with a lack of adequate access to high-quality early childhood education, can put children behind by the time they get to school, experts say.

“If state leaders want to make sure kids are school ready, not only do they need to continue to strengthen pre-K and child care, but they also need to address child hunger, access to health care, and other urgent early childhood issues,” David Feigen, director of early learning for Texans Care for Children, said in a statement.

Lawmakers have recognized the need to boost support for young kids and families in recent years. In 2021, a bipartisan group of legislators formed a new Early Childhood Caucus in the House, aimed at looking beyond the traditional focus on pre-K for improving children’s early lives.


The same year, the Legislature approved requiring some child care providers to participate in Texas Rising Star, the state’s quality rating program.

Still, Texas lags compared with other Southern states and our neighbors, Rubin noted.

“Kids don’t just start learning at age 4,” she said. “Their baby and toddler years are absolutely critical for them having a strong foundation and strong future.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.


The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.