Public schools are working in an outdated model with insufficient funds to educate a population with greater needs than system architects could have foreseen. Nevertheless, they continue to seek solutions, with nonprofit and business partners stepping in to fill the gaps created as society advances, leaving the education system of students’ grandparents behind.
On Thursday afternoon, attendees at the Masters Leadership Program Alumni Association heard from Alamo Heights ISD Superintendent Kevin Brown, Communities in Schools – San Antonio CEO Jessica Weaver, and San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Vice President for Education and Workforce Priscilla Camacho on the challenges and opportunities facing public education. The event was held at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures, a fitting venue to consider how the state’s diverse population of children will fare in a changing world.
“Public education plays such an important role in the history of our state and nation,” Brown said, introducing a brief history of public education.
The context of the challenge facing educators is moving our education system to a “3.0” model. If 1.0 was the school house, suited to agrarian calendars and needs, 2.0 was the industrialized model. Urban schools processed students through a system of subjects and standards, preparing them to work in a world of increasing global homogeneity.
Now, the world is changing, moving away from stable corporate ladders and widespread manufacturing dominance. In a digital economy, entrepreneurs are not the exception, they are the rule. Employers across the board want people who think creatively and collaboratively, who can effectively communicate their own ideas, and synthesize concepts with those of their colleagues.
Furthermore, Brown said, public education is essential to democracy. He quoted Alexis de Tocqueville who said, “it is the provisions for public education that mark the originality of American civilization today.”
Commitment to educating and empowering every citizen, regardless of race or income, has given the United States its competitive edge over monarchies, oligarchies, and embedded class systems, Brown said, recalling the French diplomat, philosopher, and political scientist. Whether you think of it in terms of having a “deep bench” or constantly increasing competition, American greatness starts in the classroom.
“An elementary school is the smallest footprint of democracy in our society,” Brown said.
While that philosophy sounds great in theory, Weaver said in practice, we are not yet achieving universal education on an equitable level. Using SAT/ACT scores as a measure for the efficacy of K-12 education, Weaver pointed to the substantial gap between low-income students and their middle class peers.
In the question and answer period, one attendee challenged the use of standardized scores to measure education. Weaver wholeheartedly concurred that these scores do not definitively reflect true college or workforce readiness. In fact, all panelist agreed that overreliance on standardized tests of any kind hurts educational innovation.
“We are addicted to tests,” Brown said. “We need be giving our least engaged children the most engaging instruction that we can.”
However, regardless of the measure, Weaver said, socioeconomic status should not be determinative.
“It’s the gap that I want you to see,” Weaver said. “The role of the nonprofit sector in our society is to fill the gaps.”
Communities in Schools (CIS) is one of the organizations that seeks to step in and provide the caring adult presence that can connect students to the resources available in the community. Camacho also cited San Antonio Works as an instrumental partner in providing aspirational mentorships.
CIS and other nonprofit partners’ efforts run counter to the narrative commonly seen in the media and halls of government. Pundits and politicians lay blame on the school system as it struggles to educate a population that was overlooked while the system was being created.
In 1950, the heyday of the 2.0 system, the nonwhite dropout rate was 50.8%, according to the US Department of Agriculture, which measured dropout rates as part of an economic research paper.
“In the ’50s they didn’t expect every student to succeed,” Brown said. Educators have since realized that equipping all students with the resources to succeed is essential to our national prosperity.
Mentoring, food, health, and transportation needs were not accounted for in education 1.0 and 2.0, Weaver explained. As schools try to move toward education 3.0, the whole community has a role to play. Kids don’t turn off the stress from home when they walk into the school building. Families need support if they are going to fortify their children’s learning experience.
Even with great efforts by partners like CIS, great teachers, engaged parents, and innovative leaders,“we have got to adequately fund our public schools,” Camacho said. Whatever good comes from charters and private schools, they will not be what takes the nation to education 3.0.
“At the end of the day more of our students attend public schools,” Camacho added.
Another attendee accused districts of wasting money on palatial new schools, redundancies, and administration while “empty school buses” roam the streets. With two-thirds of his property taxes going to schools, he challenged the panelists to give examples of how superintendents could “find a better business model” than the one they have because “there’s simply no more money.”
“I would respectfully disagree,” Camacho said. She cited a study showing that consolidating the 17 districts in Bexar County would not result in massive savings, which means that redundancies and administrative bloat are not the culprit.
If there’s waste, Camacho said, it is mandated by the State which overregulates public schools.
“We tell our administrators that they need to check off a laundry list that doesn’t match what employers are looking for,” Camacho said, calling for more soft skills and internship opportunities in K-12.
Brown pointed out that property taxes are not as high as citizens might think. In fact, the Texas Legislature cut the tax rate by one-third by in 2009.
The real problem, Brown explained, is that schools don’t see the benefit of increased property values. Instead, the State uses the increased revenue from property taxes to decrease the percentage paid by other sources. While as much as 80% of school funding previously came from other state revenue sources, the State now contributes only 38%.
Even with compressed tax rates, increases in property value have resulted in a $1.5 billion surplus to the 2017-18 State education budget. The House budget allocated $1.4 billion in increased education spending, but the Senate budget accounted only for population growth, allowing the $1.5 billion surplus to stand.
Though he receives less per student funding than he did in 2009, Brown runs a notoriously tight ship, and has managed to balance the district budget without cutting services to families.
“And, by the way, those empty busses are carrying kindergartners and pre-K kids,” he said. “You just can’t see them because they are little.”