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Analysis: Schools Are Changing, and Not the Way You Might Think

The public school population in Texas has grown dramatically, and in a way some might find surprising: Most of the growth has come in the numbers of economically disadvantaged students.

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Whatever you might say about the state of public education in Texas today, this is not the same school system Texas was operating in the mid-1990s.

Public schools here are changing rapidly. They don’t look the way you might expect because they haven’t looked like this for very long. For one thing, the school population has grown dramatically — and nearly all of the increase has come from economically disadvantaged students.

The picture that emerges in the latest version of the Texas Education Agency’s annual Snapshot report is of a giant system of enormous and microscopic school districts with a huge variety of geographic, ethnic, racial, economic and educational diversity.

That’s been true for a long time. But the size of the system and the various components are in constant motion.

Twenty years ago, the public school population in Texas was 3.7 million. Ten years ago, that had grown to 4.3 million. Today it’s 5.1 million — 39.9 percent larger than in the 1994-95 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency’s annual Snapshot reports.

Twenty years ago, 46.3 percent of the kids in Texas public schools were economically disadvantaged. Ten years ago, it was 52.8 percent. Now it’s 60.2 percent — about three students in five.

So the number of students grew, and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students also grew.

Some quick back-of-the-envelope math: 20 years ago, the population of low-income public school students in Texas was 1.7 million. Ten years ago, it was 2.3 million. Today it is 3.1 million, an increase of 81.9 percent in two decades.

Put those numbers together: The overall public school student population in the state has grown 39.9 percent over the last 20 years. Over the same period, the low-income student population has grown 81.9 percent.

And look at this: The population of students who aren’t economically disadvantaged has remained relatively flat over the last 20 years, rising by 73,185 students — 3.7 percent — to 2 million.

Almost all of the growth in the state’s public schools since the mid-1990s has been among low-income students.

Twenty years ago, Anglos were 47 percent of the student population, Hispanics were 36 percent and African-Americans were 14 percent. Asians weren’t counted separately. Things have changed: Hispanics make up 51.8 percent, Anglos 29.4 percent, African-Americans 12.7 percent and Asians 3.7 percent.

The percentage of students in bilingual/ESL (English as a second language) education rose from 11 percent in 1995-94 to 14 percent 10 years ago to 17.1 percent now.

State officials have had a hard time keeping pace. This is expensive. Prices have gone up, to per-pupil revenue of $9,903 now from $4,942 then, a 100 percent increase. The federal Consumer Price Index increased 60 percent over that period.

At the legislative level, education policy always seems to be slightly out of control; it’s hard to get a grip and harder still to agree on what should happen. It’s not incompetence as much as a mismatch between long-term solutions and short-term political cycles.

Fast problems are easy to solve in a Legislature. Worried about border security? Boom! $811 million for state troopers and troops.

Slow problems — the kinds that drip, drip, drip until you look up and things have gone awry — are harder to deal with. It’s tough to vote on things that don’t yield results within an election cycle, and hard to get politicians to pay attention to problems that won’t crop up until they are long gone.

They approved a big water finance plan a couple of years ago, but that was during a drought. When voters complain about traffic, lawmakers send concrete trucks, orange cones and construction crews.

When that 1994-95 Snapshot was released, only 24 of the state’s current 181 legislators were in office. The people they were serving with when the 1995 legislative session began had no political reason to worry about what the schools would look like in 2015.

They had reasons: This is their state and they ran for office, most of them, because they cared deeply about its future. But politicians have to weigh their current standing with voters against their far-flung policy plans. Remember the Ronald Reagan line: When you’re up to your armpits in alligators, it’s hard to remember to drain the swamp.

It’s one reason Texas is behind on water and road infrastructure, why lawmakers put off deferred maintenance of state buildings and other assets for years, and why they now have to limit enrollment in top state colleges that weren’t expanded to accommodate the Texas kids who would be seeking entry.

And why they’re operating public schools today that look completely different from what they were operating 20 years ago.

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