Early Childhood Education in Houston

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted early childhood education in the region, prompting concerns about future academic readiness 

After experiencing years of steady growth, early childhood education enrollment in Houston’s three-county region fell during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Why early childhood education matters to Houston

What is early childhood education? Early childhood education refers to the learning period between birth and five years of age. Established research has found the period from birth to five is the most critical for brain development, and early childhood education reaches children at a critical point in their cognitive and social development. Student learning during this time period is linked to future academic accomplishments and is especially important for children classified as being English learners, having a learning disability, or being economically disadvantaged.1

Research has shown that high-quality early childhood education 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,2 and that students from low-income households may benefit the most.3 A growing body of research also shows long-term, non-test score benefits, such as a reduction in disciplinary problems in high school and an increase in college attendance.4 Some pre-K evaluation studies, however, show limited benefit, if any.5, 6 Other studies show that the effects of pre-K fade away over time.7 Most experts agree, however, that if pre-K is provided, quality is integral, as is ensuring that students receive the type of quality education they need to be successful well beyond pre-K.

The more we understand how to increase access to and success in high-quality early childhood education, particularly for historically marginalized communities, the more successful future generations will be academically, socially and emotionally.

The data

Pre-kindergarten moves to full-day as HB 3 is implemented, while enrollment declines sharply amid the pandemic

As it did for almost all aspects of life, COVID-19 disrupted early childhood education. In mid-March 2020, all public pre-kindergarten programs in Texas were physically closed and required to provide online instruction. The disruption continued into the 2020-21 school year with Texas public schools offering both in-person and virtual learning options.

While the pandemic affected pre-kindergarten students across the nation, in Texas it also delayed the opportunity to see the full impact of House Bill 3. Signed into law in 2019, HB3 requires all pre-K programs offered to eligible four-year-olds be full-day, and that the programs meet high-quality standards that were passed four years prior under House Bill 4 but were not fully funded. HB3 allocated more funds to support full-day pre-K through general funding and a new early education allotment. In addition, the law requires the expansion of early education reporting and the creation of early learning progress monitoring tools by the Texas Education 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.

Texas school funding continues to lag the national average

Texas is one of 44 states that offers public funding for pre-K programs. With the passage of HB3 in 2019, the state expanded Texas school funding for early childhood education to include full-day pre-kindergarten across the state. According to the Texas Comptroller, the Early Education Allotment in House Bill 3 provided an estimated $835 million in additional state funding for early childhood education programs in the 2019-20 school year. However, Texas hasn’t officially reported spending on early education for the 2019-20 school year.

In 2018-19, the amount Texas spent per child enrolled in pre-K was 32% lower than the national average. It was also lower than what it spent nearly two decades earlier. Texas spent $3,631 per child during the 2018-19 school year — 25% less than what it spent in the 2001-02 school year ($4,840 inflation-adjusted). HB3 has likely curbed this downward trend, although time will tell to what extent.

Texas spent $3,631 per child during the 2018-19 school year — 25% less than what it spent in the 2001-02 school year ($4,840 inflation-adjusted).

Pre-K program offerings have grown in the region, and pre-K students are more likely to enroll in a full-day program as a result of HB 3 

Is pre-K free in Houston? Texas, like most states, does not offer universal early childhood education. Children are eligible for free pre-K programs if they are unable to speak and comprehend English, are economically disadvantaged, are experiencing homelessness, or are in foster care. Children from military families are also eligible for free pre-K programs. 

In Texas, pre-kindergarten operates differently by school district as well. Some districts operate their own pre-K programs, while other districts contract with facilities, such as local child care centers, to provide their pre-K programs.

The number of pre-K programs in the three-county area increased to 571 in 2019-20 from 555 in 2018-19. These 16 new programs followed the loss of seven programs between 2017-18 and 2018-19. In the past five years, the Houston area has had a net-gain of 21 pre-K programs, a 3.8% increase.

In 2019, Texas passed House Bill 3 (HB3) which primarily focused on school financing, but it also sought changes to the delivery of early education. While this new law did not change the requirements of whether a district must offer pre-K or who is eligible for pre-K funding, it did require that all prekindergarten programs offered to eligible four-year-olds must be full-day, and that the program meet the high-quality requirements adopted by the legislature four years prior under House Bill 4. This change was to take place in the following school year (2019-20). However, given the short notice, districts were able to apply for an exemption for these requirements for up to three years and renewable one time.

High-quality pre-K for the full day has added benefits over a shorter-day program, particularly for low-income children. Students from low-income families who attended a full-day pre-K program had higher scores on readiness assessments and better attendance.8 

Fort Bend saw a dramatic increase in the share of its students enrolled in full-day prekindergarten as a result of HB3. In 2018-19, 19% of Fort Bend early education students attended full-day programs. In 2019-20, that number grew to 75%. Harris County school districts had a high share of students enrolled in full-time programs prior to HB3 but continued to make gains in 2019-20. In Montgomery County, some districts were already offering full-day programs before HB3, but not all were able to make the logistical changes necessary at the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year and requested an extension.

Texas meets four out of 10 pre-K quality standard benchmarks

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) assesses state preschools using a set of minimum quality standards benchmarks. Texas met four out of the 10 quality standard benchmarks: early learning and development standards; teacher’s minimum degree (which is not specifically an early childhood education degree, but any bachelor’s degree); teacher with specialized training; and screening & referral service. Some areas where Texas fell short include inadequate staff professional development and not having a statewide limit for class size or staff-child ratio (at the time, though this has recently been amended).

While only six state-funded pre-K programs in the U.S. met all 10 quality benchmarks, Texas lags in areas most programs do not. For example, Texas has no limit on either class size or student-teacher ratios, while 46 out of  62 state-funded pre-K programs in the U.S. have adopted a maximum class size of 20 or lower, and 50 have adopted student-teacher ratios of 10:1 or better.

Pre-kindergarten enrollment in the Houston area falls sharply amid the pandemic

Students who attend preschool can join a public program or a private program. About one-third of preschool children in Fort Bend attend public preschool, whereas nearly two-thirds in Harris County do, and about half of students in Montgomery County, according to 2019 American Community Survey data.

A study from the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) showed that while families considered many factors in deciding whether to enroll their children in pre-K, the distance of the program is among the most influential.

Pre-K enrollment in public schools in 2020-21 was at its lowest level in at least seven years. Pre-K enrollment in the three-county region numbered 37,606 in 2020-21 academic year: nearly 3,000 in Fort Bend, 42,574 in Harris, and just over 3,000 in Montgomery counties. Nearly 25,000 pre-K students were enrolled in Texas public schools the same year.

Pre-K enrollment in the 2020-21 school year fell in each of the three counties in the Houston area — as well as in the state overall — from the previous academic year. There were 37,600 pre-kindergarten students in the three-county area in 2020-21, a decline of 23% from 48,500 students in 2019-20. Texas pre-K enrollment fell from almost 250,000 students in 2019-20 to 197,000 students in 2020-21. This record-setting 21% decline was the result of many families opting out of public pre-K programs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, Pre-K enrollment had steadily grown across the state.

Prior to the pandemic, pre-K enrollment in Fort Bend County grew the fastest in the region, increasing 19% between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years. However, enrollment fell 16% the following year amid the disruptions caused by COVID-19 in Houston. Pre-K enrollment also fell  by 24%  in Harris County and by 12% in Montgomery County between 2019-20 and 2020-21.

According to the State of Preschool 2020 released by the National Institute for Early Education Research, Texas ranks 13th in pre-K access for three-year-olds and 10th in pre-K access for four-year-olds among the 50 states. In the 2019-20 school year, 9% of three-year-olds and 47% of four-year-olds living in the state were enrolled in public pre-K programs. This is above the national rate of 6% of three-year-olds and 34% of four-year-olds.

Neither Fort Bend nor Montgomery counties offered pre-K programs for three-year-olds in 2018-19 or 2019-20, while 13% of the pre-K enrollment in Harris County in 2019-20 was for three-year-olds. The lack of programs is a lost opportunity, especially for students with special educational needs, English language learner students, and low-income families. A report on HISD schools by the Kinder Institute’s Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) found that “students who received two years of pre-K education had a greater likelihood of school readiness than those who only got one.”

One way to measure if early education is reaching the intended population is to compare the number of first-grade students who would have been identified as eligible to attend pre-K with the number of students who actually attended pre-K two school years prior. For example, first graders in 2019-20 would have attended pre-K as four-year-olds in 2017-18.

Using the 2019-20 first-grade student data to determine pre-K eligibility, 75% of eligible four-year-olds in Harris County were enrolled in a public pre-K program in 2017-18. In Montgomery County, 65% of eligible students attended pre-K in 2017-18, and in Fort Bend that number was 53%.

Nine out of 10 pre-kindergarten students in Houston’s three-county region are classified as economically disadvantaged

Because of eligibility requirements, almost all public pre-kindergarten students at public schools are economically disadvantaged. In the 2019-20 school year, 87% of students enrolled in Texas and 90% of students enrolled in the three-county area public pre-K programs were classified as economically disadvantaged. Additionally, 49% of 3-county area enrollees were English language learners, and 3% were served by special education programs.

Harris County has the highest concentration of economically-disadvantaged pre-K students, consistent with economic trends in the region. 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 majority (63%) of children enrolled in free pre-K programs are Hispanic. Black and white children are enrolled equally at 15%, while 4% of students are Asian American and 2% identified as other races.

A similar pattern exists regionally, but with considerable variations across counties, reflecting their respective racial/ethnic compositions. Given the extent to which race/ethnicity correlates with income and that pre-K programs are targeted to reach economically disadvantaged students, in 2020-21 in the three-county area, 63% of students are Hispanic, 20% are Black, 8% are white, 6% are Asian American, and 2% are multiracial children. As expected, Montgomery County has a significantly higher share of white children enrolled in pre-K (25%), and Fort Bend County sees a much higher percentage of Asian students (21%).

Third-grade students who were eligible for and attended pre-K scored higher on standardized tests than their counterparts

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) states that the goal of early childhood education “is for all Texas children to enter school with the foundational knowledge and skills to be curious, confident and successful learners.”

Pre-kindergartners who were four years old as of September 1 are assessed at the beginning of year and/or the end of year. Among 140,304 Texas students who were assessed at the beginning and again at the end of the school year in 2018-19, students saw growth in all but one category — the proficiency rate for health and wellness, which fell 6 percentage points during the school year. Emergent literacy levels in reading improved the most (up 44 percentage points). 

A 2017 study examined the effectiveness of Houston ISD’s pre-K program on preparing students for kindergarten. It showed that about one-third of students who were enrolled in kindergarten in 2014–15 and 2015–16 were not enrolled in an HISD pre-K program in the previous year, whereas the majority (59%) had enrolled in one year of pre-K and about 7% had enrolled in two years of pre-K prior to entering kindergarten. 

Across all students, the analysis found that only about 35% of HISD kindergarten students who took the English assessment and just over half (53%) who took the Spanish assessment were performing at grade level upon entering kindergarten. 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 attaining kindergarten readiness, compared to about 30% of students who did not attend pre-K.

This data indicates that it is important to understand which students are being assessed and how. In addition, it would be useful to disaggregate kindergarten-readiness rates by student characteristics to gain a better understanding of whether pre-K programs are helping the most vulnerable students prepare for kindergarten.

The TEA’s stated focus on foundational knowledge could be working. Five years of consecutive data show that students who were eligible for and attended pre-K scored significantly higher on reading standardized tests taken in the third grade than students who were eligible for but did not attend pre-K. However, both groups still lagged the proficiency rates among the general third grade population, reflecting early academic achievement gaps that tend to persist and widen over time between economically disadvantaged students and their counterparts.

While the TEA and many other groups focus on the role of pre-kindergarten in future academic success, a growing body of research has shown that other significant benefits may actually be found in long-term, non-test score outcomes.

For example, a 2021 study from the Nation Bureau of Economic Research found that “students randomly assigned to attend a Boston preschool experience fewer disciplinary incidents in high school, take the SAT and graduate high school at higher rates, and are more likely to enroll in college.”9 Other studies show that the benefits last beyond school years and even suggest the monetary value of these benefits greatly outweighs the costs of early childhood education programs.10, 11

In Texas, the long-term benefit of pre-kindergarten can be seen in the high school graduation rate. For the 2017-18 academic year, the TEA released high school graduation and dropout rates by public pre-kindergarten attendance. The report included five academic years and showed that for all five years students who were eligible and attended pre-K had higher graduation rates than the general population of 12th graders and it was significantly higher than those students who were eligible for prekindergarten but did not attend. For example in the 2017-18 school year, the Texas high school graduation rate was 91.8% for all 12th graders but 92.7% for 12th graders who were eligible for pre-K and attended pre-K. Meanwhile, the graduation rate was 88.3% for 12th graders who were eligible for pre-K but did not attend. 

In Texas, the long-term benefit of pre-K can be seen in the high school graduation rate.

Kindergarten enrollment in the Houston area dips amid the pandemic, with serious implications for first-grade readiness

In Texas, children who are five years old on or before September 1 are eligible, but not required, to attend kindergarten that year. A public school kindergarten in the state may be operated on a half-day or a full-day basis at the decision of the district’s school board. Texas mandates a maximum class size of 22 students for kindergarten through fourth grade (in September 2021, the Texas Legislature expanded that to pre-K beginning with the 2021-22 academic year). However, that does not always happen in practice, as districts may apply for waivers from that rule. 

Just as pre-K has been shown to have benefits to the child, so has kindergarten. Students who attend high-quality kindergarten enjoy a variety of academic and social-emotional boosts. According to established research, “the years from birth to age 5 are viewed as a critical period for developing the foundations for thinking, behaving, and emotional well-being.”12 Furthermore, providing high-quality education prior to students starting the first grade has substantial medium- and long-term benefits. Students are less likely to repeat a grade and more prepared academically as they get older.13

In Texas, kindergarten enrollment fell from 384,000 in 2019-20 to 361,000 in 2020-21. This represents an almost 6% decline. Optional kindergarten attendance may have been one of the factors that led parents not to enroll their children in the 2020-21 school year because of COVID-19.

Kindergarten enrollment in the three-county area fell 6.8% in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20. Nearly 72,700 students were enrolled in kindergarten in 2020-21, the first full academic year disrupted by the pandemic. Kindergarten enrollment in public schools fell 6.5% in Fort Bend, 6.9% in Harris and 6.4% in Montgomery counties. While these rates of decline are smaller compared to those of pre-kindergarten enrollment, the ramifications of this learning loss may be especially significant for low-income students as they start first grade the following year without the foundational knowledge gained from attending kindergarten.

Kindergarten students in the Houston area are diverse

In the 2019-20 school year, of the 77,911 kindergarteners enrolled in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties’ public schools, more than 60% were considered economically disadvantaged, with Harris County’s rates the highest of the three-county average. One-third of students enrolled in the three-county region were classified as English language learners (ELLs) and 7% were provided with special education services. Fort Bend and Montgomery counties have a lower percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged and a lower percentage of students who are ELLs.

In the 2020-21 school year, the majority (53%) of kindergarteners in Texas public schools were Hispanic, followed by white students (26%).

Across the three-county area, 52% of kindergarteners enrolled were Hispanic, 20% were white, and 17% were Black. Fort Bend County has a higher percentage of Asian-American kindergarteners enrolled in public schools in the 2020-21 school year, while almost half of the kindergarteners enrolled in Montgomery County public schools were white. Harris County has the highest percentage of Hispanic kindergarteners in the region at 56%.

Kindergarten readiness rates rise in Fort Bend and Montgomery, but dip in Harris County

Some kindergartners enrolled in the Texas public school system are assessed on the Commissioner’s List of Reading Instruments, an inventory of the skills necessary for continued literacy development.

Kindergarten readiness assessment rates have historically been highest in Fort Bend County (96% in 2019-20) and Harris County (90% in 2019-20). However, not only are assessment rates in Montgomery County the lowest in the three-county region (31% in 2019-20), but also they have declined over the last three years while those in Fort Bend and Harris counties have risen. Among all kindergartners enrolled in the Texas public school system, 324,717, or 85%, were assessed.

Students must pass all required assessment domains to be considered kindergarten-ready. More than half (53%) of students who took a kindergarten readiness assessment at the beginning of the year met or exceeded the cut-off score across Texas. Overall, the percentage of students attaining kindergarten readiness in the three-county area dipped to 46.5% in 2019-20 from 47.7% in 2018-19.

There are sharp differences between the share of children assessed and the percent of students showing readiness both within and among the three counties. Among the 55,712 kindergartners who took the kindergarten readiness assessments in Harris County, only 45% met the necessary standard in 2019-20. Between 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, progress was made in Fort Bend and Harris counties in terms of the percent of children assessed. In addition, between 2017-18 and 2019-20, Fort Bend County saw an increase of 25 percentage points in the rate of kindergarten readiness, while Harris County saw a small decline from 47% to 45%. While over half of the children assessed in Montgomery County were deemed kindergarten ready, less than one-third of eligible students were assessed, lower than any other county in the region.

Read about educational attainment, academic outcomes, and post-secondary education in Houston

Helpful Articles by Understanding Houston:



  1. Burger, Kaspar. “How Does Early Childhood Care and Education Affect Cognitive Development? An International Review of the Effects of Early Interventions for Children from Different Social Backgrounds.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 25, no. 2 (2010): 140–65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2009.11.001
  2. Meloy, Beth, Madelyn Gardner, and Linda Darling-Hammond. “Untangling the Evidence on Preschool Effectiveness.” Learning Policy Institute, Palo Alto (2019). https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Untangling_Evidence_Preschool_Effectiveness_REPORT.pdf
  3. 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.
  4. Gray-Lobe, Guthrie, Parag A. Pathak, Christopher R. Walters. “The Long-Term Effects of Universal Preschool in Boston” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series. (2021). https://www.nber.org/papers/w28756
  5. Pages, R., Lukes, D. J., Bailey, D. H., & Duncan, G. J. (2020). Elusive longer-run impacts of head start: Replications within and across cohorts. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(4), 471-492.
  6. Stevens, K. B., & English, E. (2016). Does pre-K work? The research on ten early childhood programs—and what it tells us. American Enterprise Institute, 1-53. Retrieved from https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/does-pre-k-work-the-research-on-ten-early-childhood-programs-and-what-it-tells-us/
  7. Lipsey, M. W., Farran, D. C., & Hofer, K. G. (2015). A Randomized Control Trial of a Statewide Voluntary Prekindergarten Program on Children’s Skills and Behaviors through Third Grade. Research Report. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University, Peabody Research Institute.
  8. Reynolds, A. J., Richardson, B. A., Hayakawa, M., Lease, E. M., Warner-Richter, M., Englund, M. M., Ou, S. R., & Sullivan, M. (2014). Association of a full-day vs part-day preschool intervention with school readiness, attendance, and parent involvement. JAMA, 312(20), 2126–2134. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2014.15376
  9. Gray-Lobe, Guthrie, Parag A. Pathak, Christopher R. Walters. “The Long-Term Effects of Universal Preschool in Boston” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series. (2021) https://www.nber.org/papers/w28756
  10. García, Jorge Luis, James J. Heckman, Duncan Ermini Leaf, María José Prados l., “Quantifying the Life-Cycle Benefits of an Influential Early-Childhood Program.” Journal of Political Economy. (2020) https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/705718
  11. Heckman, James J., Seong Hyeok Moon, Rodrigo Pinto, Peter A. Savelyev, and Adam Yavitz. “The Rate of Return to the HighScope Perry Preschool Program.” Journal of Public Economics 94, no. 1 (2010): 114–28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpubeco.2009.11.001
  12. Linda Bakken, Nola Brown & Barry Downing (2017) Early Childhood Education:The Long-Term Benefits, Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 31:2, 255-269, DOI: 10.1080/02568543.2016.1273285
  13. McCoy, D. C., Yoshikawa, H., Ziol-Guest, K. M., Duncan, G. J., Schindler, H. S., Magnuson, K., … & Shonkoff, J. P. (2017). Impacts of early childhood education on medium-and long-term educational outcomes. Educational Researcher, 46(8), 474-487.