One of San Antonio Youth Literacy's "reading buddies" helps a young girl with her studies. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Youth Literacy

San Antonio public schools’ best shot at securing more State funding died this summer in the 85th Legislature’s special session when Senate revisions to a bipartisan House bill stripped $1.5 billion in new funds and all reforms to the State’s outdated school funding formulas.

“We got closer than we had before, but [in the end] we didn’t have much to show for it,” said State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), who was joined by fellow State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio), San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, and Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods at a Tuesday panel discussion hosted by the nonprofit San Antonio Youth Literacy.

The San Antonio lawmakers and the superintendents of two of the city’s largest school districts discussed the road ahead as well as the varying attempts to meet the greatest challenges Texas public schools currently face. The event took place at the Pearl Stable and was moderated by Rivard Report Publisher Robert Rivard.

What the State denied its youngest citizens in dollars, the San Antonio community has rallied to make up through volunteerism, Woods said.

San Antonio Youth Literacy currently serves more than 1,000 students through 600 volunteers at 66 schools in three districts – North East ISD, NISD, and SAISD. The local nonprofit pairs volunteer “reading buddies” with students who are either at risk of falling behind or are already lagging in reading proficiency. Through its Book Buddies program, the organization distributed 19,000 books during the 2016-2017 school year.

School districts are nowhere near saturated with valuable partnerships and are always looking for more support, Woods and Martinez agreed. For SAISD, where 93% of students live in varying degrees of poverty, partnerships with organizations like Youth Literacy or Communities in Schools are desperately needed, Martinez said.

The need for community support won’t change unless the State addresses its outdated funding formulas, Woods said. “We have to lean on [community partnerships and volunteers] because there’s not going to be dollars [from the State].”

The State now provides around 37% of public school dollars – a number that should be closer to 50%, Gervin-Hawkins said.

Many lawmakers considered the bipartisan version of House Bill 21 a first step toward school finance reform, Bernal explained, but Senators “held the bill hostage” as they grappled with the so-called “bathroom bill,” one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s legislative priorities. 

In her freshman term in Texas Legislature, the life and death of HB 21 taught Gervin-Hawkins a lot about how politics work. The bill was used “as a ping-pong ball to negotiate for other things,” she said.

The leadership in Austin concerning, Martinez said, but so are inequities at home. SAISD continues to fall on the losing end of economic segregation in the city, encompassing two of the poorest zip codes in the nation, the superintendent said.

“We have to really look at what has happened in our city over the last 30-40 years,” said Martinez, who took the helm of SAISD in June 2015. While those who grew up in San Antonio may have grown accustomed to the unequal dispersion of wealth, he “can’t get used to it.” 

The inequity in local schools creates an opportunity for the municipal government to get involved, Bernal said. Initiatives like Pre-K 4 SA prove that San Antonio can fund and lead effective educational initiatives, all panelists agreed. They also agreed that the high per-student cost of Pre-K 4 SA does not result in equal opportunity for all children.

“We’re making a major investment for a few students,” Gervin-Hawkins said. “Give me a couple of million dollars and I can educate a whole lot of kids.”

Pre-K 4 SA is just one of many initiatives that has begged the question of innovation in education. SAISD’s growing number of specialized schools – CAST Tech and Steele Montessori, among others – have drawn a lot of attention to the ways the district is trying to improve its educational offerings.

NISD focuses on “continual improvement,” Woods said.

“In my mind, it shouldn’t be about what’s new and different,” Woods said, and educators are often lose focus as they chase the “flavor of the month.”

Whatever the innovation, improvement, or political effort, Bernal said, education needs to reflect the reality of current student populations. The rising number of children living in poverty disproves the “Texas Miracle,” he said, and demands that the State adjust its approach.

“Instead of being a special population as they were 30 years ago,” Bernal said, “poor students are now the average.”

While the State’s approach to public education – especially for low-income students – could easily turn them cynical, Bernal and Gervin-Hawkins said they remain committed to the cause.

“I know that education is a game changer,” Gervin-Hawkins said. After a career in education and business, she sees the need for advocates in Austin. “I’m in the right place,” she said.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.