What should be the Texas Legislature's No. 1 priority? How about reforming school finance
By Philip Ramirez and Cleo Rodriguez Jr.
Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 01.03.2019
The boxes are being unpacked in Austin this weekend as lawmakers from across the state descend on the Capitol to gavel in the 86th Texas Legislative Session this Tuesday. This ritual has been replicated every two years in the capital, including in 1993 when Ann Richards was in the Governor’s Mansion, Bob Bullock reigned over the Texas Senate, the House Speaker was Pete Laney and George W. Bush owned the Texas Rangers. My how Texas has changed over 26 years.
That session also happened to be the last time Texas made major adjustments to the state’s school finance system with the passage of the so-called Robin Hood bill. This legislation requires property wealthy school districts to undergo “wealth equalization” measures, or recapture, between themselves and property-poor districts. Many of the core elements of the school finance formula date even further back to the early 1980s.
While the law has remained static, Texas is ever-changing.
Since 1993, Texas’ student population has swelled 46 percent from about 3.7 million to 5.4 million today. Today, roughly 6 in 10 students are considered economically disadvantaged and 1 in 5 are English language learners, ranking us ninth and second nationally in those categories. Over time, Texas classrooms have become radically different than they were 26 years ago and require a different approach if we want Texas’ prosperity to continue.
As businesspeople, we spend a lot of time talking about the importance of an educational system that creates a workforce pipeline for the future of Texas. According to a recent survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, a shrinking labor market is the number one concern of companies, with 66 percent reporting difficulty finding and hiring qualified workers.
The majority of new jobs being created require some education beyond a high school diploma. Yet in Harris County, only 37 percent of students who graduate from high school are deemed ‘college ready.’ That’s a reflection of an education system that isn’t meeting the demands of the marketplace.
In 2015, the state set a statewide goal of having 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 achieve a certificate or degree by 2030 to keep our state on pace with the needs of business and a knowledge-based economy. In our most recent progress report, only 42 percent of this age group currently meets that standard, and this is heavily buoyed by tremendous in-migration of educated adults from outside Texas.
In looking at our own K-12 pipeline, of students that are educated in Texas, only 22 percent of eighth graders have a post-secondary credential by the age of 24. For a state that currently accounts for 10 percent of all the K-12 students in the United States, it basically says that we're willing to outsource the education of our workforce to other states.
If the current trend continues, we won't have the educated workforce that our growing economy requires, and many Texas children will have been educationally shortchanged and not enjoy the opportunity to succeed and prosper. Neither is an acceptable outcome.
That’s why we can't afford to kick the can down the road and wait any longer to address the issue of school finance. The time to act is now.
It is an enormous task of reforming a system that has been in place for decades. Understanding the details of how public schools are funded and how school funding is intertwined with the issue of escalating property taxes makes the work complicated. When it comes to public education, opinions abound. However, we can't let obstacles deter us from the fact that increased funding directed toward high-quality initiatives is what is needed in Texas to improve education outcomes and strengthen our state.
That being said, we are encouraged by the signs coming from Austin.
Both Gov. Greg Abbott and presumed-House Speaker Dennis Bonnen have named meaningful school finance reform their number one priority this session. We’ve heard from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that he’s also ready to help get this done. We also know Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor and House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty are poised for action.
Our leaders in Austin have the opportunity in 2019 to be champions for the students in our state and start Texas on a competitive path for decades to come. The Houston business community and all Texans are counting on our legislators to make passing meaningful school finance reform a priority this session.
Philip Rodriguez is the incoming chair of the United Corpus Christi Chamber and Principal Architect/Corporate President of Turner Ramirez Architects. Cleo Rodriguez Jr. is the President and CEO of the United Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce.