(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
An old joke holds that you should never ask a man where he is from. If he is from Texas he will tell you, and if he is not, you don’t want to embarrass the poor feller. Texans are famously/infamously proud of their state, and not without cause. Texans have been enjoying their national status as an economic juggernaut. Wildcatter George P. Mitchell is probably the first Texan to transform the economy of the 21st Century profoundly for the better but he won’t be the last.
Progressives will often bemoan the modest size of government in Texas and attempt to throw cold water on the state’s success by citing various statistics heavily influenced by the fact that the state is a huge destination for immigrants. And yet they continue to come on. Texas is an opportunity rather than a welfare magnet. Texas was the only state to gain 4 Congressional seats after the 2010 Census, all of which came from sclerotic regions of the country. Y’all have fun with that nanny state business and we will keep helping ourselves to your electoral votes, companies and jobs is a prevalent attitude in the Lone Star State.
Mitchell’s hometown of Houston, the global center of the oil business, is jumping but the good times extend well beyond the oil patch. Austin, once a smallish but funky university/state government town, now has condo towers dominating the skyline and far more on the way. A stroll through downtown during SXSW proved to be an eye-opening experience for this former Austinite. I’ve been gone for a decade and the city is both transformed and growing at a mind-boggling pace. Oh sure, an old guard is still around to complain about traffic and the “lost golden age of Austin” back when they shared herbal blends with Willie at Liberty Lunch or whatever but no one seems to be listening much. The city and state is on a monstereous economic roll.
Texas however has an Achilles heel and doesn’t seem to be aware of it: K-12 education. To stretch a metaphor a bit, I would say that Texas is a horned frog boiling in water.
Here is the problem in two simple charts. First Texas 8th graders scoring “Proficient or Better” in 8th Grade Reading:
So let us take 8th Grade Reading Proficiency on NAEP as a rough proxy for solid preparation for college and/or career readiness. The NAEP proficiency standard is a high bar relative to the various state minimal skills tests floating around, but it equates well with international examinations. The level below Proficient – “Basic” signifies “partial mastery” of grade level skills, so we are looking for full grade level mastery. So what we are looking for here is at least:
Eighth-grade students performing at the Proficient level should be able to provide relevant information and summarize main ideas and themes. They should be able to make and support inferences about a text, connect parts of a text, and analyze text features. Students performing at this level should also be able to fully substantiate judgments about content and presentation of content.
As the figure shows, not very many Texas students can actually do these sorts of things. Only a large minority of Anglo students along with a tiny minority of Hispanic and Black students show this level of reading ability.
Here is the kicker:
Newsflash Tex: that 42% of Anglo kids being ready to face the rigors of the global economy doesn’t go nearly as far as it used to back in the day. Just in case I don’t have your undivided attention yet, check this out:
Amongst Hispanics, the group that constitute a majority of K-12 students in the state, the functionally illiterate outnumber proficient readers by a very wide margin. Texas spent $11,146 per pupil in the public school system in 2010-11, which is an amazing sum when placed in context of just how much enrollment growth the state is attempting to accomodate. Texas has a public school population twice the size of Florida’s (with FL having the nation’s 4th largest btw) and approximately equal in size to the public school systems of the 20 smallest states combined.
The state has been adding around 80,000 students per year, which approximately equals the size of the Wyoming public school system. The public school lobbying groups pretend that any kind of choice program is going to leave the Texas public school system a financial ruin when in fact even the most far-reaching choice programs could at most put a dint in school district enrollment growth. If you waved a magic wand and moved every charter school that has opened west of the Mississippi River since 1990 into Texas, Texas school districts still would have gained hundreds of thousands of students.
Despite all of this, Texas Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, a strong supporter of parental choice, announced last week that he would be modifying a bill to eliminate the state’s charter school cap, and to instead raise it by a few dozen schools per year. Senator Patrick did this out of necesssity just to get the bill out of the committee. Worse still, this is happening in a session that seems destined to dummy down the state’s high-school graduation requirements in a major fashion. We have yet to reach the end of the movie, but this is the part where things are looking bleak for the good guys.
Rather than blame the lawmakers, I’ll go ahead and blame people like myself. We reformers have done a poor job thus far in communicating the reality of the Texas situation. Consequently, there is a greatly misplaced complacency with regards to K-12 policy. We must do much better.
The greatest weakness of the powerful Status-Quo Collective that has assimilated many Austin decision makers is that they have no plausible plan for improving the Texas public education system. The problems embodied in the figures above (and others) will continue to go unaddressed while they seek yet more money for an outdated and ineffective system of schooling.
The current Texas public education system is however taking the state in a direction that almost no one will want to go. By educating only a small cadre of students to participate and prosper in the global economy, the future of the state will begin to look like that of Brazil in the late 20th Century, which one of my professors once described to me as “Belgium floating on top of India.”
As a purely economic matter, Texas can continue to import college educated workers from the less dynamic states indefinitely. As a matter of socio-economics however one cannot avoid asking fundamental questions regarding the long-term stability of both the prosperity and even democracy itself. A public education system with only 17% of Hispanics and 15% of Black students reading proficiently constitutes a foundation of sand for the opportunity society needed to secure the future.
In short, Texas can either continue to be Texas- a rapidly growing opportunity society, or it can morph into California. From my perspective in the nearby cactus-patch, California looks like a place from which Belgians are fleeing and have been for decades now-a rather loud wake up call. Ironically this leaves “progressive” California as a society increasingly divided by wealth and race. Politically incapable of addressing their education problems, California looks set to become Monaco floating on top of India. Good luck with that.
In the long run, Texans will either embrace their ideals or their education status-quo. It will become increasingly obvious that they cannot do both.