Earthquake tremors in California are not uncommon, but one that struck in Los Angeles on April 2 was felt in San Antonio days later. It was an article in the Los Angeles Times exploring potential candidates to fill the vacant position for superintendent of the city’s big public school district.

A photo of Pedro Martinez, superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District, greeted online readers, and he was named as one of several potential candidates for the Los Angeles job. That set off alarms among supporters throughout San Antonio, and rightly so. Martinez was hired on a five-year contract, three years ago next month. His work is only beginning.

Martinez told me last week that he is not a candidate and intends to stay in Texas. Still, this is a wake-up call for San Antonio. City and district leaders wanted a great superintendent and they certainly found one. Yet Martinez is not getting the high level of community-wide support he needs to succeed.

Martinez is proving to be a once-in-a-generation change agent in the highly challenging realm of transforming San Antonio’s inner city public schools – designing new in-district charters, partnering with other charters, setting ambitious graduation and college-bound goals, and identifying a new generation of ambitious school principals.

The challenges are huge: More than 90 percent of SAISD’s students are socio-economically disadvantaged minorities. The district’s shrinking population of students now hovers around 50,000, down 3,000 from two years ago. That is an unsustainable enrollment decline of 6 percent.

The district’s students come from families mired in poverty and suffer from toxic stress,  higher incidences of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases, and higher levels of domestic abuse, food insecurity, and lower life expectancy. Try educating children who come to school hungry and traumatized.

Yet the whole city needs to own SAISD’s problems as we look to San Antonio’s future and come to terms with the consequences of a city that developed with such pronounced economic segregation. Undereducated individuals enjoy few choices in life, face compounding problems as they age, and often become a burden all taxpayers bear.

Despite what some might say is a Sisyphean task, Martinez is making a real difference. Fixing public schools is not a hopeless problem. Martinez is leading significant change in the district, inspiring administrators, principals and teachers to embrace risk and higher expectations. He is confronting those defending the status quo, and creating new choices in schools and programs for district families, and for families outside the district drawn to the innovative in-district charters and magnet schools. Click here to survey the district’s most impressive choice schools.

Digital Art and Animation teacher Ms. Medellin welcomes students to CAST Tech.
Digital Art and Animation teacher Ms. Medellin welcomes the first-ever students to CAST Tech. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Some criticize the practice of recruiting out-of-district students for taking slots away from local students, yet it’s a proven way of diversifying the socio-economic mix in classrooms and adds students back to the district, thus increasing state funding.

Martinez is the first superintendent in the urban core’s biggest school district to energetically engage the business community. He has been welcomed with respect and enthusiasm, but over time with far less material support than needed. I do not believe in shaming businesses or wealthy individuals, but I don’t see a lot of money flowing into the nonprofit SAISD Foundation given that the district includes the downtown business district.

I do see significant private philanthropy flowing into the city’s fast-growing network of public charters organized under the Choose to Succeed umbrella, which includes BASIS Schools, Great Heart Academies, IDEA Public Schools, and  KIPP San Antonio.

Martinez and other area superintendents, notably North East Independent School District Superintendent Brian Gottardy, are seeing thousands of students leaving their districts for the expanding public charter system as more and more families shop for what they believe is the best option for their children right now.

As Emily Donaldson, our education reporter, wrote on March 26, Martinez told school board members that his district faces a looming $31 million shortfall due to a sharp decline in enrollment. A few weeks earlier, Gottardy told his school board members that the loss of 2,000 students, many to the charters, has led to a dire financial crisis.

An article written by a mother named Inga Cotton published here in November 2012 could have been written yesterday, and illustrates the dilemma for all those who believe well-funded public school districts are essential to the state’s future. Good schools are not just for the lucky few who can gain entry into a charter school. Yet what choice do  impatient parents have when they live near low-performing, underfunded district schools?

It’s a conundrum: No parent with choices is going to defer a child’s good education while waiting for a district to improve, yet each student departing the public school system reduces the state’s funding and accelerates the district’s decline.

Martinez is creating lots of in-district choices, but he is fighting decades of perception that the district is failing and it is true that many of the district’s 90 campuses are not producing acceptable results. If anyone can navigate this dilemma, Martinez can. But he can’t do it alone. He needs community-wide support, especially from business leaders.

Pedro Martinez bows his head along with colleagues and SAISD board members. Photo by Scott Ball.
Superintendent Pedro Martinez (center) sits with colleagues and SAISD board members.

Even if Choose to Succeed achieves its stated goal of enrolling 80,000 students by 2026, in a fast-growing city with hundreds of thousands of public school students today, that “lifeboat” strategy leaves most students to somehow survive on reduced funding.

San Antonio needs a public education strategy that works for everyone, and that requires giving the superintendent the resources needed to put a strong principal and well-trained, well-paid teachers in every school.

Los Angeles’ public schools are not exactly the Promised Land – the problems there are not small. Yet San Antonio is at risk of losing Martinez if demoralizing enrollment declines and budget cuts are not reversed. Republicans and Democrats alike must press the Texas Legislature to reverse the trend of reducing per-capita student spending. More innovation should be funded. Private philanthropy for public schools isn’t the solution, but it can make a big difference.

It’s a rainy day in Texas and San Antonio, and elected officials must commit to investing in all our children, especially our big cities’ growing populations of disadvantaged minority children. They deserve the exact same education opportunities afforded the states’ middle- and upper-class white students. Nothing less is acceptable.

Coming next Sunday: Why Texas will never be a leader in educating its students with underfunded, competing public school systems.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor and publisher of the San Antonio Report.