Texas Governor Rick Perry
Photo courtesy www.niemanlabs.org.

Texas voters can now see clearly what many could only glimpse during the 82nd session of the Texas Legislature last year. Fewer teachers face larger classes. Statewide, student populations continue to grow. Districts rich and poor and in between struggle to get by on smaller budgets. It’s a prescription for failure: Education attainment levels are bound to fall even lower. The policy of defunding public education has enormous social and economic consequences for San Antonio, and must be reversed in the years ahead.

Texas Governor Rick Perry
photo courtesy www.niemanlabs.org

For those of us committed to building a stronger central city, public school performance is the Achilles Heel we must acknowledge and address. San Antonio is enjoying a sustained period of progressive civic leadership with a strong nexus of elected officials and those managing our most important taxpayer-funded entities. This is leading to a welcome influx of both young, educated people to the inner city as well as more affluent empty nesters.

But too young families with children, who otherwise would be attracted to a more urban lifestyle, are unwilling to commit to buying homes and investing in the inner city until they see marked improvement in the public schools. School board performance, regrettably, has been the glaring exception to the otherwise positive trend in public leadership. That’s one reason among many why this issue belongs to everyone.

San Antonio native Morgan Smith of the Texas Tribune reported recently on how Texas schools are coping with expanding classes and shrinking staff.  It’s a must-read. The Tribune also maintains an updated report on the class-action lawsuits that have been filed in response to the $5.4 billion in state education funding cuts taking effect over the current biennium.

The Texas State Teachers Association has started a petition drive asking Gov. Rick Perry to call a special session of the Texas Legislature to appropriate $2.5 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to reverse the education funding cuts and to stop the continued elimination of teaching positions in the public school system. Deeper cuts are coming in the 2012-13 school years unless current funding decisions are changed.

Amid the continuing cuts, Raise Your Hand Texas is an education advocacy non-profit that builds partnerships and serves as a valuable resource for concerned parents and citizens. Use it to stay updated on various education initiatives, and what is being said and published around the state on the subject. It’s a handy tool to contact local and state officials to express your views and concerns.

Raise Your Hand Texas  has won the financial and political support of some of San Antonio’s most prominent public education supporters, including Charles Butt, CEO and Chairman of H-E-B; Tom Frost, Senior Chairman of Frost National Bank and the bank’s current CEO and Chairman, Richard Evans, Jr.; Edward Whitacre, Jr., former Chairman and CEO of General Motors and Chairman Emeritus of AT&T; Guy Bodine III, Chairman and CEO of San Antonio National Bank, and Al Silva, COO of Labatt Foods and President of the Alamo Heights Independent School Board. All are serving on the Raise Your Hands Advisory Board.

With that kind of  business community muscle here and in other Texas cities, the organization sent 100 Texas school principals to Harvard last summer to study innovation, an invaluable skill as school boards and administrators work to find new ways of delivering basic services to a growing constituency. Applications are now being accepted for the Summer 2012 program. Why not nominate your school’s principal?

In all my years as a newspaper editor, one of the biggest misconceptions I encountered, even among otherwise well-informed, educated people, is that this city’s dropout problem is somehow intractable and beyond cure. Nothing could be further from the truth. But we face a clear political reality: Federal and state funding for public education and just about everything else except war is declining. That increases the burden on non-profit community programs, the private sector and philanthropy, which is why you see so many of the above community leaders giving time and money to the Raise Your Hands Texas initiative.

There are worthwhile programs making a difference in San Antonio.  Butt led the effort to bring  Teach for America to the city in 2010 with a lead gift of $7 million. The program attracts some of the nation’s best and brightest young people from all fields of work who want to start their careers by making a difference. To understand how valuable the influx of these teachers has been to San Antonio, look no further than its San Antonio executive director, Laura Saldivar, a Jefferson High School graduate who went to Georgetown University and then worked for TFA in the Rio Grande Valley. Had Butt not brought TFA to San Antonio, Saldivar likely would not have returned home to make such a difference. Continued funding will be a challenge. Program expansion here would be a great step forward.

Communities in Schools, a highly effective program that embeds social workers in inner city schools from early childhood through high school, helps provide the adult support, guidance and stability that many of the students otherwise lack. With dropout rates in inner city schools at the 40% mark, CIS achieves remarkable success in keeping at-risk students in school and learning, but funding only allows them to reach 7,500 students in Bexar County at the present time. To put that number in perspective, even more students will drop out of local public schools this year.

Not everyone has the resources of H-E-B or Frost Bank, but that doesn’t leave you or me on the sidelines wishing things would get better. What can individuals or small business do to make a difference? The answer, in a  word, is GIVE. Both organizations are proven stewards of the funds entrusted to them by their donors, and both deliver a high return on investment. Both programs help make up for the loss of teachers every school district is experiencing. Click on the above links and make a donation. Will it make a difference? It surely will, by serving as a counter-balance to what Gov. Perry and the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature did to public education funding last year. That is not a partisan comment. It’s simply a statement of fact.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.