Two years ago, Monica Ochoa received a letter saying her three-year-old daughter would be admitted to her local public school's pre-kindergarten program if there was enough room. "We bought uniforms, supplies, everything," Ochoa says.
Then just a couple weeks before the start of school, someone called to say there wasn't enough space after all. Priority was given to four-year-olds, and they'd filled up all the places.
Okay, disappointing but understandable. Ochoa operates a day care out of her Eastside home, and she could keep her daughter busy with the other kids. But she still thought public school pre-K could offer her daughter more.
So this fall, Ochoa tried again. She took her daughter's information to the neighborhood school in the Houston Independent School District. Finally, her daughter was old enough. But she was rejected again.
"This time it was because we chose English as her primary language," Ochoa said.
"Then we tried another elementary school, and they told us we made too much money," she said. So the mother of two children started writing. She says she wrote 100 letters to the school board, HISD officials, congressional representatives, anyone she could think of. She got nowhere. Congressman Al Green said she wasn't in his district and referred her to Gene Green. Gene Green said his hands were tied by state law. No one else even wrote her back, she says. She tried to talk about it to HISD Superintendent Terry Grier at a town hall meeting and, she says, he walked away from her.
Monica Ochoa speaks fluent English and Spanish, her husband Christopher only English. Their son and daughter speak both languages. The Ochoas have declared English their main language, saying it is the language of their country — both are U.S. citizens — and they want to know why they are being penalized for that declaration.
"I feel like this is so twisted. We're paying taxes to HISD and Harris County, and my children are not even able to attend school? We're law-abiding citizens, we're taxpayers, we're voters, and the opportunities that are supposed to be for everyone are denied to us," Ochoa says.
Both she and her husband are worried their daughter will be left behind. They argue that it isn't just the language skills pre-K kids pick up; it's all the socialization, learning how to operate in a structured environment, how to cut with scissors and write with a pencil — everything that will enable their daughter to keep up with her peers in future years. They've seen the advancements their son — who's two years older than their daughter — made in public school pre-K.
So Monica Ochoa decided to try again. She went to a third HISD school this fall. She put herself down as a Spanish-speaking, single mother of two children with a lower income.
And her daughter got in.
In 1984, a special session of the Texas Legislature authorized half-day pre-K for four-year-olds who were limited English-language speakers or economically disadvantaged, in House Bill 72. Part of the landmark education reforms enacted that year, it was designed to extend special services to kids who were often in most need — ones who would tend to fall by the wayside without early intervention.
The Texas Education Agency released guidelines for the program designed to get these kids "school ready."
Since then, the definition of students allowed in the program has been expanded to include the homeless, foster children and, most recently, military kids. As room allows, three-year-olds can attend. Local school districts, such as HISD, have sometimes supplemented with other funds and expanded to full-day.
It is, most everyone agrees, not a little thing, but a crucial part of the education process. Jason Spencer, spokesman for HISD, doesn't hesitate to say that pre-K is very important.
"We would agree that all children need to be in pre-K," Spencer said. "Unfortunately the state of Texas does not fund school districts to offer pre-K to students who don't qualify for the free program. This is why we offer an affordable tuition-based pre-K program."
The first two HISD schools Ochoa went to never mentioned the tuition option to her, she says. She found out about it from neighbors. But even then, she didn't regard this as good news.
The rub for the Ochoas is that they don't think they should have to pay $465 a month in tuition even if they could put together the money. They didn't pay it for their son, and as far as Monica can remember, she put English on his application and their income has stayed about the same for several years. She even wondered if there was some bias here working against her daughter when her son was readily accepted.
The couple, who make between $65,000 and $85,000 a year depending on Christopher's overtime at his job and how many students they have at the day care, say their money has to go for their mortgage, a car note, utilities, food and college savings for their kids. Ten years after graduating from college with a degree in interior design, Monica still is paying off her college loans. She doesn't want her kids to be encumbered in the same way.
"We don't make enough to afford big private schools, but we make too much to be poor, so we're stuck in the middle," she says. To qualify as low-income, she says, their family of four could bring in no more than $22,000 a year. "Who could live on that?" she asks in frustration.
Told the Ochoas' story, Susan Kellner, president of the Spring Branch ISD and a well-known proponent of pre-K throughout the state, sighs in recognition and sympathy.
"It's a matter of limited resources. Because there's limited resources, they have to pick the kids that research shows benefit the most from early intervention," she said, while on her way to a meeting in Austin.
"It's critical for all children. The difference is, though, that it's more important for the children that are in those eligible categories because they just don't get the life experiences; they don't get the exposure at home to the literacy and to the linguistics," Kellner said. "She's absolutely right, it's important for every child. But it's more important for those eligible children, and in times of limited resources then you apply your money there."
Spring Branch led the way into pre-kindergarten for this part of the state, starting 27 years ago with a superintendent who looked at his district's shifting demographics and decided that a new approach was needed — "to do prevention more than intervention," as Kellner puts it.
And because that superintendent recognized "that it would work for all children," Kellner says the district offered tuition-based spots as well. "If it's good for some kids, it's good for all kids," she says.
The halcyon days for Spring Branch were in the two school years running from 2000 to 2002. During that time, the district opened up pre-K to all its kids who wanted to go. "This was before we had Robin Hood (the Texas school-funding mechanism that redirects local funds elsewhere as the state determines the need)," Kellner said.
"There was a two-year period where we did have enough money locally to pay for that, but that was local tax dollars and once we had to give the money back to the state, we couldn't afford to do that," she explained. The district also used to offer scholarships to families above the official poverty line, she said.
"We have a lot of families who don't qualify for free pre-K because they have too much money but they can't afford the full tuition. We used to be able to offer very nice scholarships, but we can't do that anymore because they cut our funding."
Monica Ochoa is a first-generation American. The daughter of Mexican nationals, she was born in the United States, but her parents returned to Mexico within a few months. She didn't re-enter the United States until she was ten, when she returned with an aunt. If she hadn't been pushed at that point to master English, she says, she never would have made it, never would have graduated from high school or college.
Christopher Ochoa is third-generation American. His mother went to school during the era when speaking any Spanish in a U.S. school would get students in trouble. It was so hard for her, he says, that she determined it would be best if her children just spoke English.
As a result, however, Christopher was entitled to only half-day kindergarten in Texas, he says. The kids who spoke Spanish got to stay on for the full day, with more activities after he left each day. He still remembers the blocks he wasn't allowed to play with because they were reserved for the afternoon-session kids.
Kellner says few people cheat on their applications for the pre-K program. "You're signing a federal form, after all." But Monica Ochoa says yes, they do cheat.
"We talked to family and friends," she says. "Some are lying," he adds. "Some people say the only thing to do is lie. 'They don't look at the numbers; they don't check the papers,' " she says, mimicking them. "Some of our family and friends are paying for private school; some are just playing along with the system. It shouldn't be that way."
"Even though nobody says it right out loud, immigrant children have first priority because they don't speak the language," Monica says. "Low-income families...I felt as a citizen of this country my daughter should have the right to go to school; she shouldn't be penalized because she has two working parents."
But Ochoa doesn't want her views to be seen as anti-immigrant, especially considering her own family history. "I can completely relate to the daughters and sons of immigrant parents. But to have my daughter denied the same benefit, it just makes me appalled." So she's circulated a petition in her neighborhood calling for free pre-K for all kids. And she's filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.
Ochoa says she even recently came clean in a telephone call to an HISD representative, although she can't recall the name. "One lady was supposed to call me back. She never did. I said, 'I already have her in pre-K because I changed some things on the application.'
"I expect to hear an officer at the door some day saying, 'I'm going to have to take you in because you lied on your application,'" she says. "I don't know if that's some kind of federal charge or what kind of criminal I'm going to be now. I feel petrified to lie, but at the same time I have never been more proud of doing something like that for my daughter."
The Ochoas' situation tends to sink under the weight of its own many ironies. Even though they operate a paid day care, they want free pre-K available to everyone. ("There will always be lots of kids coming; we haven't seen any drop in business," Monica says.)
They are true believers that HISD pre-K can work a world of magic. HISD should feature them in one of its highly polished videos, delivering a testimonial on how great its program is, how much it did for their son, how much it is doing for their daughter.
They have bought into an old-time vision of how America should operate. Work hard, be independent, set up a business, accept civic responsibility — they even see a good pre-K environment as helping their children become better "productive" citizens later in life — these are all the values they embrace.
Squaring that with a lie is tough.
As citizens, they believe they should be entitled to certain rights and privileges and certainly shouldn't be penalized for what success they've had as members of the middle class.
They are not illegal immigrants. They have embraced the English language for themselves and their children. Because of that, years ago, Christopher was barred from full-day kindergarten and certain toys. (One longtime Texas education authority we talked with said 20 years ago, Hispanic parents got the word out around Austin to tell their kids to flunk the readiness test so they'd qualify for full-day kindergarten benefits instead of the partial that Christopher got.)
Because of that and according to the state's rules, their daughter is barred from a free public education, at least for the present. There is a certain bitterness here; they thought they were doing the right thing. Endorsing the language of their own country, they said, shouldn't be the reason to lose an opportunity.
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While again stressing the limited resources in the state, Susan Kellner agrees that the Ochoa situation doesn't seem quite fair.
"It is frustrating. You do everything you're supposed to do and then that's held against you. A little bit in my mind it's disincentivizing excellence," she says.
Well, yeah, a person could read it that way. In any language.