From a small apartment, a kid walks to Milam Elementary in Dallas ISD. His family car has broken down — again — but he doesn’t want to be late because his teacher, Ms. Keeler, expects him. In spite of where he lives, she believes in his potential, and it’s the encouragement he needs to trust in what is possible — to later take advantage of scholarships and Pell Grants to finance 99% of an Austin College education and arrive at a career that allows him to lift his family out of the financial insecurity he’s known all of his life.
I am indebted in every aspect of my life to the transformative power of education and the great teachers like Ms. Keeler, who taught a love of reading and math and a belief that college was not only expected but achievable. While there’s truly nothing I could do to match their impact, it’s been an honor to try to pay their blessings forward by serving both my community as well as our state, first on the Texas Commission for Public School Finance, and now on the School Land Board.
Every biennium, lawmakers, educators, administrators and advocates put forth proposals to support our students. And yet the one voice we consistently don’t have at the table is that of the students themselves. They can’t vote, they don’t have paid lobbyists, and there are 5.4 million of them, representing 10% of the nation’s students. The best advocate for their voice, if they’re not at that table, is the data.
Unfortunately, as we learned during the year-long school finance commission process in 2018, that data was not pretty, and it demanded that our state invest deeply and strategically. Only four in 10 Texas students meet the state reading standard in 3rd grade, placing Texas 45th in national rankings on the Nation’s Report Card (or NAEP). Only one in five 8th graders receive any type of postsecondary credential by the age of 24. And these problems are materially worse for our students of color and our students living in poverty, two of the state’s fastest-growing demographics.
Make no mistake, these shortfalls create substantial lifetime headwinds. Only 1 in 4 Texas young adults ages 25-34 earns a living wage of $50,000 or more. If you’re Black or Hispanic, that number is just 1 in 6. While the prosperity within Texas is substantial, so is its inequality, as measured by the numbers of residents living in poverty and without access to healthy food, broadband internet or adequate health care.
Because we held the conviction that talent is distributed equally but opportunity was not, the school finance commission set out to understand where and how we should invest to increase the educational and living wage outcomes for all Texans. Our collective answer to those questions became the basis for House Bill 3, the landmark school finance reform measure passed in the 2019 legislative session under the strong bipartisan leadership of Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Speaker Dennis Bonnen and education committee Chairs and Vice-Chairs Dan Huberty, Larry Taylor, Royce West and Diego Bernal.
The euphoria of doing something meaningful and highly strategic in the summer of 2019 was replaced with the angst and disruption of COVID-19 just nine short months later. Students and teachers expecting to reap the benefits of HB3 were suddenly thrust into a remote learning world that our education system was ill prepared for, especially in light of the substantial internet divide found within and across countless communities across our state.
Abraham Lincoln once wrote, "I am a firm believer in the people ... if given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any crisis.” With substantial learning losses now becoming acutely prevalent, educator and student needs have only become more urgent, making the fundamental strategies embedded and financed within HB3 that much more important:
First, effective teachers are the most important in-school factor for student success. For over 20 years, educator turnover has grown markedly, with our students more likely to have a beginning teacher. Those new educators, disproportionately found on high poverty campuses, have been increasingly certified without the benefit of a strong residency requirement to practice their craft before they’re on their own. In response, HB3 provided a pay increase to every teacher in Texas, but its true transformative power lies in its Teacher Incentive Allotment, which allows districts to fund life-changing raises to reward our great educators who stay in the classroom and education longer but also who work in our harder-to-staff rural and high poverty campuses.
Second, our students with the greatest needs require the greatest resources. What seems like a straightforward assumption was for far too long a missing fundamental pillar of our school finance system. As students experiencing the challenges of being English learners or living in poverty exploded over the last 20 years, our inflation-adjusted per-pupil funding continued to decrease as a percentage of the national per pupil average, exacerbated by the $5 billion of public school funding cuts in 2011. Our student outcomes on NAEP fell. HB3 halted this trend in its tracks, not only increasing overall per pupil funding, but also directing additional support to students living in areas where generational poverty was especially concentrated.
Third, we must rethink our historical school calendar to better serve all students. Even before the pandemic, research demonstrated that extended summer breaks led to learning losses that disproportionately impacted our most vulnerable students. Mitigating this trend has now become more important than ever with additional COVID-19-related learning loss, which is why districts from Garland to Socorro to Alief have taken advantage of HB3’s Additional Days School Year Program, which pays for the addition of up to 30 calendar days on elementary school campuses.
Fourth, a resilient economy requires a strong educational foundation. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that a high school graduate who isn’t given the support to achieve a postsecondary credential loses out on roughly $1 million in lifetime earnings. That means our state’s economy is losing out on as much as $200 billion in potential future lifetime earnings with each and every annual cohort of students when we fail to significantly improve upon our rates of college, career and military readiness — another metric HB3 sought to directly improve through targeted incentive funding.
As state lawmakers begin a session defined by a slight decrease in projected revenue coupled with greater needs, some may be inclined to scale back or pause on these transformative educational investments.
“Leaders across Texas, especially business leaders depending on an educated populace for both their workforce and their consumer base, know that any decision to scale back or pause these investments would substantially impair our state’s prospects. We simply cannot repeat the funding reductions we made as a state in 2011 and expect a different academic result, especially if we know that our state’s talent must be a competitive advantage for us to truly prosper.”
Garland Superintendent Ricardo Lopez recently called House Bill 3 “the saving grace of education.” But it can only reflect that benefit to our children if we retain the commitment we made to our students in 2019. Our state won’t recover, and it certainly won’t truly thrive, until our public schools fully rebound and the equitable investments of HB3 are given time to lift up the hundreds of thousands of our students historically left behind. We can and we must fulfill that promise.
Todd Williams is the Chairman and CEO of The Commit Partnership in Dallas, Texas. He also served on the Texas Commission for Public School Finance, and now serves on the School Land Board.