Entitled to What?

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.

She lied.

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.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing