Fixing Texas’ failing education system is critical for employers

logoBy Chris Tomlinson, Houston Chronicle

920x920If you want to know why it’s so hard to find good help these days, visit your local elementary school.

Spend some time in a 3rd grade reading class. No, not because prison planners use reading scores to predict future demand, that’s an urban myth. But whether a child can read in 3rd grade does predict whether he or she will graduate from high school.

That’s important for employers who understand that good employees are a predictor of a firm’s success. Unfortunately, Texas’ reading scores in general, and Harris County’s in particular, signal a gloomy economic future.

Statewide, 64 percent of 3rd graders do not meet reading standards. Harris County scores a little better, with 39 percent of children reading at grade level, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities. The primary reason for the low scores is that Texas does not guarantee free, full-day pre-Kindergarten education, which means economically disadvantaged children are behind before they start public school, and teachers can only do so much to make up the deficit.

In too many cases, the kids never catch up.

The trouble escalates when they try to transition to high school and about 10 percent have to repeat the 9th grade. After that, 8 percent don’t finish high school and too often they spend lives mired in poverty.

If a child does graduate high school, half don’t go to college. And among those who do, 52 percent don’t finish within six years, according to the center. Too often, a young person who is the first in their family to attend university doesn’t have the money for tuition and books or the social network to thrive.

The result is a breakdown in the labor market. About 47 percent of Texas jobs require a bachelor’s degree, but only 19 percent of the workforce over the age of 25 has one, according to the national education group Achieve. Meanwhile, 48 percent of workers have nothing more than a high school diploma, but only 36 percent of jobs accept applicants with less than an associate’s degree.

“These numbers show we have a long way to go to meet our education goals in Texas,” said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business.

State-funded education is failing at the same time as businesses are closing down apprenticeship programs, in-house training and contracts with labor unions that once created a steady stream of qualified workers. Instead, employers are pressuring state lawmakers and community college boards to train workers at the taxpayer’s expense.

Intervention after public school, though, comes too late if there aren’t enough high school graduates. That’s why employers need to demand that state lawmakers fulfill the Texas Constitution’s requirement to “make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

Per student spending makes a difference. The top 25 performing school districts in Texas spent $7,372 a year per student on average, while the bottom 25 districts averaged $4,875, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Harris County spent the statewide average of $5,461.

Successful districts invested the extra cash in full-time pre-kindergarten and outperformed those that didn’t. Schools that offer high school courses that qualify for college credit also produced more successful students.

These well-known truths, though, mean nothing to the Republican majority that controls the Texas Legislature. They keep cutting per student spending to reap the short-term political rewards for cutting taxes.

In 2011, they cut funding because of the Great Recession. In 2013, they restored some of the money, but not all it. Then in 2015, when the state had plenty of money, conservative leaders decided it was more important to cut property taxes than to make Texas schools whole again.

School districts recognized that lawmakers were failing to “make suitable provision” for public schools and sued. The state Supreme Court is expected to uphold at least part of a lower court’s finding that state education funding is inadequate, unequal and in need of an overhaul.

The court’s decision in the coming weeks will be the signal for civic-minded business people to ask lawmakers to pass a comprehensive, long-term solution to Texas’ education crisis. That’s going to entail raising taxes, but we know that investing in an educated population fuels a successful economy, just as skilled workers drive profitable businesses.

Right-minded lawmakers will need political cover to do what’s necessary at a time when oil revenues are down, and pressure is rising to cut taxes. Business people can shape the debate by making clear what’s at stake, namely, Texas’ economic future.

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