School finance reform faces new challenges

By Travis M. Whitehead, Brownsville Herald

Pay now or pay later.

That message rang loud and clear yesterday during a meeting of educators, business leaders and city officials who gathered to discuss public school finance reform.

“ We have a state that’s increasingly poor,” said Sagar Desai, managing director of operations at Commit Partnership, a group pushing for school finance reform.

“ Three out of five kids enrolled in public education are lower income,” he said. “We do a good job serving our kids with the dollars that we have but we are a state that ranks 43rd in the nation in public education.”

He also pointed out that Texas also ranks 28th in student achievement outcomes, but still more money is needed to address the needs of children in the lower grades.

The event was held to discuss school finance reform that will be addressed by the upcoming legislative session. It was organized by the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium in partnership with

the Harlingen Chamber of Commerce and RGV Partnership.

Jennifer Esterline, executive director of the consortium, said she and other educators want Texans to understand that as the state spends less on education, local governments must fill in the gap

“ We’re giving people an understanding of what the problems are so that we can find solutions,” she said

Texas has a large number of children from low income households. Children in such circumstances need access to more resources for their education, and those extra resources cost money.

Chandra Villanueva, economic opportunity team program director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, pointed out that Texas is spending more money than ever on public education in dollar figures. However, when you take into account inflation, population growth and changing demographics, funding has remained flat.

“ It was around 2000 or 2001 that we started to have more economically disadvantaged students than non-economically disadvantaged,” Villanueva said. “We’re not keeping up with the fact that some campuses have high concentrations of low income kids.”

She observed that, yes, Texas provides 20 percent additional funding for each low income child. However, funding five low income students is something rather different than funding a district with 80 percent of the students from low income households.

“ It just compounds the needs of resources so we don’t have a way that really adjusts or accounts for concentrations of poverty in some of our campuses and districts across the state,” she said.

She said her organization’s analysis of the situation shows that in many of the lowest income elementary schools the district is spending 40 percent less on bilingual education today than in 2008.

“ Bilingual education is an early education issue,” she said. “If we’re not getting kids proficient in English in elementary school they are going to struggle in middle school and probably drop out of high school.”

Harlingen School Superintendent Art Cavazos appreciated the presentation.

“ It was an excellent presentation kind of summarizing school finance and the challenges that are ahead,” Cavazos said. “It showed the importance of properly funding school systems that should be priority number one in this legislative session.”

He also pointed out the need to address the needs of low-income kids in the early grades.

“ If we invest now especially in early childhood then you begin to close that achievement gap,” he said. “You ensure that students are workforce ready.”

Another meeting was held later yesterday in Mission.

Joshua Kumler