Takeaway: Texas has long had early childhood programs, but politicians, education leaders, and parents have lately come together to raise the quality of and expand access to these offerings. There are two principal models (center- and home-based care) for programs serving children from birth onward, as well as formal pre-K programs, which are offered in schools or early childhood centers. Center-based care is more consistently regulated, while home-based choices range from licensed to unregulated. Many state legislators have expressed a commitment to widespread high-quality early childhood education, but there is still room to grow.
Early childhood options in Texas include center-based and home-based care. While both types of providers charge tuition, these costs may be fully or partially subsidized for eligible families. Texas’s Department of Family and Protective Services maintains a searchable website for center- and home-based early childhood providers. The site is straightforward to use, with definitions and filters for license and operation type, age group, location, and other specific services provided. Search results are easy to navigate and highly detailed, with contact information, licensing status, inspection summaries, and compliance reports.
The Texas Education Agency oversees programs that begin at the pre-K level, providing an easy-to-use website with school search, curriculum materials, reports, information about educators, and a section of FAQ. Families can investigate learning standards, outcomes, eligibility criteria, and more.
Texas’s pre-K program serves more than 50 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds, but many programs are half-day. The increase in early education funding was considered an emergency item in a recent 2015 budget passed by the Texas legislature, which voted to approve a two-year boost of $130 million to strengthen high-quality pre-K in districts that meet curiculum and teacher quality measures. Also included in this legislation are grants to districts that expand programs for 4-year-olds who come from low-income, dual-language, foster, or military families.
While Texas has comparatively strong access to public early childhood programs, the state continues to struggle with quality, currently meeting only two of ten national pre-K benchmarks. State funding increases, moreover, are aimed at existing half-day public pre-K programs. Districts must look elsewhere for monies to lengthen offerings to full-day.
As recently as 2010, Texas had more than 9,000 child care centers, including licensed child and day care, as well as drop-in facilities and some nursery schools and kindergartens.
The state defines a child care center as one in which care is provided to seven or more children under the age of 14 in a setting other than the caregiver’s home. These programs are also known as preschools and child development centers. Providers who serve 13 or more children between the ages of birth to 13 years are called child day care centers.
Center-based program offerings must be available for at least two hours each day for three or more days per week, although they cannot provide care for more than 24 hours continuously. Providers are required to publish their licensing standards and are subject to routine inspections at least once a year.
Children of many ages enroll in these centers, including newborn infants, toddlers, and children as old as 14 years (in the last case, in before- or after-school programs). Texas sets limits on the number of children a caregiver may supervise based on the size of the center, the age of the children, and the size of the group. For example, a provider who has fewer than 12 children enrolled is permitted a caregiver-to-child ratio of 1:4 for babies up to the age of 17 months, all the way up to 1:12 for toddlers and children older than 18 months.
At centers that have more than 13 children in their care, the caregiver-to-child ratio is additionally governed by the requirement that the age difference between the youngest and oldest children in the group not exceed 18 months. Consequently, they may have a 1:4 ratio for those up to 17 months, a 1:18 ratio for 4-year-olds, and 1:26 ratio for children ages 6 and older.
Directors must have experience in child development and receive 30 hours of training each year. Center staff must have earned a minimum of a high school degree or GED and participate in 24 hours of annual professional development. There must be one employee per group of children who is trained in first-aid and CPR, as well as one staff member per center with current certification in CPR for infants, children, and adults. In addition to education and training requirements, caregivers are subject to criminal background checks.
The state requires centers to comply with fire inspections before opening for the first time, and at least once annually thereafter. An exception is made for programs that are located in district public school buildings. Providers must also meet requirements governing the use of pools.
Texas maintains a registry of violation types and potential employment consequences for each. The state also publishes a list of centers that were involuntarily closed in the past two years, as well as detailed information about any infractions by open providers. Parents may at any time read each center’s inspection report, including any violations and how great a risk they posed to children.
Texas’s public pre-K programs are open to 3- and 4-year-olds, and these are tuition-free for children from low-income, dual-language, foster, or military families. Children outside of these categories are required to pay tuition to their local districts. Many of the state’s programs are half-day, though some districts offer full-day options. Curriculum guidelines are designed to prepare children for kindergarten, but these standards are optional. Texas has neither mandated class-size limits nor teacher-to-student ratios for pre-K programs, although the latest legislation recommends that providers aim for a balance of one teacher for every 11 children.
Public pre-K educators must hold a bachelor’s degree, have completed a teacher preparation program, and be certified. They must also take part in 150 hours of professional development over five years, though neither their education nor ongoing training needs to be in early childhood.
Texas had more than 15,000 home-based facilities in 2010. There are three types of home-based programs: licensed, registered, and listed. Licensed and registered providers are subject to specified minimum standards, and they are inspected annually or every 12 to 24 months, respectively, to ensure compliance.
Texas does not require fire inspections in home-care settings, although local laws may have stricter compliance mandates. The state does, however, have defined requirements governing the use of pools.
In these settings, providers are permitted to care for seven to 12 children under 14 years old. The primary caregiver of a licensed home-based program must complete an orientation workshop, successfully undergo a criminal background check, hold an undergraduate degree with minimum credits in child development, as well as have one year or more of experience working in a licensed setting. She must also be above 21 years of age and hold certain health and medical training certifications. All staff are required to complete ongoing professional development annually.
Licensed child care homes are inspected at least once each year, or more frequently if there is an alleged violation or report of abuse or neglect.
Registered child care home providers are allowed to care for up to six children who are younger than 14 years old, and may also accept up to six additional school-aged children. The primary caregiver must pass a criminal background check, attend an orientation session, be 21 years or older, hold a high school degree or GED, and meet certain health and CPR requirements.
These settings are subject to inspection once every two years, or more frequently if there is an alleged violation or report of abuse or neglect.
Listed family home providers, a third type of home-based program, care for one to three unrelated children in the provider’s home on a regular basis. They are not required to meet minimum standards, nor to take part in training programs. Providers must submit an application to the state and clear a background check, but these programs are not inspected unless there is a report of alleged neglect, abuse, potential harm to a child, or another type of violation. Providers must be age 18 or older.
In addition to listed family home providers, there are a number of other unlicensed child care programs available through small employers, certain business settings, and religious institutions, as well as those on military bases and Indian reservations, that are not regulated by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Because of their status in state law, these offerings are exempt from the regulations that apply to other child care programs.