November 7, 2022 1009 AM
Education is our society’s greatest equalizer, especially in rural Far West Texas. Texas is responsible for educating more rural students than any other state. Our public schools are often the center of our rural communities, the incubator for our next generation of leaders and sometimes the only places some kids can get a warm meal. But our rural schools are being left behind.
For example, Marfa ISD, considered a “rich” district by the state, struggles to find funding to address mold issues, make building repairs and pay their teachers. There’s a disconnect between the state of Texas and the reality of our rural schools. History has shown us when our schools decline, the community soon follows. Here’s how we can provide our kids the education they deserve and ensure rural communities are not left behind.
Opposing diverting public education funds to private vouchers
Put simply, we have to say no to private school vouchers Republicans are proposing. Public schools are already cash-strapped. Diverting scarce funds to private schools is not the answer, it only worsens the situation. Private schools are not a choice for millions of rural Texas students and cannot accommodate the growing number of Texas children who are constitutionally guaranteed a free, high-quality education. Giving private schools a hand up at the expense of public schools is contradictory to our responsibility to educate Texas students. But that is what is happening by Texas underfunding our schools and then blaming underfunded schools for poor outcomes or mismanagement. The answer to ensuring every child has a world-class education no matter the zip code isn’t to divert funds to vouchers so kids can go to private schools — we must ensure the public schools that kids go to have the resources and personnel our students need. Our kids can succeed in any public school if we are providing the resources to support them.
Increasing the state’s share of public education to over 50%
Funding education is a shared commitment between local property taxpayers and the state of Texas. But as property values in Texas began rising the state share declined, and local property taxpayers began carrying the burden. Currently, local property owners foot about 64% of the bill, and in rural communities like Marfa, Alpine and Fort Davis with smaller tax bases, rural school districts are disproportionately impacted.
Money intended for our schools should stay in our schools. The Texas Legislature needs to invest in programs, students, and teachers. By redistributing the funds back to our schools and restoring the state’s share to over 50%, our schools will not only have the resources to succeed, but property taxpayers would feel a serious relief in their wallets.
Investing in mental health and school safety
Schools are a unique ground where mental illness identification, prevention and treatment can occur. We are currently in the biggest mental health crisis of our time and whether that aid comes in the form of mental health resources available on campus, addressing school safety and school hardening, or a decrease in workload, we must equip schools with resources to support every student’s and teacher’s mental health.
Following the 2018 Santa Fe High School Shooting, the Texas Legislature passed more than 17 laws related to school safety. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to harden schools and address mental health. There’s no denying that mental health and school hardening is important and that we can do drastically better, but any credible school safety solutions also need to include curbing the extremely easy access to assault rifles in Texas.
Providing teachers with competitive pay, professional development and incentives to teach in rural communities
Teachers are the backbone of our public schools, but they are stretched egregiously thin. For years, the state of Texas has been asking our teachers to do more with less. Between scarce affordable housing and being severely overworked and underpaid, attracting teachers to rural areas is a serious challenge.
In communities, like Marfa, in which tourism drove up real estate costs, teachers are unable to pay rent or buy a house. As an incentivization tool, rural school districts have implemented four-day work weeks, but it’s not enough to attract and retain teachers. We must do everything we can to compensate for the low-average salary that has remained stagnant for nearly a decade and provide our teachers with more workforce development opportunities. If we do everything in our power to help elevate our educators rather than keep them trapped in a system that undervalues and overworks them, we have a better chance of retaining and incentivizing them to teach in our rural public education systems.
Investing in bilingual and English-Language-Learners (ELL) programs and teachers
There are over one million English learners in Texas. More than half of Presidio ISD’s student population is enrolled in bilingual and English Language Learning (ELL) Programs. However, multilingual students face systemic barriers in accessing high-quality instruction and entering the workforce that stems from available resources, teacher efficacy, and language barriers in the classroom.
Last session, our office proudly co-authored SB560, requiring the TEA, the Texas Workforce Commission, and the Texas Higher Education Board to collaboratively improve bilingual education in Texas. In establishing a collaborative and coordinated strategy, Texas schools will be better equipped to ensure Spanish-speaking students overcome learning loss and receive high-quality and equitable education. Regardless of language barriers or socioeconomic status, all Texas children should have the same access to resources necessary for a quality education to shape tomorrow’s workforce and change the world
A child’s zip code should never determine their destiny. It’s well beyond the time we live up to the promise of protecting and educating our children. We owe these things to our kids. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Texas Legislature to properly – and equitably – fund rural public schools. Our students and teachers in rural West Texas deserve it.