The future of Texas was in fine form Thursday on the playground of Margil Elementary School on San Antonio’s near-Westside as dozens of neatly-uniformed, energetic boys and girls swarmed over slides and swings and monkey bars during morning recess.
The School’s name is a reminder of San Antonio’s roots as a Spanish missionary outpost. Father Antonio Margil De Jesús, a Spanish Franciscan priest, founded Mission San José in 1720.
The children shyly greeted visitors who were on campus to attend a press conference organized by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to release its new report, “The Impact of Education on Economic Development in Texas.” The 350-page white paper is the result of a months-long collaboration among the Hispanic Chamber, UTSA’s School of Public Policy, the Intercultural Development Research Association, and other partners.
What the report concludes is this: Teaching every child to read proficiently by the third grade is the best investment the state can make to support robust economic development. A failure to address the state’s unconstitutional school finance system so that children are no longer educated according to their zip code and socioeconomic status will send the Texas economy into decline.
“This very important study will give us a forecast for what we do or what we don’t do in education in Texas,” said Dr. Sylvester Perez, superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD), who intends to retire next spring. Citing its data-driven, non-partisan foundation, Perez added, “In God we trust. All others bring data.”
Given the current state of public education outcomes for Hispanic students and the accelerating demographic trends that will make Texas a Hispanic majority state, many experts see a ticking time bomb if legislators do not enact major school finance reform.
Those predictions are easier to understand when looking at demographic trends cited prominently in the report and so evident on the Margil Elementary playground, where most of the children are Hispanic who come from families who are economically disadvantaged and include parents with high school education only or less.
- Latino children in Texas already are the majority of every age group from birth to 17 years old.
- Between 2010 and 2050, the state’s Latino child population will nearly double from 3.3. million to 6.1 million at current birth rates.
- Latinos will become the majority population among the 25-44 year olds by 2020, the majority of 45-64 year olds by 2030, and the majority of people 65 and older by 2050.
If Latinos represent the state’s future majority population, it’s also true they are chronically unprepared to join the 21st century workforce:
- Almost one in four Latino students and about one in two English language learners are not prepared to meet reading standards in the third grade.
- 78% of Latino students are economically disadvantaged and 28% of the disadvantaged students are not on target for reading by the third grade.
College graduates earn about $50,000 more annually than their peers with high school educations only, but in the public education system at current funding levels, most Latino students will not graduate and go on to obtain the additional education necessary to win tomorrow’s jobs. By 2020, two-thirds of jobs nationally and 59% of jobs in Texas will require post-secondary training or education.
The report is a window into the Texas of tomorrow, and its findings mirror those that have been reported for years by the former State Demographer Steve H. Murdock, now a professor at Rice University. The report is a data-driven, nonpartisan argument for greater investment in the state’s school children, who already are predominantly Hispanic, if for no other reason than it is good business.
John D. Gonzalez, the president and CEO of JDG Associates, a firm specializing in equal employment practices and the report’s editor, said the state’s transformation is occurring rapidly enough for people of his generation, Baby Boomers, to witness the dramatic change.
“When I graduated from college the state was 20% Latino,” he said. “Today it is 40% Latino. When these young students graduate, we will be closer to 60%. This is a major demographic shift underway.
“The sad fact is that one in three Latino students are not equipped to read by the third grade,” he added. “We learn to read by the third grade, and after that, we read to learn.”
The implication is obvious: Latino students who do not read proficiently by the third grade are on the path to academic failure and all that comes with that in life.
The report makes four key recommendations:
1. Hold high expectations for every student from day one, and rigorously back them up at every opportunity.
2. Assure that all children are proficient in reading by the end of Grade 3.
3. Assure that all high school graduates are college-ready.
4. Increase college affordability and access.
The press conference at Margil Elementary drew an impressive array of local elected officials with a proven commitment to working for improved education outcomes.
Noting that more and more jobs in the city’s evolving economy require some degree of advanced education, County Judge Nelson Wolff told the audience of educators, media and Margil students, “My definition of higher education is this: It can be a one-year technical certificate, it can be a two-year community college associate degree, or a four-year bachelor’s degree. We’re all different and there are different avenues to higher education and good jobs for everyone.”
Two of Bexar County’s leading legislators, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-Dist. 116), and state Rep. José Menéndez (D-Dist. 124), were on hand to speak at the event. Both appear poised to seek the vacated seat of Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who is running for mayor in the May city elections.
Both legislators have been vocal advocates for restoring the $5.4 billion in education cuts the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature made in the 2011 session. $3.4 billion was restored in the 2013 session. Both lawmakers have expressed a commitment to fighting for the balance to be put back in the next biennial budget.
“There is no bigger emergency than public education,” Martinez Fischer said.
In August, state district Judge John Dietz in Austin decided in favor of 600 Texas school districts that sued the state after the 2011 cuts. He ruled that the state’s school funding mechanism was unconstitutional and inequitable, saying the amount of funding was inadequate and the system amounted to a de facto state property tax.
On Friday, governor-elect and state Attorney General Greg Abbott notified attorneys for both sides that the state will appeal the Dietz ruling to the state Supreme Court. Once again, legislators will convene in January for the biennial legislative session with court action hanging like a cloud over state education funding.
“What I take away from the report and what the parents of these children should take away is that we have to hold the highest expectations for each student,” Menéndez said, who added that expectations set at home had to be matched by a restoration of state funding so that classroom sizes can be shrunk back down to a 1:22 teacher-student ratio “so teachers can teach and focus on each one of their students.”
While state funding remains inadequate and under court challenge, San Antonio in recent years has made a significant investment in early childhood education with the Pre-K 4 SA initiative that began in 2011 when then-Mayor Julián Castro convened the Brainpower Task Force to explore ways to broaden access to pre-kindergarten education for more 4-year-old children.
Voters gave strong approval to the idea in the November 2012 general election, allowing the City of San Antonio to add a 1/8 cent sales tax, which has generated more than $31 million a year to fund four early childhood learning centers. The expanding program now enrolls 4-year-olds in all-day kindergarten with experienced teachers, a bilingual program, nutritious meals and snacks, and even after school programs until 6 p.m., as well as transportation services.
But business leaders and educators say the program’s success has only motivated them to work harder to increase the number of Bexar County children receiving early childhood education opportunities.
“Pre-K is a great program, but it’s nowhere near enough in our city,” said Ramiro Cavazos, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber. “We should want all our children to be enrolled in early childhood learning programs, and we have to improve their opportunities when they enter the first and second grade, too, and make sure they read proficiently by the third grade. That has to be the measure, and our goal has to be helping every single child achieve that proficiency. The alternative is unacceptable.”
*Featured/top image: SAISD Superintendent Sylvester Perez speaks at the San Antonio Hispanice Chamber of Commerce event at Margil Elementary School. Courtesy photo.