A Sobering Snapshot of Texas Schools

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If you want see how tough things are getting for the children, parents, teachers and administrators who are all trying to make Texas schools work, I'd like to point you to one thing:

Last Thursday.

Or, more specifically, the school news that bubbled up on Thursday. It was a harrowing day.

The bad news didn’t start last week, of course. It dates back in part to last year’s legislative session, when those in control of the state’s budget decided to slash about $4 billion – I say again, FOUR BILLION DOLLARS – from what local school districts were promised and needed to pay for increasing costs and numbers of students.

Now, $4,000,000,000 is a big number. It’s tough to get your arms around all of those zeros – particularly when legislating is all mixed up with politicking, and when ostensible leaders are running around the state and the country ignoring or denying the damage they’ve caused to our kids and Texas’ future.

The problems are huge, too. Hundreds of Texas school districts have sued the state in an effort to create a better and more fairly funded system. That in itself is extraordinary – those in control of the Capitol have so bungled their responsibilities to our kids that local school boards have been forced to bypass their representatives, senators, Governor and Lieutenant Governor and start asking judges to clean up the mess (more on this later).

Inevitably, the human costs of misplaced priorities were going to surface. A lot of them came up late last week.

Dallas: School closures

Let’s start off in Dallas, where Dallas ISD trustees voted Thursday to shutter 11 schools.

The decision was teed up by the legislature’s budget cut – Dallas ISD had already cut $76 million from the current budget, according to the Dallas Morning News, “largely by offering employees incentives to resign and increasing class sizes.”

But despite that fairly extreme action, the board still had to cut another $38 million for next year. And, as one trustee put it, either the 11 schools had to be closed, or 171 teachers would have had to be fired.

Heck of a choice for anyone who cares about helping kids learn.

You can read more about it in this article (subscription required) or get a blow-by-blow from this blog.

South Texas: No sports

Also on Thursday, the Texas Tribune brought word of the tiny Premont ISD in South Texas, a district of 570 students that was already struggling. Then those in control of the state’s purse strings yanked more than $400,000 out from under the district – which, as the article points out, was already among the most poorly funded districts in Texas.

So, again, faced with a handful of very painful options, the district went for a clearly radical approach that, it hopes, will nevertheless cause the least amount of damage – it put all sports programs on hold for a year.

In the article, some students raise the prospect of fleeing Premont for a district that continues to field teams. Others clearly worry about losing the activity that helped keep them out of trouble.

But most students and parents, it seems, are resigned to the decision. After all, given the circumstances, what else can the district do?

The Houston Chronicle followed up over the weekend with a great column looking at funding inequities among Texas school districts. It showed that districts rated “exemplary” by the state receive over $1,000 more, per student, than those rated “academically unacceptable.” 

If you're looking at the students that districts are working the hardest to teach – and the costs of meeting those kids' needs – the numbers are even more sobering. Just 17 percent of the kids in exemplary districts qualify for free-and-reduced lunch programs (based on federal poverty guidelines), the column said. In academically unacceptable districts, that figure's around 85 percent.

Keep those numbers in mind if someone – particularly someone who's part of the power structure at the Capitol – tries to lay the blame for these problems on Premont or other victims of the state's school finance system.

Texas: A broken system

That equity issue was the focus of an editorial by James “Kal” Kallison, the president of the Eanes ISD school board, that the Austin American-Statesman published on its website Thursday.

The editorial goes into some detail about the lawsuits I mentioned earlier that school districts are pursuing against the state. You should read the whole thing, which you can find here. This, to me, is the key passage:

“School districts represented in two of the lawsuits believe that … the finance system still does not produce complete equity among districts. Regardless of the equity issue, most districts do agree that the current amount of revenue … afforded to all districts in the state is simply not enough to provide for an adequate education of our children, as required by the Texas Constitution and defined in statute.”

Those questions – whether the school finance system is equitable, and whether it’s adequate to educate the children of Texas – are going to be litigated over many months, and it’ll probably be more than a year before the courts finally settle the issue.

But after a day like Thursday – after seeing so many of the issues that our schools have been left to deal with – does anyone believe that the state’s doing right by our schools and our kids?

Austin: The achievement gap

Finally, in Austin, business and civic leaders sat down at a summit on Thursday to talk over the state of early childhood education, particularly pre-kindergarten programs.

Of course, Pre-K has become one of the most important factors that educators look at in gauging how successful students will be. The numbers show that kids who show up to kindergarten with basic language, problem-solving and other skills are far more likely to pass achievement tests in later years – and far less likely to drop out of high school.

So what did those in control of the Capitol do with this inside knowledge about what works in education?

They ignored it. They eliminated a critical grant program and the $200 million it would have contributed to make Pre-K programs stronger and more accessible across the state.

It was a devastating decision – and that devastation was front-and-center at the business and civic leader summit Thursday. There, the United Way Capital Area discussed results of a report it produced as part of its “Success by 6” initiative.

The report found that for children as young as 3 – barely older than babies – an achievement gap already can be seen between kids from low-income families and students as a whole.

As the Statesman summarized, “Fifty-two percent of Central Texas children entering kindergarten are ready for school, according to the results. But in Dove Springs, Manor and Quail Creek [three generally low-income neighborhoods that were studied for the project], the proportion considered well-prepared for school ranged from 12 to 15 percent.”

It's a giant problem. All of these stories demonstrate giant problems. And the problems will only grow as this cruel budget and broken finance system settle over the parents, teachers and administrators who are trying to cope with it all.

So the worst thing about Thursday might not even be Thursday. It might be that there'll be more days like it.


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