Texas' public school disaster: How segregation and cuts are gutting the system

Nation's second largest school system is over 50 percent Hispanic. That makes recent headlines even more shocking

Published August 4, 2014 4:37PM (EDT)

Rick Perry                            (AP/Susan Walsh)
Rick Perry (AP/Susan Walsh)

In February, Houston celebrated a "victory" for Texas public schools. No, it had nothing to do with re-establishing many of the draconian cuts made to education in 2011. Nor were they bringing back many of the teachers who had been laid off. Instead, many politicians gushed, the number of white students enrolled in Houston ISD increased to 17,313, compared to 2010 when enrollment plummeted to a low of 15,340.

Look, almost everyone in the state agrees that the public school system is currently failing students and something radical has to occur to turn that around; the problem with much of this discussion is that it’s framed on “white flight” (i.e. the rich, white families abandoning public schools in favor of charter or private schools).

Currently, the Texas public school system (the second largest in the country) is over 50% Hispanic. Yet you would never know that Hispanics constitute a majority of the public school population if you followed the sad headlines that trickle out of the three largest cities in the state.

Activists in Houston recently lost a long battle with the city over the closing of two schools from a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood. In 2006 a federal court ruled that Preston Hollow Elementary School in Dallas was intentionally segregating Hispanic students. And earlier this year LULAC (The League of United Latin American Citizens) sued two school districts in San Antonio for violating the Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

Mostly concentrated in urban areas, 23% of Texas schools have a Hispanic population over 80%. These are the schools where the poverty is particularly striking.

A number of factors have contributed towards the decline of Hispanic education in Texas. There’s a lack of funding for many programs with majority Hispanic populations and few teachers who speak Spanish. There’s also a dearth of Hispanic representation on many of the state school boards. Affinity programs like SAT prep are simply unrealistic for the families well below the poverty line.

An absence of a solid education is reflective in the socioeconomic outlook for Latinos in Texas. In 2010 the state census showed that 40% of Hispanics over the age of 25 didn’t complete high school (compared to 8% of non-Hispanic whites). And one out of every four Hispanics in Texas lives below the poverty line.

Everyone has an opinion on how to improve Texas schools but few are speaking about that very large Hispanic majority.

The Texas Governor’s race to succeed Rick Perry has been a national point of interest for many pundits thinking Texas could turn blue in a few years (thanks to that growing Hispanic population). But neither Wendy Davis nor her opponent Greg Abbott, the current Texas Attorney General, have adequately addressed the issue of Hispanics in the public school system.

Abbott presents some good recommendations on improving public schools (e.g., providing more transparency), but one of his central initiatives reaffirms local control. One of his proposals would allow schools to be able to “exempt themselves” from things like transportation or food and beverage service. That’s quite problematic for many families living below the poverty line.

Though Davis catapulted into the national spotlight thanks to her famous 2013 pink sneaker filibuster, it was actually not her first brush with the practice. She was one of several state senators who attempted to thwart the school budget cuts of 2011 with a staged filibuster. As a candidate for governor, her platform on improving education includes some solid positions (increasing teacher pay; doubling the number of early college high school campuses). The only mention of Hispanics appears in a footnote showing the “below basic” reading failure rate of 51%.

One of the few state leaders to focus on the importance of education for the Hispanic community was Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and the current HUD Secretary. In 2012 voters in San Antonio narrowly passed a measure that increased the local sales tax by 1/8th of a cent to fund pre-K.

Castro used much of his political capital to recruit business and community leaders to the initiative. For opponents of the measure, the cost per taxpayer of $7.81 still seemed too much. With the political climate in Texas so toxic, it’s doubtful the same measure about pre-K education would pass again. The Republican candidate for comptroller Glenn Hegar once supported abolishing the property tax that funds public schools.

It’s hard to envision a future for Texas without taking a serious look at the Hispanic population. Demographer Steven Murdock recently released Changing Texas: Implications of Addressing or Ignoring the Texas Challenge. Murdock has been a de facto prognosticator when it comes to accurately foretelling the future of Texas. Numbers don’t lie.

His book offers a stern warning for the state. “In the absence of change, the Texas labor force as a whole will be less well-educated, work in lower-status occupations, and have lower incomes in 2050 than 2010.”

The last census indicated that Texas experienced the largest increase in children in the nation -- which means that the future of the country is very much tied to Texas. Continuing to ignore the dire situation of education there is simply something we cannot afford.

By Jessica Montoya Coggins

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Education Greg Abbott Hispanics Rick Perry School Texas Wendy Davis White Flight White People