Public education systems in Colombia and Texas have a lot in common. Blame the Legislature.

Photo by Todd Wiseman

About a month has passed since Colombian public school teachers last held classes, and not because it’s summer break. Around 350,000 teachers from the Fecode union are striking, demanding their government increase public education funding. Colombia’s public schools are suffering from an inequitable funding system, much like the funding crisis Texas public schools face. The Colombian and Texas governments are confronting the problem much in the same way — inaction. However, while Colombia struggles to rebuild its society, economy and education system all at once, Texas’s public education shortcomings stem solely from the Texas Legislature’s inaction.

In 2016, I moved from Texas — where I was born, raised and educated — to Medellin, Colombia to work as a public school teacher. The first day I arrived at school, I was shocked. Student bathrooms did not have toilet paper or hand soap. My average class size was around 35 students, and only one classroom in the entire school was equipped with technology. Over the past year, I learned the problems at my school run much deeper — according to the administration, the government has spent less than a quarter of what it budgeted for my school.

And as evidenced by the strike, my school’s situation is not unique. However, given that we are situated in a lower-middle class neighborhood, my students are hit much harder by funding problems than many other Colombian students who live in wealthier areas. For example, only 9 percent of students from the poorest families enroll in higher education, compared to 53 percent from the wealthiest ones. My students reflect this statistic. Only 11 of the 68 who graduated in 2016 are attending university.

Texas public school students face many of the same realities as my students in Medellin, largely because Texas also lacks an equitable public education funding plan. Under Texas’ “Robin Hood” system, districts that collect more property taxes than others have to pay money to the state for districts that collect much less. Austin is one of these wealthier districts, which has serious consequences for its students. The majority of AISD’s students are economically disadvantaged, and with less money in the education budget, AISD can’t properly give them all the resources they need to succeed.

And despite the “Robin Hood” system, high poverty districts still have fewer resources. For example, after the legislature cut the K-12 education budget by $4 billion in 2011, high poverty districts were the most affected. Much like in Colombia, inequitable funding dramatically affects a student’s capacity to succeed. Data overwhelmingly shows that a Texas student living in poverty is less likely to graduate and attend university than his peers.

The solutions for the Texas and Colombian public education systems will be different, given the different circumstances. Currently, Colombia is in the middle of a peace process to end a war that lasted half a century and is paying off a substantial debt. Both occupy a large portion of the country’s budget, leaving less funding for education . Additionally, Colombia’s economy is largely informal, resulting in fewer opportunities for those who pursue higher education. On the contrary, Texas has an economy capable of employing graduates despite the plunge in oil prices and a higher education system expected to increasingly enroll more students. Texans also don’t have a guerrilla war to solve, thankfully.

So, if the political and economic situations are so different, why are Texas public schools suffering from the same problems as those in Colombia? The answer is simple and shameful—Texas politics. After a hyper partisan session, the Texas legislature once again failed to pass school finance reform. HB 21 was killed in the Senate, despite being a largely bipartisan bill that would have increased funding for every Texas student. This commonsense legislation was held hostage to focus on issues that hurt Texas students, such as the transgender bathroom bill, which thankfully did not become law. But what did pass was the anti-immigrant bill, SB4, which will cause many Texas students to live in greater fear of deportation. This law will be so harmful that it led the ACLU to issue a travel alert for visitors to Texas.

Putting politics over good policy, like HB 21, is inexcusable. Texas students deserve a legislature that understands the importance of public education and fights to improve the opportunities for every student. As voters, we must follow the example of Colombian teachers who are fed up with public education being put last, and we must elect legislators who will place Texas students first and finally reform the public education finance system.

Erin Formby

Teacher, Colombia Bilingüe