Diana Herrera remembers sitting in an Edgewood High School class, listening for her name over the school intercom as the counseling department called students in for college guidance.
She had never spoken to a counselor until she marched into their offices that day in 1969 and asked, “Why wasn’t my name on the list?”
“They told me, ‘Oh no, Diana you’re not going to college. You’re going to marry Richard, and you’re going to have children,’” she said.
She ignored them, applied for student loans, and enrolled in Our Lady of the Lake University, where she quickly realized how unprepared she was. Herrera had to take remedial classes to catch up to her new classmates from other parts of the state.
She eventually returned to Edgewood as a teacher in 1974 and had to buy the supplies for her classroom, including three small fans – the school had no air conditioner. And she made sure to stock up on snacks so that the low-income children who filled her classroom could have something to eat.
“At that point, I saw and I realized the poverty,” said Herrera, who is now retired.
Nearly 45 years later, it didn’t take long for Carlos Lopez to realize he was out of his depth as he sat in a chemistry lecture on electron configuration during his first semester at the University of Texas at Austin this year.
“My professor blatantly said, ‘You should know this, and if you don’t know this you’re behind,’” said Lopez, a first-generation college student who also attended Edgewood Independent School District schools. Thinking back to his high school chemistry classes, all he could recall was that his teachers would play funny videos on the projector.
Halfway through Lopez’s first semester, an adviser questioned whether he could stick to biochemistry while also working up to 35 hours a week to help pay for school.
“I decided that this is what I like. This is what I want,” Lopez, 20, said. “It just sucks that I have to be behind.”
Generations apart, the threads connecting Lopez and Herrera – low expectations in their schools and meager resources from the state – reflect the limited progress Texas has made over the last few decades to ensure poor students of color graduate from high school on track to compete in the workforce with their white and wealthier peers.
By some measures, Edgewood ISD, which has been mostly Hispanic throughout its history, is better off than it was in the late 1960s; after decades of litigation, it’s now receiving more money per student to pay for teachers and programs. But it still received a D in last year’s state rating, and years of dysfunctional leadership resulted in a state takeover of its school board in 2016.
District leaders say they’re now poised for a rebound, with a new, eager superintendent at the helm this year and the school board transitioning back to full autonomy.
But Edgewood’s chronic problems signify Texas’ long record of neglecting schools that educate mostly students of color – racial integration and school funding increases have generally come when the courts forced the state’s hand. That neglect has generated vast educational gaps between students of color and their white peers that persist to this day.
Black and Hispanic students remain more likely to read below grade level throughout their entire education in Texas public schools, leaving them unprepared to succeed in a flourishing Texas economy that increasingly requires some form of education after high school. More than half of white Texans age 25 to 34 have degrees or technical certificates, compared with roughly 38 percent of blacks and a quarter of Hispanics.
State leaders have vowed to boost those rates to build a more skilled workforce, but their goals are crashing into the reality of a public school system where Hispanic students are the majority and most don’t graduate from college.
Lawmakers say the state’s new accountability system for public education will help close some of these gaps by requiring school districts to report how students are performing by racial group and penalizing those that don’t improve. But education advocates argue that they can only do so much without a hike in funding.
Now, as the Legislature prepares to return to Austin, state leaders of all political stripes say they’re ready to take another stab at overhauling a school funding system they’ve been trying to fix since the 1980s, when Edgewood ISD first sued the state over long-standing inequities with how it distributes education dollars.
But they are increasingly stuck between competing constituencies: the older, white voters seeking relief from fast-rising property taxes that serve as a lifeline for schools their children often don’t attend, and black and Hispanic children whose futures depend on those dollars.
Mike Moses, a former Texas education commissioner, frames the stakes in simple terms: “Will the old pay to educate the young? More specifically, will an older, aging population pay to educate a younger, growing minority population? And that, to me, has been our real struggle in Texas.
“You have to convince people that it’s in their best interest to educate children who don’t look like them.”
Insults and low expectations
Mario Compean can clearly recall the fury he felt sitting in an Edgewood High classroom in the late 1950s when his teacher started each lesson by launching an insult at him and his classmates.
“‘You Mexicans have no ambition. All you care about is to have a full belly of tamales and beer and you’re okay,’” he recalled his teacher saying. “Every class period he would start that way so you can imagine what was going on inside me.”
Compean said he didn’t know his school had a counselor until he was called into his office just days before graduation to discuss his plans after high school. A good student with better grades than most of his classmates, he was devastated when the counselor – who knew nothing about him – told him he wasn’t “college material,” Compean said.
“If you want to apply that by several hundred that are graduating in the class, you know that the magnitude of the problem, it was greater than just a single person,” he said.
More than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional, hundreds of school districts across the state were still segregated when Compean returned to Edgewood High School, spurred by the civil rights movement, to help students organize a walkout in 1968.
The students had taken a list of grievances to district leadership, asking them to address the everyday inequities that Edgewood’s mostly Hispanic student body faced. When those were dismissed, hundreds of Edgewood students walked out of class, protesting the lack of air conditioning, qualified teachers and college counselors and the prejudice they said those inequities reflected.
The protest didn’t change much for Edgewood students right away, but it helped catalyze a groundswell of activism among Hispanics – by then a majority in the state’s poorest school districts – who began using the courts to pressure state leaders into improving school conditions.
The Latino community “realized that the greatest gains could be made just by improving the schools where our students attended,” said Al Kauffman, who represented Edgewood ISD in four lawsuits over the last 30 years. “We’re just going to say we need to make sure we have the funding to educate our kids.”
In 1984, Edgewood ISD was the lead plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against the state’s education commissioner, arguing that Texas had failed to equitably or adequately fund its poorest schools.
But Edgewood v. Kirby was just the first of many lawsuits. Over and over, lawyers representing the state’s poorest school districts went to court and argued to state judges that Texas had not adequately or equitably funded its public schools. Several times, lawmakers promised a fix, tinkered with the system enough to comply with the court mandate, and then got dragged back into litigation.
Those cases ended up in front of the Texas Supreme Court seven times, and over the years, the justices became less likely to side with those looking to close the state’s persistent funding gap between wealthy and poor schools. In its first such ruling in 1989, the court said children living in poor districts need equal access to funding, and that more money would have “a real and meaningful impact” on a student’s educational opportunity. By 2005, the court was ruling that money doesn’t “guarantee better schools or more educated students.”
The state Supreme Court has never agreed with lower court rulings that the state inadequately funds its schools, as Edgewood and other districts keep arguing.
Facing a budget shortfall in 2011 – a couple of years after the nation’s economy plunged into recession – state lawmakers cut more than $5 billion from public schools. It was also the same year that Hispanic students became a majority in Texas schools.
Three years later, yet another Texas judge, District Judge John Dietz of Austin, ruled that the school finance system was inequitable and inadequate, especially for a growing population of economically disadvantaged students and English language learners. He threatened to shut down all state funding for public schools unless lawmakers put a new system in place.
In 2016, the Texas Supreme Court overturned Dietz’s decision, ruling that the system is “undeniably imperfect” but “satisfies minimum constitutional requirements.”
Justice Eva Guzman acknowledged the public education system’s limitations in a concurring opinion: “Shortfalls in both resources and performance persist in innumerable respects, and a perilously large number of students is in danger of falling further behind.”
Bobby Escutia was months away from graduating when he decided to drop out of Edgewood ISD’s Memorial High School last winter. He was missing some of the core credits he needed to graduate, his grades had dipped, and he sat in class sure that his future was not a priority.
“It was like nobody cared what I was doing there, whether I was doing good or bad,” he said. “Nobody cared so I just left.”
No one in Escutia’s family had ever gone to college. His older sister had graduated the year before and had trouble finding a way to pay for college; now she works in customer service at Walmart. He knew he wasn’t going to go to college, and the shrinking set of options he faced after getting a diploma terrified him.
He didn’t know what to ask of his adviser, so he didn’t ask much at all. Despite warnings and lamentations from his friends, Escutia gave up on school for something that felt more familiar: a job in construction with his father.
Escutia, 19, is one of the tens of thousands of Texas students who drop out of public schools each year – an educational end result that’s more than twice as likely for Hispanic students in Texas as it is for whites. An even larger number of students, particularly Hispanics, graduate high school but fail to get a college degree or technical certification.
Taken together, those gaps – and the failure to correct course – have put Texas’ future economy at risk, business leaders and demographers have warned.
They have long recognized that the trajectory of the state’s economic health is closely aligned with its ability to build an educated workforce. But while 90 percent of students graduate from high school, not even a third of them go on to obtain a degree or technical certificate within six years of leaving the public school system.
When Gov. Greg Abbott took office in 2015, he joined state leaders in setting an ambitious goal – 60 percent of Texans in the 25-34 age range should have college degrees or technical certificates by 2030.
That year, only about 40.3 percent of Texans in that age range held those key credentials. By 2017, that figure had grown to 43.5 percent. But broken down by race, the disparities are alarming: White adults in Texas are just a few percentage points away from 60 percent; Hispanics, who make up the majority of students in Texas public schools, are 35 points away.
For the state to meet Abbott’s goal, the rate at which young people living in Texas obtain those credentials will have to steadily increase for the next few years.
Raymund Paredes, the state’s higher education commissioner, is optimistic. The state’s pace of improvement is accelerating, particularly among Latinos graduating from college, he points out.
But chief among the factors he says could complicate that success is the state’s historical reliance on pulling in educated workers from outside of Texas, particularly from California, to build a workforce. As California improves economically, it may lose fewer of its residents to Texas, cutting off a key reservoir of talent, Paredes said.
“The Texas economy has been so strong – we’ve been attracting lots of college-educated workers, but we can’t continue to assume that will be the case,” Paredes said. “We’ve got to grow our own.”
In its preliminary report, the state’s school finance commission – a panel of lawmakers, business leaders and educators charged with making recommendations to the Legislature ahead of 2019 – acknowledged this misstep has built “weaknesses” into the pipeline between public schools.
What’s more, they warned, the state’s failure to prepare its students for the future could translate to less revenue for the state if those students are unable to adequately contribute to the economy. “Ultimately, what becomes of our students will dictate what becomes of our state,” the panel wrote in the draft report.
But that sort of warning has gone largely unheeded by state leaders for years.
Steve Murdock, a former state demographer and former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, has gone to the Capitol at the start of each legislative session to give lawmakers a crash course in the changing demographic tides that have transformed public schools, as many white families have sent their kids to private schools. And he’s drawn a line between the state’s economic engine and the education of its youngest, mostly Hispanic residents.
“One of the things I think that we try to get across to everyone is that we understand you want your child to get the best education – you should pursue that if that’s the case,” Murdock said. “But don’t close up your pocketbook before we get around to addressing the much more numerous set of kids who need help in minority schools.”
Putting a problem in focus
While a student at Edgewood ISD’s Kennedy High School, Analisa Leyva visited nearby schools for football games – she played flute in the school band – and marveled at the opposing schools’ pristine uniforms and instruments. After Kennedy’s band instruments suffered rain damage during a game, the school took years to repair them.
She later banded with some of her friends to create an Instagram account called “Exposing Edgewood,” where they documented their high school’s disrepair. They photographed a broken desk, a missing ceiling tile, a hole in a wall, and many dead roaches.
She couldn’t help but think back to a freshman year criminal justice class where she had learned about the broken windows theory, which posits that neighborhoods with visible signs of crime and disorder will attract even more crime.
“I kind of always thought that at Kennedy,” said Leyva, who graduated in May. “Everything’s broken down so the students don’t care about school or taking care of it, or they don’t believe in themselves.”
Responding to the persistent disparities Leyva and her peers chronicled, lawmakers pointed to work that they’ve done in recent sessions to try to get more money into schools, even without a major school finance overhaul.
State Sen. Larry Taylor, who heads the Texas Senate’s Education Committee, referenced data showing that Edgewood ISD now gets about $11,794 per student from the state, compared with the statewide average of $11,247 per student. “All I can tell you is what they’re spending in that district is above average,” he said.
David Hinojosa, a 1988 Edgewood ISD graduate, has spent his career arguing in state courts that school districts with higher concentrations of low-income students and English language learners need even more funding for true equity. “It should be so much higher than many of the other districts because of their demographics,” he said.
In the Capitol, where a new legislative session starts next month, state leaders are in agreement for the first time in years that school finance is the top priority. They’re acknowledging the increased challenges in a school system that educates many more low-income students and English learners, including in wealthier school districts.
Last year, they didn’t even take up a proposal to commission a study on whether the state is adequately funding those student groups, which include many Hispanic and black students.
“When we’re talking about school finance, it’s always poor kids and [English language learner] kids who seem to be the one group or the two groups that no one’s in a rush to really help,” said state Rep. Diego Bernal, a San Antonio Democrat, who authored one of those bills to study the issue. “For whatever reason, there is a reluctance, there’s a hesitancy, to double down on that even though they represent the vast majority of kids in the state.”
Lawmakers have come to Austin in years past saying that school finance is an important issue and claiming they’re on the same page about how to fix it — until they aren’t and the facade of political unity shatters.
Already those cracks are showing. Members of a state school finance panel have argued over whether to release a report that includes a price tag for their recommended fixes. And Bernal and a couple of the educators on the panel have expressed concern the state will end up appeasing many taxpayers and the business community by lowering tax rates without ensuring all students have the resources they need in order to learn.
Any fix will be too late for Leyva, who graduated third in her class and is now a student at UT. She hasn’t declared her major yet. She once wanted to be an engineer, but changed her mind.
“I knew that [the education] I got at Kennedy wasn’t good enough for me to try to be in an engineering program here at UT,” Leyva said. “So I didn’t even look.”
Ryan Murphy contributed to this report.