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Public pre-k students in classroom

Everything You Need To Know About Public Pre-K in DFW

from rules to registration requirements

You may have seen the billboards from local districts advertising their free full-day prekindergarten programs. Is that new? Yes and no. Is it free for anyone in the district? Not necessarily.

With parent information meetings and registration deadlines approaching, we talked to Tamala Olsby with the Texas Education Agency about all things pre-K. Here’s what you need to know about public pre-K in Dallas-Fort Worth.

New rules for public preschool in Texas

As part of HB 3, the school finance reform bill signed June 2019, Texas public school districts have to provide full-day programs (and only full-day programs) to 4-year-olds who qualify for free pre-K. And they have to serve every eligible kid who signs up—nobody can be turned away due to lack of space. (Districts with fewer than 15 kids who qualify don’t have to provide free pre-K, but that’s rare in DFW.)

Some districts, like Dallas ISD, already had full-day pre-K for 4-year-olds before the law was passed. Other districts scrambled to get their programs ready for last fall. Most districts needed more time and are rolling out their full-day programs for the 2020/2021 school year (or later).

So who’s eligible for free pre-K?

There are seven eligibility requirements. Your child is automatically eligible if they:

  • Qualify for free or reduced lunch
  • Are or were in foster care
  • Are homeless
  • Are unable to speak or understand English
  • Have a parent who is an active duty member of the armed forces
  • Have a parent who was injured or killed while serving on active duty in the armed forces
  • Have a parent who’s won the Star of Texas Award (given to peace officers, firefighters and emergency medical first responders killed or seriously injured in the line of duty)

If your child meets one of the above requirements and will be 4 years old on or before Sept. 1, then they’re legally entitled to free, full-day pre-K.

But even if your child doesn’t fall into one of these categories, they may still be able to attend preschool for free, depending on what district you live in. Fort Worth ISD, for example, will fill up empty spots in its full-day pre-K program with kids who don’t qualify based on state rules.

What about 3-year-olds?

Eligibility works the same way—if you meet one of the seven criteria above, then you qualify for free pre-K … but your district doesn’t have to provide it. Some districts do; some don’t. Some have limited spaces, so there’s a lottery or waiting list.

In fact, existing programs for 3-year-olds might end up as casualties of the new law. Lewisville ISD, which used to have classes for 3-year-olds, is cutting the program in 2020–2021 in order to expand its full-day program for 4-year-olds.

Why isn’t my district offering free, full-day pre-K?

Texas is giving some grace to districts that need more time to build classrooms, hire staff, purchase supplies, etc. Districts can apply for a one-, two- or three-year exemption that’s renewable one time; in the meantime, they have to try to partner with private preschool facilities to make full-day pre-K available for all 4-year-olds who qualify.

Organizations like Head Start can help out too. These partner programs have to meet the same standards that public pre-K is held to. In fact, by partnering with Head Start, Olsby says, districts may be able to offer support services they wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

How do I register for pre-K?

Every district has a different process, but many start the registration process in the spring. Visit your district’s website or call to find out next steps, including what documents you need to bring.

Olsby also recommends downloading the Student Attendance Accounting Handbook from the Texas Education Association—chapter 7 explains all the requirements for free pre-K and how to prove that your child is eligible.

What if my child isn’t eligible? Can I pay for public pre-K?

Dallas, Little Elm, Keller, Hurst-Euless-Bedford and a handful of other districts offer tuition-based pre-K, sometimes depending on space or awarded by a lottery system. Among local districts, tuition runs about $5,250–$6,750 per year. Check your district website for registration details—but be warned that signup might have already passed for next year.

Image courtesy of iStock.