Early Childhood Education in Houston

H.B. 3 may turn around shrinking pre-K funding trend 

Despite their positive influence, early education programs have seen shrinking investment over time with potentially severe impacts for our most vulnerable children. 

Why early childhood education matters to Houston

Early childhood education reaches children at a critical point in cognitive and social development. As the Houston area grows increasingly diverse — from both native-born residents and immigrants — education systems throughout our region must be prepared to accommodate changing needs to help our youngest residents succeed. Access to high-quality pre-K programs helps prepare children from low-income households for the future and helps to close the gaps that reinforce disparities throughout our society.2 And while many of Houston’s poorer children currently lack access to pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs, with the recent passage of House Bill 3, more Texas children will have access to the resources they need to get their education off to the right start.

By knowing the data and understanding how early childhood education affects our communities for the better, we can do more to ensure its availability to those who need it most.

The data

Pre-kindergarten in the Houston area

Student learning during early childhood education is linked to future academic accomplishments, and is especially important for children classified as English learners, learning disabled or economically disadvantaged.3 High-quality programs help children learn language, mathematics and social skills, with studies showing up to $17 returned in social benefits for every dollar invested in a high-quality pre-K program.4

It’s important to note that House Bill 3 (HB3), signed into law in 2019, requires that all pre-K programs offered to eligible 4-year-olds be full-day, and that the programs meet high-quality standards. More funds are allocated to support full-day pre-K through general funding and a new early education allotment. In addition, HB3 requires the expansion of early education reporting and the creation of early learning progress monitoring tools by the agency. HB3 is recognized as a significant step forward to ensure more children receive high-quality early education and have better academic performance by the third grade.5

Pre-K enrollment and access 

State-funded early childhood education is not offered universally. Children are only eligible for free pre-K programs if they are unable to speak and comprehend English, are economically disadvantaged, homeless, or in foster care. Children from military families are also eligible for free pre-K programs.6  

Texas ranks 10th in pre-K access for four-year-olds and 12th in pre-K access for three-year-olds among the 50 states, with nearly 50% of all four-year-olds and 8% of three-year-olds living in the state enrolled in a Texas public pre-K program in the 2017–18 school year.7 

In the 2017–18 school year, 231,485 children ages three and four enrolled in public pre-kindergarten in Texas, an increase of 7,371 children from the previous year. Among all the children in a pre-K program, 86% of the children were four-year-olds. 

Pre-K enrollment increased in all three counties between the 2015–16 and 2017–18 school years. Montgomery County saw the highest percentage growth of all three counties, with pre-K enrollment increasing by 7% between the 2015–16 and 2017–18 school years.

Growth in pre-K enrollment has been accompanied by an increase in the number of schools offering pre-K programs throughout the three-county area. Between the 2016–17 and 2017–18 school years, 10 schools added pre-K programs, with Fort Bend County contributing most to the growth with five new programs. Fort Bend and Montgomery counties virtually don’t provide any pre-K programs for three-year-olds, while 12% of the pre-K programs offered by Harris County are for three-year-olds.

In the 2015-16 school year, nearly 88% of all eligible four-year-olds in Harris County, 53% in Fort Bend County and 65% in Montgomery County enrolled in a Texas public pre-K program.8

Despite research supporting the added benefits of a full-day high-quality pre-K program over a shorter-day program for low-income children, only 55% of pre-K students were enrolled in a full-day program across the three-county area.9 However, it varies greatly among the three counties. Almost 60% of Harris County pre-K students were enrolled in full-day programs; whereas only 20% and 13% of pre-K students in Fort Bend and Montgomery public schools were enrolled in a full-day program, respectively. 

13–20% in full-day programs

Fewer than one-fourth of pre-K enrollees in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties are enrolled in full-day programs, compared to more than half in Harris County.

A comprehensive study led by the Houston Education Research Consortium on pre-K access within Houston ISD showed that 84.5% of 2018-2019 kindergarten students had access to a pre-K program at their zoned elementary school and 59.3% of students were within one mile of a pre-K program.10 However, the study predicted the probability of access for different types of students and found that English Language Learners may have less than equal access to pre-K programs as their non-English Language Learner peers — indicating an area of opportunity to increase access to this population.10

Pre-kindergarten demographics 

In the 2017–18 school year, 86% of students enrolled in Texas and three-county area public pre-K programs were economically disadvantaged. Additionally, 51% of three-county area enrollees were English Language Learners, and 3% were served by Special Education programs.

More than 86% of students enrolled in public pre-K in the three-county area were recognized as economically disadvantaged, with the greatest concentration occurring in Harris County, consistent with trends in economic inequality in the area. In general, Fort Bend County has fewer students who were economically disadvantaged while Montgomery County has fewer students who were English learners.  

Across Texas, the vast majority (64%) of children enrolled in free pre-K programs are Hispanic. Black and White children are enrolled at equal rates (15%) while Asian children are enrolled the least at just 4%. 

Regionally, we see a similar pattern, but with considerable variations across counties that reflect county demographics. Given the extent to which race/ethnicity correlates with income and pre-K programs are targeted to reach economically disadvantaged students, we see that 64% of students are Hispanic, 21% are Black, 8% are White and 7% are of other races, including Asian and multiracial children, across the three-county area in 2017-2018. As expected, Montgomery County has a significantly higher share of White children enrolled in pre-K (34%) and Fort Bend County sees a much higher percentage of students of other races (21%). 

Funding for early education programs

Texas is one of 44 states that offer public funding for pre-K programs. Funding is typically split between federal, state and local governments. Texas funds pre-K programs through its K–12 funding formula. And as federal support for preschool through the Head Start program decreases, more funding is needed to keep up with growing deficiencies.6

Nationally, the average state contribution for the 2017–18 school year was $5,170 per child, not accounting for the use of federal Head Start funds.11 Funding in Texas is 31% lower than the national average and decreasing, down from $4,622 in the 2001-02 school year to $3,559 per child during the 2017–18 school year. Again, HB3 will likely curb this trend although time will only tell to what extent. 

“Texas ranks 35th out of 50 in state spending per child.”11

The vast majority of Texas public pre-K programs are funded by the Foundation School Program, which uses average daily attendance to allocate funding. Over 100,000 children were enrolled in public pre-K programs supported by both state and local funding. In 2017, the Texas Legislature did not continue funding with the High-Quality Pre-kindergarten Grant program, causing a drop in the number of students enrolled in pre-K programs. 

However, as discussed, HB3 will increase pre-K funding in the future. Increasingly, local governments are expanding access to pre-K programs through various dedicated funding streams. Examples include New York City, Austin, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Antonio, Denver, Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and San Francisco.

Measuring early education effectiveness

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) assessed state preschools using a set of minimum quality standards benchmarks.12 Texas met 4 out of 10 of the quality standards benchmarks — early learning and development standards; teacher’s minimum degree; teacher with specialized training; and screening & referral service. Some of the areas where Texas fell short include inadequate staff professional development and no statewide limit for maximum class size or staff-child ratio.12

“Of 61 state-funded pre-K initiatives nationwide, 46 have adopted a maximum class size of 20 or lower and 49 have adopted student-teacher ratios for pre-K. Texas has neither.”

Pre-kindergartners who were four years old as of September 1 are assessed at the beginning of year (BOY) and/or the end of year (EOY).13 Among 141,716 students who were assessed at the beginning of the school year and then again at the end of the school year in 2017–18, students saw growth in all but one category, with emergent literacy levels in both reading and writing seeing the greatest improvement — 49 percentage points and 44 percentage points, respectively. Only the rate for health and wellness decreased, falling by 10 percentage points.

2x+ increase in reading and writing proficiency

Students who attended pre-K programs more than doubled their abilities in reading and writing by the end of the school year.

Consistently, eligible students who attended pre-K programs in Texas public schools have been more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to drop out, with rates in both categories showing small improvements over time. 

Eligible students who attended pre-K programs also consistently outperformed students who did not attend on the math and reading portions of the STARR standardized tests taken by each public school student in Texas. However, the gaps in STARR test performance were much smaller than the gaps between high school graduates/drop-outs. 

Kindergarten in the Houston area

In Texas, children who are five years old on or before September 1 are eligible, but not required, to attend kindergarten that year

Kindergarten enrollment trends

Of the 75,973 kindergartners enrolled in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties’ public schools, more than 60% are considered economically disadvantaged, with Harris County’s rates being higher than the three-county average. Two-thirds of all students enrolled were classified as English language learners (ELLs) and almost 7% of all the students enrolled were provided with special education services. In general, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties have a lower percentage of students who were economically disadvantaged and a lower percentage of students who were ELLs. 

The racial-ethnic composition of the kindergartners in Texas hasn’t changed much in the past three years. The Asian and multiracial student enrollment increased slightly. In the 2018–19 school year, the majority (52%) of kindergartners in Texas public schools were Hispanic, followed by White students (28%). 

“The majority of kindergartners in Texas public schools were Hispanic in the 2018–19 school year.”

Across the three-county area, 49% of kindergartners enrolled were Hispanic, 22% were White and 16% were Black. Fort Bend County has a higher percentage of Asian and multiracial kindergartners enrolled in public schools in the 2018–19 school year while more than half of the kindergartners enrolled in Montgomery County public schools were White. Harris County has the highest percentage of Hispanic kindergartners in the region at 52.4%.

Kindergarten readiness

Among all kindergartners enrolled in Texas public school system, 313,021 or 84% were administered an assessment on the Commissioner’s List of Reading Instruments, an inventory of the skills necessary for continued literacy development.14 Students must pass all required assessment domains to be considered kindergarten ready. More than half (52%) of students who took an assessment at the beginning of the year met or exceeded the cut-off score across Texas.

Overall, the percent of students indicating kindergarten-readiness in the three-county area increased from 45.7% in the 2017–2018 school year to 47.7% in 2018-2019. 

Less than half of kindergartners assessed are “Kinder-ready”

At the beginning of the school year across the three-county area, indicating a major gap in early literacy skills for the majority of children right at the start of their education pathway.

There are sharp differences between the share of children assessed and the percent of students showing readiness both within and between the three counties. Among the 49,340 kindergartners who took the assessments in Harris County, only 47% met the necessary standard, almost exactly on track with the three-county average. Between 2017–18 and 2018–19 school years, progress was made in Fort Bend and Harris counties in terms of the rate of children assessed and the rate of readiness. In particular, Fort Bend County saw an increase of 32 percentage points in the rate of children assessed, as well as an increase of 21 percentage points in the rate of kindergarten readiness. While over half of the children assessed in Montgomery County were deemed kindergarten ready, fewer than half of eligible students were assessed, lower than any other county in the region. 

A 2017 study of the effectiveness of Houston ISD’s pre-K program on preparing students for kindergarten showed that only about one-third of all kindergarten students enrolled in 2014–15 and 2015–16 were not enrolled in an HISD pre-K program in the year prior, with the majority (59%) enrolled in one year of pre-K and about 7% enrolled in two years of pre-K prior to entering kindergarten.10 Across all students, the analysis found that only about 35% of all kindergarten students in HISD who took the English assessment and just over half of students (53%) who took the Spanish assessment were performing at grade level at kindergarten entry. For those who attended an HISD pre-K program, students who took the Spanish assessment showed the greatest readiness levels — with nearly 60% of students with one year of pre-K indicating Kinder-readiness, compared to just about 30% of students who did not attend pre-K indicating Kinder-readiness.10

This data indicates that it is important to understand which students are being assessed, how, and to look at Kinder-readiness rates disaggregated by student populations to gain a better understanding of whether pre-K programs are helping the most vulnerable students prepare for kindergarten.  



  1. Shattuck, Carol, Bob Sanborn, Catherine Horn, and Patricia Gail Bray. “The 2012 Community Indicator Report – Human Capital Development and Education: Early Childhood, K–12, Workforce Preparedness.” Center for Houston’s Future, Houston (2012).
  2. Lee, Valerie E., and David T. Burkam. Inequality at the starting gate: Social background differences in achievement as children begin school. Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, 2002.
  3. National Research Council. “Educating Children with Autism.” The National Academies Press, Washington, DC (2001).
  4. Meloy, Beth, Madelyn Gardner, and Linda Darling-Hammond. “Untangling the Evidence on Preschool Effectiveness.” Learning Policy Institute, Palo Alto (2019).
  5. Texas Education Agency. House Bill 3 – Early Childhood Education Impacts (86th Legislative Session). 2019. Web.
  6. Texas Education Agency, “Eligibility for Prekindergarten.”
  7. State of Preschool Yearbooks, Texas (2018)
  8. Percentage of eligible 4-year-olds enrolled in public pre-K. The total number of pre-K eligible students is estimated based on the number of first-graders who were eligible for pre-K in 2017-18 school year. This figure is calculated by Kinder Institute research staff.
  9. JAMA – Journal of the American Medical Association. “Full-day preschool linked with increased school readiness compared with part-day.ScienceDaily, last modified November 25, 2014.
  10. Baumgartner, Erin and Courtney Thrash. “Availability of and Equity in Access to HISD Pre-K Programs (Part I),Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research and Houston Education Research Consortium (2019). 
  11. Barnett, W. Steven, and Richard Kasmin. “Funding landscape for preschool with a highly qualified workforce.” National Institute for Early Education Research (2016).
  12. Friedman-Krauss, Allison H., et al. “The State of Preschool 2018: State Preschool Yearbook.” National Institute for Early Education Research (2019).
  13. Texas Public Education Information Resource. Texas Public Prekindergarten Assessment Results for 4-Year-Olds. Texas Education Agency and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Web.
  14. Texas Public Education Information Resource. Texas Public Kindergarten Programs and Kindergarten Readiness. Texas Education Agency and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Web.