If Texas doesn’t figure out a way to bridge the education gaps between its white and Hispanic populations, the poverty level in the state will skyrocket.

The five panelists at the San Antonio Regional PK-12 Public Education Forum II agreed on one thing: Texas needs to figure out how to address the needs of those hardest to reach, because that population is growing the fastest. Beyond that, the panelists represented diversity in voices and perspectives coming at the challenges facing public education. Like in last year’s forum, the discussion jumped straight into deep waters.

Elevate the teaching profession…and fire the bottom performing 10%?

Fix public education funding…and invest in high performing charters?

Does poverty matter? How much?

The 640 people gathered also represented the diverse stakeholders in education. In addition to the nonprofit leaders, administrators, and business people who attended last year’s education forum at the Pearl Stable, the added space at the Witte Museum’s Mays Family Center allowed teachers and students to participate as well.

Former energy executive and founder of the San Antonio Clean Energy Forum Mike Burke first had the idea to bring together leading voices in the education conversation. Throughout the planning process, Burke fostered frank discussion among panelists and others. For this and many other contributions to local education efforts, Burke received the Education Forum’s first “Education Champion Award,” presented at the event.

Before San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods, Trinity University Department of Education Chair Shari Albright, Choose to Succeed Founding Chair and George W. Brackenridge Foundation Chair Victoria Rico and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath took the stage, former Director of the U.S. Census Bureau and Texas State Demographer Steven Murdock provided statistical context for the discussion.

Population Changes

As it has for nearly two centuries, Texas’ growth rate is outpacing the nation’s. Demographers expect the state to double its population by 2050.

“Rapid growth is something we’re kind of used to in Texas,” Murdock said. “We expect it.”

The challenge lies with the particular population creating the explosive growth. The Hispanic population is growing at such a rate that by the year 2050, demographers expect that Texas will be 20% white and 55% Hispanic. Income for Hispanic workers sits at around 60% of what white workers earn. Add those statistics together, and you get staggering poverty growth, unless something can be done.

Something can be done, Murdock said. “Education is the key to Texas’ future, and it’s the key to the United States’ future.”

Forum moderator and Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard used the statistics as a launching point into the state of education. What could these leaders do to stem the tide of poverty?

Morath came armed with his own statistics. Hidden beneath aggregate numbers, he pointed to a telling trend.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath.
Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath. Credit: Michael Cirlos for the San Antonio Report

College readiness, judged by ACT/SAT scores, stands at a disheartening 17% statewide. If that figure is broken down into low socioeconomic status (SES) and average or above average SES, the statistic is even more mysterious. Low SES populations are performing better than they were 20 years ago – still significantly below their more advantaged peers, but they’re improving. Kids from middle class or professional homes are also improving. So why are ACT/SAT scores stagnant?

“It is important for us to recognize progress,” Morath said. “But this also clearly delineates the challenge in front of us…The students in Texas have gotten poorer.”

“Loving on Teachers”

The credit for progress is due primarily to classroom teachers.

“Teacher quality is almost the whole game in education,” Rico said.

Albright echoed sentiments shared by Keystone Head of School Brian Yager at a VIP breakfast before the forum: the importance of “loving on our teachers.”

“We have beaten up on our teachers pretty significantly, publicly,” Albright said. 

Even more than salary concerns, Albright said that teachers are leaving the field because they do not feel supported or included in problem-solving.

“Teachers will bend over backward to come up with a creative solution if they’ve been part of the process,” Albright said. Instead we have been “dumbing down curriculum into scripts” in an attempt to regulate quality. “All those things are professionally humiliating and insulting.”

Part of Albright’s work with the Holdsworth Center, an educational leadership program funded partially by a $100 million legacy gift from H-E-B Chairman and educational philanthropist Charles Butt, will be training administrators and district leaders to cultivate a culture of support in order to “get that pipeline right.”

Woods echoed the importance of trust and “the culture in our organizations that directly or indirectly impacts kids.”

Of course, Rivard pointed out, salary must be part of any discussion on “elevating” the teaching profession.

Morath explained that increased pay does not always translate into increased output in a complex and intrinsically motivated field like teaching.

“We should not expect that you put a bonus program in place and suddenly your sales increase,” Morath said. “Teaching doesn’t work like that.”

A panel discussion during the Education Forum at the Mays Family Center at the Witte Museum.
Panelists discuss a variety of topics during the Education Forum at the Witte Museum’s Mays Family Center. Credit: Michael Cirlos for the San Antonio Report

At Northside ISD, Woods said, compensation is part of talent management. Leaders do what they can to ensure that teachers who love the Northside ISD culture don’t have a financial reason to leave.

In SAISD, Martinez and his team are creating a Master Teacher track to allow experienced teachers with track records for success to earn as much as $80,000 per year.

It was Rico who floated the most controversial idea on the topic of elevating the teaching profession.

“What it boils down is that 90% of our teachers are hardworking and effective…The bottom 10% of teachers are an enormous drag on our aggregate result.”

By allowing districts to efficiently fire the lowest performing 7-12% of public school teachers and replace them with more hardworking ones, public education would see better outcomes for all students. This would translate into higher earning capacity and a financial benefit in the billions when played out on a national scale.

While none of the other panelists ventured near the subject of teacher contracts, Woods did point out the disconnect between what Texas says it wants and the policies it supports.

Put State Money Where Its Mouth Is 

“There are policy discussions going on [in the Legislature] that are not productive toward the goals we have discussed here,” Woods said.

The school funding formula is chief among those policies, according to Woods and Martinez. While Woods acknowledged that the Texas House of Representatives was at least open to talking about the real cost of educating students, a solution would likely be long and fraught, covering several legislative sessions.

Martinez doesn’t have the luxury of time. In SAISD the poverty level exceeds 90%, and funding is not about shiny new things, but basic resources. To bridge the gaps between what his students have and what their middle class peers have, the school must provide everything from four meals per day to basic computer training to extended school calendars. It all costs money, and Martinez is not going to let that be the reason his kids don’t have the resources they need to succeed in education and beyond

“I didn’t take this job to be a fundraiser, but somehow it has become that,” Martinez said. His biggest fundraising effort was the passage of a 13-cent tax rate increase, which passed overwhelmingly in the district last November. “[The residents of SAISD] voted to tax themselves because they care that much about their children, and they care that much about education.”

As for the state, Morath explained that the magnitude of any changes to the budget is daunting. “The sheer volume of billions that would be required to change that is not insignificant,” he said.

The cumbersome nature of changing public education is part of the appeal of high performing charters.

Can Charters and ISDs Work Together?

When the Brackenridge Foundation tasked Rico with looking for the highest impact in education, she went straight to data.

“What we found was that given our current legal structure and administrative structure in Texas, the most lives saved per dollar was in investing in high performing charters,” Rico said.

The charters backed by the Brackenridge Foundation and Choose to Succeed have experienced explosive growth.

Students from Coronado Elementary’s Marimba Group perform at the education forum. Credit: Michael Cirlos for the San Antonio Report

Currently the organization backs 27 schools serving 11,800 students. In five years Rico would like to see more than 40,000 students served by the rapidly expanding networks like IDEA Public Schools, KIPP San Antonio, BASIS, and Great Hearts. 

The question is, Rivard said, “How will you all work together?”

This presence, Rico explains, should cultivate healthy competition. Her research has revealed no “collateral damage” following the introduction of charter schools into a local educational ecosystem.

Woods disagreed. While charters were intended to be incubators for new ideas within the school system, “I would argue that is not at all what is occurring,” he said.

“To deny the success of some of the charters operating in Bexar County would be ridiculous,” he added, but then wondered if there were factors beyond teacher quality driving that success.

From competition for those scarce state dollars, to the “skimming” of top students or engaged families, Woods said he doesn’t feel that charters represent a solution for the general population of a deeply segregated Bexar County.

“We ought not contribute to that segregation,” he said. 

For Martinez, whose district contains many high performing charters, the issue is not philosophical, but pragmatic.

“I’m not afraid of competition. I don’t have a choice, the competition is there,” he said. “And I will bet you that we will outperform any of our competition.”

Martinez is currently challenging high performing schools like Travis Early College High School and others to lower their admission requirements, and consider ways to get even low performing 8th graders college-ready.

More instruction time and more professional development are key to district-wide efforts to ensure that quality is scalable to every student.

In the end, Rico said, “I wouldn’t bet against Pedro Martinez.”

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Bekah McNeel

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