The Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) held a very informative workshop yesterday on the controversial Early to Rise initiative. The workshop lasted approximately 3 ½ hours and featured presentations from four representatives of the Harris County School Readiness Corporation (HCSRC).
- James Calaway – Chair of the Early to Rise initiative
- Carol Shattuck – President and CEO for Collaborative for Children
- Nancy Correa – Director, Center for Parenting and Family Well-Being, Children at Risk
- Jonathan Day – spokesperson for the Early to Rise initiative
The representatives of the HCSRC broke their presentations into two parts: the programs and services they are proposing, and the draft proposal itself.
Early to Rise programs and services
Mr. Calaway spoke briefly about the overall project and how it came to be. He stressed that the project is the combined work of “civic leaders” and educational experts that are looking out for the future of the Houston area. He said that the program is designed to help the “teachers” in “woefully inadequate child care facilities”. He wanted the workshop broken into two segments, the first being about early childhood intervention and parenting skills, the second focused on the agreement between the HCDE and the HCSRC. He introduced several of the board members and gave backgrounds on others. He briefly discussed the rhetoric surrounding the imitative and the attacks on the HCDE, saying he now knows how it feels to be attacked for trying to do something good.
Ms. Shattuck spoke about the importance of early childhood intervention. She had given the board a handout and referred to that many times. She stated that research in the past twenty years has shown that the architecture of the brain is formed in the period between 18 months and 3 years and specifically mentioned the Hart-Risley Study on language development. She stated that studies have shown that children in low income environments can learn if they are engaged at the formative stage. She told the board that several Nobel Laureates support early childhood intervention because they say that it has a high return on investment, with much of the return going to society in general in the way of fewer dropouts, more college graduates, and less interaction with the criminal justice system.
She gave the following statistics on the current population of Harris County and how preschool children are cared for. She did not cite a source for these statistics.
- 43% – home care with a mom or dad
- 57% – others
The 57% is broken down:
- 20% – informal care
- 37% – licensed day care, Head Start, Pre-K programs
She told the group that the University of Houston had tracked children in a program in Houston, Bright Beginnings, and the results had been very positive.
There were a lot of questions from the board for Ms. Shattuck. Board President Angie Chesnut asked if parental training was a part of the program and Ms. Shattuck said yes, it was one leg of a three legged model: Early Childhood Education, Parental Training, and Access to Healthcare.
Trustee Kay Smith disputed the notion that Mr. Calaway and Ms. Shattuck had made that we as a community have not invested in early childhood education by citing a plethora of publicly funded programs. Ms. Shattuck replied that she would respond to that assertion by knowing that there are good programs and not so good programs and that the Early to Rise program was an effort to scale up the good programs that she knows work. Mr. Calaway assured Mrs. Smith that she would not allow her children to go into the places that he has gone into during the past few months. Trustee Kerner agreed with Mr. Calaway that there were places that she wouldn’t send her children to. Mr. Calaway said that we can’t stick our heads into the sand and continue to ignore young children, hoping for something that doesn’t exist, bringing up Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s comment that we can either invest in our children at 3 or we can invest a lot of money at 23. Mr. Calaway also blasted the state legislature for cutting the Pre-K program to half a day, saying that it was ridiculous because parents don’t work half a day.
By this time, the board was anxious to get into the agreement itself, so Ms Correa’s presentation on parenting. Her presentation was short and no questions were asked.
Early to Rise draft proposal
After a 10 minute break, Mr. Jonathan Day took his turn at the lectern to go over the draft agreement in detail. He stressed that it was not an unusual arrangement for governmental bodies to give taxpayer money to outside vendors. He emphasized three areas of oversight that the HCDE board will have:
- Review and evaluation of programs
- Establishment of transparency for the procurement process
The HCSRC will have a 3-5 member staff, housed at the HCDE North Post Oak Building 6005 Westview Drive Houston, TX 77055. Their function will be to develop and put forward the RFQ’s necessary to procure the services that the HCSRC will deliver. They will have no staff directly involved in training day care workers or parents – they will use outside vendors for all services delivered to capitalize on the resources of the community. The purpose of this model is so that the HCSRC does not create another bureaucracy – the HCDE staff will keep all financial records and serve as the fiscal agent for the HCSRC.
Because all records are kept by the HCDE, the HCDE board can have any report they might want at any time. HCDE will invest and manage the funds from the proposed tax. There will be an annual audit provided by the same firm that audits the HCDE, there will be annual goals and work plans that the HCDE board will approve, and the HCDE board will have full audit rights at all times. The HCDE board will have annual appropriations for the budget – if at any time the HCDE board does not like the progress of the HCSRC, the HCDE board can simply not appropriate the money and the program will cease.
The HCSRC board will have nine members, as follows:
- Chair – selected by the eight appointed members
- HCDE – will appoint four board members
- HCSRC – will appoint four board members
The Chair has to be elected by a majority of both “sides” of appointed board members – at least 3 of the HCDE appointees and at least 3 of the HCSRC appointees. Mr. Day stressed that this is just a proposal in reaction to community concerns about accountability and that the HCDE board has final say on the make-up of the HCSRC board.
Trustee Kay Smith had a problem with the restrictions on the HCDE appointments. The draft agreement restricts the HCDE to appointing certain types of people.
HCDE appointees (1 each)
- Public school experience
- Community college experience
- Higher education experience
- Researcher in early childhood education
HCSRC appointees (1 each)
- Business leader
- Community leader with record of commitment to early childhood education
- Faith-based leader
- Civic leader with substantial experience leading a non-profit
Trustee Smith noted that under this agreement, the HCDE couldn’t appoint her because she comes from the business community. Mr. Day said that it was a draft agreement and they could work on the types of appointments.
Mr. Day closed by saying that there might be some board members that oppose this arrangement but that it was an example of direct democracy and urged the board to come to an agreement so that the voters will know what they are voting on in November. Mr. Day said that we cannot expect to get help from the state or federal government, noting that the state had cut funding for early childhood programs in 2011 and has not put the funding back.
There were a lot of questions and back and forth from the HCDE board and Mr. Day. I’ll highlight a few:
- The HCDE would have a “Department Representative” that would have full authority to make binding agreements with the HCSRC. Trustee Howard Jefferson said that was a no-go and was not going to happen. Mr. Day said that they could fix that.
- The HCDE will have to take $1.9 million out of its Reserve Fund (Rainy Day Fund) to fund the first year of the HCSRC and will be repaid from taxes collected the following year.
- The ballot initiative increases the maximum amount that the HCDE can levy from $0.01 per hundred dollar appraised value to $0.02 per hundred dollar appraised value. There is nothing in the ballot initiative that binds the HCDE to spending the money on the HCSRC, just a social contract with the voters.
- The ballot initiative does not bind the HCDE board to levying the full $0.01 increase. The board can levy any amount of the $0.02 authorized. Authorized but not obligated.
- Currently, the tax levied by the HCDE board is approximately 2/3 of the current maximum of $0.01. If the proposal in November passes, the board will have an additional $0.0133 that it can levy on property owners if it chooses.
- Mr. Day and the HCSRC expect that the board will levy the full $0.01 on the November ballot and appropriate those funds to the HCSRC. Mr. Day is hopeful that the tax will produce revenue in excess of $30 million per year.
- By law, the maximum tax rate that the HCDE can have is set at $0.50 per hundred dollar appraised value. If the Early to Rise initiative passes, will other groups come forward to increase the rate?
- The HCDE will give money to the HCSRC and then bid on projects to get money back.
- Language in the agreement prohibits working with religious institutions but part of the HCSRC proposal is to work with churches and faith-based leaders.
- The HCSRC has agreed to be subject to the Texas Public Information Act.
- The agreement with the HCSRC is for ten years. Trustee Lee suggested shortening the length of the contract but Mr. Day thinks ten years is the right length to properly evaluate the effectiveness of the program.
- Trustee Marvin Morris called it a “forever” tax, noting that taxes, once levied, do not go away.
- Board President Angie Chesnut called $100,000 for a website exorbitant
- The HCDE board can terminate the agreement at any time. There will be an exit strategy that takes about a year to complete if that happens.
Thoughts about the workshop
I’ve tried not to editorialize in the above comments. I think that the HCDE board should be commended for holding this workshop and fully airing the proposal. Some people are upset that the board is even considering this proposal but not considering it, and ignoring the 150,000 signatures on the petition, would be inconsistent with representative government, There will probably be a need to have another workshop as the draft proposal is tweaked.
All in all, it was an informative day. The HCSRC has listened to some concerns and has been more flexible than their public comments would indicate It is still troublesome that this group wants to take money from taxpayers and give it to private businesses, even if the intention is pure. It is also troubling that the leaders of the HCSRC think that growing government is the solution to social and cultural issues – throwing money at segments of society that do not accept responsibility for their own actions has never proven to work. On the other hand, our churches and civic associations haven’t proven effective at helping children that are trapped in poverty by parents that do not care about them and do not look out for their best interests.
The HCDE board held a board meeting after this workshop – I’ll have a separate post on that meeting.