An education agenda for Texas conservatives

Students listen and take notes during a town hall meeting on October 28, 2016 at Kealing Middle School in Austin. From left are, Luke Guequirre, Jason Ren, John Milam, Adolfo Aguirre, Nathan Sheu and Edward Hao. Photo by Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Four years is a long time in Texas politics — a really long time. And it’s an even longer time in the life of Texas’ education system.

Since 2014, more than 1.6 million new students have entered Texas public schools and over $570 billion inflation-adjusted dollars have been spent on public education in the state. During that same time, Texas conservatives have helmed every branch of state government. So, how have we done? Have we put those dollars to good use? Or, as President George W. Bush once poignantly put it: “Is our children learning?”

Unfortunately, our report card looks pretty grim. According to the Education Week Research Center, Texas public schools are ranked 40th in the nation in terms of student performance after normalizing across differing state tests and student populations. And even by our own metrics, they appear to be getting worse. The passage rates on the annual STAAR tests have slipped since 2015 across nearly every subject and grade level. In fact, if the trend continues, four in ten Texas fourth graders will fail their writing test this year. This is unacceptable. We are not a 60-percent state.

That’s why it’s high time for some tough love among Republicans. When it comes to education, the brand of conservatism we’ve been selling in the statehouse these past four years just isn’t getting the job done. Yet while we may lose a few seats in Austin this year, voters seem poised to give us another crack at righting the ship. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick should seize that chance and lead with a new conservative education agenda that will actually help Texas students achieve again.

What should that agenda look like? It starts with putting the kibosh on the petty blame game between state and local officials over school funding formulas. When Abbott greets legislators in January, he should reaffirm the Texas Constitution’s mandate that “it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” By immediately taking responsibility, Texas conservatives can singlehandedly shift the statewide debate from “Whose fault is this?” to “How can we fix it?”

Once the distractions are out of the way, conservatives should focus like a laser on winning the ensuing policy debate. A quality education is a vital source of opportunity for all Texans. It remains a poor child’s single-best ticket up the socioeconomic ladder. If conservatives want to keep fending off misguided efforts by the left to redistribute tax dollars and close outcome gaps, we should get serious about closing opportunity gaps instead. Giving poor students locked in underperforming school districts the ability to choose the school they attend is one way, but it shouldn’t be our only idea.

For starters, we could pay our teachers more. While Texas runs in the middle of the national pack in terms of teacher salaries, we are dead last in non-salary benefits, putting us in the bottom third in terms of overall teacher compensation. This makes it hard to attract and keep top talent in the classroom.

We could also listen to our teachers and work more collaboratively with them to rethink how we educate in the 21st century. Rather than standardizing curricula and making teachers all teach the same way, we should trust educators to educate and then rigorously measure and verify their success. With more than 1,200 ISDs around the state, we should be leveraging our size to experiment and test new methods of educating, and then implementing the most effective approaches throughout the state.

This means we also have to equip our teachers with the resources they need in the classroom to properly educate a roomful of students. A federal Department of Education survey recently found that a staggering 94 percent of public school teachers in the United States reported paying for supplies without reimbursement to the tune of $479 per year, on average. Thankfully, our dedicated teachers are stepping up to fill the resource gap so that every kid has what they need to succeed. But they shouldn’t have to. That this occurs routinely in the 21st century represents a moral failing of every public official who influences the Texas education budget.

With such challenges comes great opportunity. Texas conservatives have the chance to lead with ideas and rebrand as a governing party of solutions in Austin. But that will take political courage and collaborative leadership — two commodities that have been in short supply of late. Adopting a singular focus on a particular version of school choice, for example, isn’t likely to result in any type of legislative progress on education this upcoming session. We’ve tried that and we know how that game ends.

We can no longer afford to embrace gridlock and postpone education reform on the hopes that one day school-choice conservatives will have super-duper majorities in both the Texas House and Senate so that one set of voices can fashion new laws unilaterally. By then, we will have failed a whole generation of Texas students. They deserve better. For their sake, Texas Republicans should finally roll up their sleeves, cut out the finger-pointing and get to work.

Heath Mayo

Management consultant, Bain & Co.