If you want to see how profoundly the state’s population is changing, look at the faces of the children in Texas public school classrooms.
In all but rural areas, Hispanic enrollment is rapidly surpassing that of whites. Hispanic schoolchildren make up nearly 49 percent of Texas’ 4.8 million pre-K through 12th-grade students, according to the Texas Education Agency. About one-third of students are white.
Demographers have long projected dramatic population changes for Texas, and the state’s leaders have acknowledged the economic, social and political impact they will have — but hardly ever in the present tense. Now, they must confront the realization that the state is not adequately funding the education of a growing population that is generally poorer and less proficient in English.
“We were warned about this,” said Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. “You look at the future, but you don’t think it’s going to be now.”
Texas has been a minority majority state for several years now, so none of this should come as a surprise. In fact, we saw a similar report from the TEA last year. Really, this isn’t even news, in the sense that it isn’t new. It’s just finally starting to sink in for some people.
Which makes the timing of our budget crisis all the more unfortunate.
During the past decade, enrollment from low-income families has grown to 2.8 million, or nearly 59 percent of all students. The number of English-language learners has increased to nearly 816,000.
Both types of students are more expensive to teach.
Key lawmakers already are warning they will not seek new taxes next year to address a severe state budget shortfall. But shortchanging education is not a smart response, some observers say.
“Education is not something we do for children. Education is something we do to children for society. This demographic is an asset — if it’s educated. It’s a liability if it’s not,” said Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
But McCown warns that Texas cannot meet its growing education demands with the current tax system.
“It’s not the best time to be talking about investing in the future, but, nonetheless, we have to begin a serious study about revising that state’s tax system,” McCown said. “We are not keeping up with enrollment growth and inflation in public education, much less providing the money to meet higher standards and closing the dropout rate.”
As noted before, we know what we need to do, we just have to be willing to do it. Money we’re not investing in education now is money we’ll be spending later, on social services and the criminal justice system. It’s terribly short-sighted, yet the almost certain outcome of the next legislative session will be cuts to the education budget. And even if that’s only a small step backwards instead of a giant one, we’ll still have a structural deficit that we continue to be unwilling to talk about, much less solve. But that’s where we are, and the future be damned.
A decade ago, former state demographer Steve Murdock warned that the average household income in Texas would drop by around $6,500 by the year 2040 from 2000 levels unless the education trend line changed.
“I see no signs of a reversal in such trends,” said Murdock, now on the faculty of Rice University. “The demographics are very overpowering, and we clearly show signs of falling farther behind. It is, as we have noted, the major challenge to Texas’ future.”
Here was Murdock saying the same things five years ago:
By 23 or 24, we’re talking about three out of every four Texas workers being non-Anglo. I like to say, well, if I, as an aging Anglo, forget that the quality of services I’m going to have—fire, police, and other services—depend on how well primarily the working-age population is doing, I really do so to my own detriment. Our fates are intertwined and related. How well our non-Anglo citizens do in Texas is how well Texas will do.
I wish I felt optimistic about that, but I don’t. Too many people in our state government have demonstrated by their actions and priorities they just don’t care about it. I just hope it won’t be too late by the time we have enough people in government who do care.