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October 16, 2020

Texas: Turning Crisis into Opportunity to Meet Students’ Needs

By Alfred Ray, Vice President, Public Finance

It’s fair to say that no one was prepared for the swift and devastating arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the education of students. Like every other state, Texas was caught unaware last spring, with little guidance to go on and no relevant experience to draw on.

And like many other states, Texas was already facing some challenges with regard to public education: aging infrastructure; a digital divide that has only become more acute and stark in the age of COVID; and little opportunity for local districts to have their unique needs addressed. Particular to Texas is the fact that it has a growing student population. Each year, some 50,000 to 60,000 students join Texas’s public education system, largely distributed among five large metro areas: Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, and El Paso. And finally, there is the fact that Texas is a low-tax state, which translates into it having fewer government services than other states.

The lack of a state income tax has helped fuel Texas’s growth, but has also helped contribute to a funding issue for education. According to data by the National Education Association, Texas spent $10,456 per student for the 2017-18 school year —$2,300 below the national average, ranking Texas 36th nationally in per-student spending. Money used to fund public education comes from a combination of federal, state, and local sources. State aid has not increased at the same rate as local aid (e.g. property taxes), yet despite the contributions of localities, they have little control over how money is spent on educational needs.

Over time (as the state’s portion of funding has decreased) legislators have increased the burden for accountability from schools via various measures. Yet policymakers have the biggest impact on funding, rather than educational leaders, who have day-to-day insight into students’ needs and those of their individual school systems.

A BUILDING BLOCK OF SOCIETY

I have gained considerable insight into the educational and funding sides of the school system, thanks to having spent the first 30 years of my career in public education. I retired in 2016 after having served 8 years as a school superintendent. Over the course of my career in education, it was my intent to honor the spirit in which the Founding Fathers viewed public education: as a critical building block of a civilized society. They viewed education as something of immeasurable value; not a commodity that could be measured, sold, or traded. 

Also true to that spirit is the idea that the local public should play a strong role in determining how money is spent. Instead, what we’re seeing is that the local public’s say in education is not in proportion to its financial contributions. By their very nature, public schools are to be “owned” by the public.

These issues have always been important, but now, COVID is adding urgency to questions around funding and decision making. This confluence of the important and the urgent is an inflection point for education, representing an opportunity for localities to have greater influence over school funding.

We’re already seeing more local influence being wielded because of the pandemic. Most Texas districts that I’ve seen and spoken with have involved their communities in the decision making around the current approach to education. There is no one-size-fits-all approach right now. Some districts have started online learning right away, some are doing hybrid, some are doing in-person only. But they arrived at these decisions by surveying their communities.  

ENGAGED COMMUNITIES

I have never seen local communities as engaged and interested in what is happening in education as they are now. They recognize the importance of good education. Good schools improve property values. A well-educated population draws business investment. Even people who don’t have children in school anymore – or don’t have children, period – are invested in education.

This activity is translating into a level of transparency, and a feeling of ownership and control over decisions that are being made. I believe that once people get involved, they stay involved. That sense of agency will prove especially important as questions arise about financing necessary changes. Indeed, determining how to spend money raised through public finance initiatives is one of the ways where local authorities and individuals can make their voices heard. Critical to such efforts are innovative solutions and expert advice around evaluating the needs of the school district; determining what is needed to bridge any gaps; and looking at options to raise the money at favorable rates.

CLOSING THE TECHNOLOGY GAP

A great example is what is happening with technology. Texas has committed to spending $250 million to bridge the digital divide. There are some 5.5 million public school students in Texas; 3.3 million of whom are low-income. Data that indicates that 94% of them have some type of Internet access at home, while technically correct, is somewhat misleading. If there is one smart phone or smart device in the household, the household qualifies as having access. A different question – and the right question – to ask is: “Do you have the type of access and bandwidth needed to successfully do school work?”

With that question, you’re asking if just under $50 per student or $70 per at-risk child is enough to bridge the digital divide. Considering that COVID is forcing public education to look at itself in terms of how students are learning and engaging with their teachers while also creating a flexible learning model that will likely endure going forward, it’s clear that a more robust solution is needed.  

COVID’s impact of education is not yet known, from either a financial or a technical aspect.  Appropriately, much of the focus has been on the human cost, and the need to do right by both students and teachers. But its impact will not stay unknown, and speaks to the fact that now, more than ever, there is a need for innovative, collaborative approaches to delivering and financing education.

 

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Dr. Alfred Ray is a Vice President in Stephens Inc.’s Dallas Public Finance Office. Prior to joining Stephens, Alfred spent 30 years in public education, including 8 years as a superintendent of schools.  

 

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