School finance reform and outcome-based funding are critical for El Paso schools

Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre

In 2014, the El Paso business community got together with local nonprofit and education leaders to discuss a problem that imperiled our regional economy: Our schools were graduating far too few students ready for college and the workforce.

This situation, unfortunately, is not just an El Paso problem. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB)’s Strategic Plan Committee, led by El Paso’s Woody Hunt, crunched the numbers for the state around the same time and realized that something had to change fast.

Texas fourth graders ranked 46th in reading proficiency on a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, an indicator of their likelihood to finish high school. More than half of Texas graduates who go on to college will require remediation. And while 54 percent of students who started eighth grade in a Texas public high school do eventually enroll in postsecondary education, only 23 percent of them will actually earn degrees within six years of high school graduation.

That dismal rate drops to 18 percent for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. When you zoom into El Paso, these numbers don’t get any better. Only 19 percent of El Paso eighth graders obtain post-secondary credentials within 11 years.

THECB’s response was its targeted 60x30 Plan—a detailed blueprint to transform public education in Texas and see 60 percent of young people attaining postsecondary degrees or certificates by 2030. In El Paso, we adopted our own 60x30 Plan with our own unique set of tactics, benchmarks and deliverables.

Unfortunately, achieving this goal continues to be hampered by an outdated and inefficient public school financing system. Our schools are underfunded, given the strategic trajectory of 60 x30, and allotments and incentives are misaligned.

Now the Texas Legislature is addressing these imbalances by proposing additional funding for Texas’s public schools and ensuring that this public investment is properly directed in order to secure the results our state needs.

The multi-billion-dollar overhaul of our school finance system is good news for anyone who cares about seeing all Texas’ students achieve.

It’s particularly important for school districts like those in El Paso.

For example, the proposals would increase per-student funding across the board, and would target additional funds to students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those who are English Language Learners (ELL). This formula will provide critical resources to districts in El Paso, where 26.8 percent of students are ELL and 75 percent are classified as low-income. It would also help us address persistent achievement gaps.

More funds would be made available to help districts attract and retain effective teachers. Districts, teachers and principals will work together to design a multi-measure evaluation system to determine how — and on whom — these funds should be spent. This increase is positive for all teachers, but will especially help rural and smaller school districts — many of which are in the El Paso region — that have a hard time recruiting teachers.

The Legislature’s other priorities include early childhood education, career and technical education, and college and career readiness. These are all sensible targets.

What I find missing, however, is a stronger focus on outcome-based funding that could be used to improve performance in key areas such as third-grade literacy and college preparation. Being transparent about how we are measuring progress, and holding our school districts to these metrics, helps us identify what is working and what isn’t. More importantly, it allows school districts and the community to have frank conversations about how to address gaps in student attainment.

In El Paso, we have developed the roadmap to get to 60x30, and we are seeing small progress (just in the last two years our students have shown gains on the STAAR exams), but we still lack the state investments to fund our change.

School finance reform will help ensure that the next generation of Texans receiving the high-quality education they deserve to compete and succeed includes all Texans. In this way, El Paso will have a strong path towards greater economic prosperity. I commend the Legislature for addressing this challenge and making the meaningful investment required for our future.

Richard A. Castro

Chairman, Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development