Texas must educate more than an elite to secure the future

By Matthew Ladner Ph.D.
Texas Public Policy Foundation

Texas currently stands as an economic juggernaut, leading the nation in private sector job growth by a wide margin. Texans however suffers from an Achilles heel that remains largely unrecognized. In 2011, the Nation’s Report Card, a highly respected national examination revealed that only 27 percent of Texas 8th grade students score proficient in reading. The bitter experience of the 1980s taught that heavy reliance upon commodities eventually ends in tears. In order to truly secure the state’s future as an opportunity society, Texans must relentlessly pursue public school improvement.

The NAEP data reveal appalling achievement gaps: 42 percent of Texas Anglos read proficiently, while only 17 percent of Hispanics met the standard with even lower average achievement for Black students. Hispanics now make up a majority of Texas public school students. The future prosperity and stability of the state rests upon providing opportunity for all students.

The Texas lawmakers are debating important issues regarding graduation standards during the 2013 session. Even more fundamental issues remain. We need to be asking what can be done to ensure that more Texas public school students can read the textbooks of whatever courses they take.

In addition to academic issues, Texas districts have been annually adding approximately 80,000 new students. The resulting financial strain has required a steadily decreasing of the percentage of funds going into the classroom.

Texas public school enrollment has grown by more than 50 percent since 1990-from approximately 3.3 million students in 1990 and 5 million today. Costs per students have surged and the percentage of funds available for instruction has declined. Since 2000 the total expenditure per child has increased from $6,638 per pupil to $11,146. Debt service and capital outlay costs nearly doubled as a percentage of district budgets.

Today less than half of funds go to pay for instruction as teachers of all things find themselves squeezed in expanding district budgets and taxpayers feel the strain of annually rising property taxes. Texas in effect tried and failed to spend their way to higher quality schools.

Texans were K-12 reform leaders in the 1990s but today these efforts appear to be low-hanging fruit. Just keeping ahead of most other large states will require upgraded academic performance. Internationally competitive scores will require still more improvement.

Moving the needle on school performance will not be easy-but it is possible. A recent Stanford University study found that Florida achieved the second to largest NAEP score gains despite having the smallest overall increase in per student funding.

The Florida strategy relied upon clear transparency (A-F school grades based upon student proficiency and academic growth) and the most far-reaching parental choice policies in the nation. Florida lawmakers provided incentives for improvement and opportunities for parents to match their child with a school that meets their needs.

Even schools with high average performance have students who could prosper more elsewhere. The experience with parental choice clearly demonstrates that it improves both student learning and public schools. Florida’s low-income and minority students led the way on improvement, and the public education system grew stronger in the process.

Texas school districts have nothing to fear from parental choice. If every charter school west of the Mississippi River had opened in Texas, Texas school districts would have still expanded their enrollment by over half a million students since 1990. The cartoonish elephant terrified of a mouse pose of various defenders of the status-quo should not deceive anyone. Districts have more growth than they can handle.

Texas cannot remain a place where people live the American dream while educating only a fraction of students to levels sufficient to participate in the competitive global economy. Texans both urgently need and desire a public education system that helps every student reach their potential. Texans justifiably view their state as a land of opportunity. We should stop at nothing to keep it so.

Matthew Ladner is a Senior Fellow with Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, a non-profit, free-market research based institute in Austin.

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