As we begin the new year from a public policy standpoint, most politically observant eyes in Texas will be on the opening of the Texas Legislature under a new Speaker of the House, and many of those same eyes will be once again focused on what is to be done about public education finance, the issue that has received most of the preliminary analysis and emphasis. It would be great if among proposals currently under review–from the Commission on Public School Finance, from Governor Abbott and others–there was a solution in sight that would fix the glaring deficiencies of the flawed “Robin Hood” system that the state has been struggling with for many years and in numerous court decisions, but very few are optimistic that the result will be much more than continued tweaking.
My view is that, as important as finance reform might be for taxpayers and regardless of the prospects for success in systemic finance reform, our most significant time and energy should be invested in a much larger challenge–how to restore the consensus that once existed among education opinion leaders that propelled Texas to national leadership in education standards and accountability reform.
For approximately 25 years, from the early 1990s through 2009, Texas business and education leadership was committed to a long-term strategy that called for steady and incremental advancement of PreK-12 standards and expectations for students and educators, with appropriate assessment and accountability, leading to the establishment of a Texas high school diploma as emblematic of post-secondary readiness, which should be the organizing principle of PreK-12 public education. This was defined as the range of academic, workforce, and social proficiency that high school students should acquire to successfully transition to skilled employment, advanced training in the military, an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or technical certification, without the need for remediation. A proxy for this standard is community college readiness without remediation.
Currently, in spite of consistently higher high school graduation rates, which are almost totally meaningless, over 50% of Texas high school graduates require remedial courses when entering a community college. So, granted, this post-secondary readiness objective was very ambitious, and by 2009, the Texas system was described by national organizations as the most rigorous in the country. So rigorous, in fact, that there was enormous pushback from a range of “stakeholders” in and outside the education community over testing, local control, and other issues. The result over the last several legislative sessions has been a significant rollback of standards and accountability, and there is compelling evidence that this rollback has been largely responsible for flat to declining scores on national assessments of Texas student achievement since 2011.
In 2016, Texas higher education leadership developed its second 15-year plan for post-secondary achievement, called “60×30”, which calls for 60% of 25 to 34-year olds to have in hand an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or industry certification by the year 2030. Currently, that percentage is about 42%, so this is a tall order, particularly since only about 22% of the 2008 cohort of 8th graders have any of these credentials six years after anticipated high school graduation, and for minorities this percentage is around 13%.
Texas Aspires, the education reform organization on whose board I serve, is fully committed to the 60X30 objective as an overall guiding principle and is tailoring its objectives for the legislative session accordingly. See www.texasaspires.org for details. We hope to be able to rally a critical mass of like-minded leaders and organizations to advance this agenda and there is encouragement that more active reform leadership on a regional basis is developing around the state. But we must be realistic: There is not a prayer for accomplishing the 60X30 plan without a renewed consensus on a statewide commitment to rigorous PreK-12 standards and accountability and a concerted effort to repair the damage that has been done by misguided policy over the past several years. As a policy and strategic issue for the future of the state, I believe it’s the most important challenge we face.