Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Advocates for education reform might finally be speaking the language of the Texas Legislature: economics.
According to a new white paper released by a group of independent business leaders and academic researchers, Texas’ current education funding crisis will jeopardize the state’s economy unless comprehensive reforms are put in place. The business leaders behind the report titled Why Investing in Education Fuels the Texas Economy claim that the state’s economic future depends upon fixing a broken and underfunded public school system.
"The current state of education is unacceptable," said John Gonzalez, founder of employment consulting firm JDG Associates Inc. and one of the project’s leaders. "We are not providing quality education to our children, and by extension, we are not addressing the needs of the business community."
The group, which has been operating under the name Educate Fir$t, is a collaboration of independent entrepreneurs, business owners, academics, and educators. The business leaders became interested in education when they began to notice serious skill and knowledge gaps in new hires.
"The lack of qualified personnel is a great concern to us [as business leaders]," Alamo Travel Group President Patricia Stout said. "We don’t have the workforce to attract certain companies" to Texas.
Stout served as advisor to the report, along with Matt Diana, CEO of Boerne-based Covenant Strategies Inc., and Terri L. Williams, director of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s SBDC Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC).
María "Cuca" Robledo Montecel and David Hinojosa with the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) served as special advisors. All served on a volunteer basis, and the collaboration has yet to apply for any grants or funding. The costs associated with the report were funded through member contributions.
The group's passion for the project is partially fueled by urgency. The condition of Texas' education system is more dire than the Legislature seems to acknowledge, Stout said, calling it "a bomb that is ticking."
Educate Fir$t hopes that the report will be eye-opening for the business community and that its members will be moved to speak up. Because of the Legislature's business-friendly posture, the group may succeed where others have failed, Gonzalez said. Educate Fir$t is calling on Texas’ 54 Fortune 500 companies and other influential businesses to speak up for education in hopes that money will indeed talk.
"This is not a partisan issue," Diana said.
He said that rather than education being seen as the bedrock of growth in every sector, some in the Legislature treat it like a special interest or partisan cause. The report demonstrates that economic growth is intimately tied to education. In a way, all revenue flowing to the capital and back to taxpayers in the form of infrastructure, tax cuts, and incentives are essentially the dividends of educational investment.
"We believe that alerting the business community about what [is] potentially in store for their bottom line is the last best chance to bring about the kind of changes that are necessary," Gonzalez said.
While the group is sympathetic to the competing demands on legislators, they hope to reframe the conversation.
"While it is true that our state has many needs, the main emphasis of this paper is to illustrate how much is at stake for the business community of Texas if we continue to undereducate our children and ill-prepare them for rewarding careers that allow them to properly contribute to both the state and nation’s economy," the report reads.
As business owners from typically conservative small towns, the members of Education Fir$t represent a different type of education advocacy group. Diana wants to call attention to the need for proponents of the three main agendas in education reform – property tax recapture, charter schools, and finance reform – to come together to find a solution.
This business-centric approach has caught the attention of conservative lawmakers. State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-25) of New Braunfels and U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-21) have both expressed interest in the report’s findings, and Texas Economic Development Council CEO Carlton Schwab has endorsed the findings, Diana said.
The report's findings, which analyze current and projected demographic data, tell of a growing minority and economically disadvantaged population that will make up the workforce of coming decades. While CNBC recently ranked Texas 2nd for business and economic climate and 8th in overall workforce, the report focuses on the lack of sustainability of these standings without an educated workforce. That same CNBC report ranks Texas 37th for quality of life and 40th for education.
According to the report, the current booming economy is not benefitting everyone. Between 2008-2018 Texas will have produced 1.8 million jobs that require post-secondary degrees, but not the workforce to fill them. Importing talent at that level while the low-wage workforce falls further behind is not a sustainable model.
"The fact of the matter is that businesses must recognize that remaining profitable will, to a large extent, depend on what is happening in the classrooms at all levels. A quality education determines the quality of a future workforce and the eventual success of a company. The importance of human capital cannot be over-emphasized," the report states.
The gap between education and jobs weakens the middle class, the report states, and people in low-wage jobs don’t have the disposable income to sustain a consumer economy.
"If the middle class is already struggling, adding more undereducated and low-paid workers to the pool will not improve matters. A lack of disposable income severely limits an individual’s ability to purchase products or services other than basic necessities, and families will likely defer or be unable to acquire many large purchases that drive our local tax base, such as homes," according to the report.
What is a problem for Texas – currently ranked 5th for economic disparity – will also be a problem for the nation, the report states. Meanwhile, growth in the state's population of children is far outpacing the rest of the country.
"Between 2000 and 2014, nearly 90% of child growth in the United States came from Texas. To put that in perspective, the number of children in Texas increased more than 1.2 million, while the country itself had an overall growth of 1.4 million children. The state currently has the second largest population of children, with 7.1 million," the report states.
If that population boom consists of poorly educated – and thus low-wage earning – children, the workforce of the entire country could suffer.
"Unfortunately, if current educational trends continue, especially for economically disadvantaged and minority populations, many of these children could end up undereducated and a potential liability for the state, the nation, and the economy," the report states.
The groups considers the paper a call to action rather than a criticism of the state.
"It’s not just about funding. It’s about taking a long, hard look at what we are doing," Gonzalez said.
In addition to properly funding schools, the group advocates a holistic focus on workforce development even in early childhood education.
"Workforce training should start as early as pre-K," Gonzalez said.
At that level, it might be as simple as asking children, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" From there the discussion moves on to ambition, character, and goals, Diana said.
How to enhance and refocus curriculum, engage parents, and develop "soft skills" for students continues to be the subject of robust discussion. Financing education, however, is the group's biggest emphasis. By putting the white paper into the hands of lawmakers at the beginning of the biennium, they hope to spur support for legislation aimed at significant changes in the school finance system.
"Tweaking isn’t going to work," Gonzalez said. "It has to be reform. It has to be an overhaul."