AUSTIN — Key components of President Joe Biden’s $2.2 trillion Build Back Better bill will give millions of Texas children the opportunity to enter school earlier — a concept already embraced by both political parties at the state level.
The bill earmarks $400 billion for universal, free and high-quality pre-K education for all 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as direct support for middle-income families with a cap on child care costs not to exceed 7% of a family’s combined income.
The bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives on Nov. 19, is now in the hands of the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he plans to get the economic package passed before Christmas.
“In Texas, both parties have agreed with this idea that one of the best ways in terms of spending your taxpayer buck is to invest in early education,” said Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of Children at Risk. “We are a state that has invested in early education in pre-K for 3-year-olds, pre-K for 4-year-olds, and so we get it.”
Texas has about 2.4 million children ages 0-5, according to state data. But of those kids only about 9% of all 3-year-olds and 47% of all 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K, Sanborn said.
“We’re going to need to raise that number significantly to make sure that more children have an opportunity to be successful,” he said.
In Texas, about 60% of school-aged children come from low income families, data shows. Low-income for the state is defined by families who make less than $65,000 per year for a family of four. There are also close to half a million Texas families who live in extreme poverty, or make less than $10,000 a year, it said.
In addition, the annual cost of child care continues to rise. In Texas, an average annual cost for child care is $9,324 for an infant and $7,062 for a 4 year old, data by the Economic Policy Institute shows.
The bill would provide free childcare to families making less than $66,000 per year. And for families making less than $300,000, child care costs will be capped at 7% of their income.
A separate portion of the bill dedicates $200 billion for child tax credits, extending the pandemic-era credits for one year that provided parents with $300 every month per child younger than 6 and $250 every month per child ages 6 to 17.
“[Families] now have more money in their pocket to take care of their kids to feed their kids but more importantly, they're not spending this money on child care,” Sanborn said. “The more money that parents have, research really shows that parents tend to take the extra money they have and put it into their kids.”
Texas, and in particular Gov. Greg Abbott, has committed to the idea of universal pre-K and the benefits it brings to a community long before the federal spending bill made headlines.
In 2014, Abbott signed a bill allocating $130 million over two years for school districts whose pre-kindergarten programs meet certain standards. The grant program gave eligible school districts up to $1,500 per child to improve their pre-K programs geared toward students from low-income, non-English-speaking, foster and military families.
And in 2019, the state legislature passed House Bill 3, which required full-day prekindergarten programs for all 4-year-old students beginning in the 2019-20 school year. Those programs also meet high-quality requirements previously adopted by the legislature.
“Now the big question will be do we get it if the federal government says it's a good idea as well? Because we live in these contrarian times where it just depends who's saying something whether you agree with them or not,” Sanborn said. “But by and large, what we see is Republican leadership in the state has really embraced this idea of early education.”
Even so, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has spoken out against the bill calling it an “ideological wish list.”
He added that he hopes Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona -- two Democrats who have the power to put the bill in jeopardy if they do not vote in favor of it -- will defeat it.
“This is not about helping the country on a bipartisan basis, this is about a partisan spending bill. Meanwhile, raising taxes to the highest level we've seen in our nation's history,” Cornyn said.
In understanding this political dynamic, Sanborn said that while he is confident in the universal pre-K and child tax credit aspects of the bill will move beyond the senate, other child-related portions such as paid leave is not so certain.
In total, the bill offers sweeping social programs beyond children including money for affordable housing; delivering affordable, high-quality care for older Americans and supporting home care workers; lowering drug prices; and combating climate change through rebates and tax credits for middle class families.
Will Robison with Capital Impact Patterns, a nonprofit that works on social innovation programs, said social investments are some of the best that can be made to lift a community. The funding from the bill will allow for social projects to begin that would not have had the financial backing otherwise and will ultimately improve lives, he said.
“In our society, we need people to invest not just in trying to make profits but also in trying to make an impact in our communities,” Robison said. “These aren't just handouts and just throwing money into problems, we're trying to invest alongside the community and empower the community to improve.”
Robison added that with the early childhood education investments, not only will children be better prepared for a successful education, but it also frees up parent's time so they may work and fill the increasing number of open positions seen nationwide. It will also create jobs in the childhood education sector, he said.
“Investing in things like housing, health care [and] education is helping people to get what they need in order to be good employees and good members of their community,” Robison said.
Here is what is in the current version of the bill as of Nov. 24:
- Universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds;
- A child-care cost cap of 7% of income for parents earning up to 250% of a state’s median income;
- Four weeks of federal paid parental, sick or caregiver leave;
- A year of expanded Child Tax Credits for middle class families;
- Extended pandemic-era Affordable Care Act subsidies;
- New hearing benefits for Medicare beneficiaries, including coverage for a new hearing aid every five years
- A $35-per-month limit on the cost of insulin under Medicare and a cap on out-of-pocket prescription drug costs at $2,000 per year;
- $500 billion to combat climate change, largely through clean energy tax credits; and
- An increase in the State and Local Tax deduction limit from $10,000 to $80,000.