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Education: The Other Infrastructure Problem

The state's biggest education deficit is in its fastest-growing population. If that persists, Hispanics will have problems operating at full potential in the Texas of the future.

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Be a Martian for a second. You just landed in Texas. You know nothing about politics or government, and you are looking to see what these humans are up to — to judge them by their deeds.

Have a look at what they are building over here. These Texans have a system for educating their children, for giving them the basic information and skills they’ll need to function as adults, culturally, intellectually and economically. They seem to have a theory about building human capital, a notion that public education will enrich the citizens and the society in an ongoing, self-replenishing cycle.

But the machine the Texans built to accomplish all of that doesn’t work the same way for every part of its population. In fact, the biggest problems are in the fastest-growing part of the population. It’s a supply-chain issue: if the state is dependent on an educated population, and if a growing part of the population isn’t getting that education, then the future of that society might not be what the designers had in mind.

As of 2010, 40.4 percent of the state’s Hispanics 25 and older had completed something less than a high school education, according to the United States Census Bureau. Another 25.8 percent topped out their education with high school diplomas, and only 11.6 percent had college degrees. Compare that with Anglos: 8 percent of those adults didn’t finish high school, 25.3 percent stopped with a diploma and 34.1 percent had college degrees.

That’s now.

Over the last decade, Hispanics accounted for two-thirds of the state’s overall population growth. The population of minors was even more telling — 95.1 percent of that growth was in the Hispanic population. The population of Anglos younger than 18 in Texas dropped by 7.4 percent. Steve Murdock, a demographer at Rice University, forecasts that Hispanics will account for the majority of the population in the next 20 years, depending on how the state grows. It could happen sooner at current growth rates.

Here’s another thing: The Hispanic population is disproportionately young. More than a third are younger than 18, compared with a quarter of the overall population and about a fifth of the Anglo population.

They are children. They’ll be in schools. And if they don’t do better than the current contingent, they will be a worry for themselves and the root cause of some huge public policy headaches.

Whatever you think of the numbers, think about what the state is constructing here. Disregard, for the moment, school finance, test scores, teacher pay, vouchers — all the normal content of conversation and debate about public schools. You are a Martian, here to figure out what’s going on and what the future might hold.

As of 2010, 26.8 percent of the state’s Hispanic population lived in poverty, compared with 17.9 percent over all, and 9.5 percent for Anglos. Median household income was $37,087; the overall median was $48,615, and the median in Anglo households was $59,517.

If the numbers persist, that population will have problems operating at full potential in the Texas of the future. That’s trouble for them. It’s trouble for future employers looking for help. And it’s trouble for the next generation of well-trained, working taxpayers who will have to carry that group, either as social cases, prison cases, undertrained employees, whatever.

They will be the band that didn’t practice, the team that didn’t work out. Dead weight.

Now take off the Martian mask and reinsert the politics and public policy, the school finance, the vouchers, standardized tests and all the rest.

The state’s political class is talking more about infrastructure and about longer-term problems that naturally get ignored when the economy is bad and everyone’s attention is on the immediate problems they face. The state economy has improved enough that people from both parties are talking again about water, roads, electricity — big and expensive issues that require a lot of planning and conversation about what Texas will look like in the future.

Some of them include education in the infrastructure conversation. And as with those other things, the planners can squint a little and see what the future might look like if they do something now and what it might look like if they don’t.

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