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Texas schools are at a ‘tipping point,’ education professors say

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
KUT News

Last month, Texas schools received grades from the Texas Education Agency for the first time in three years. The ratings showed some improvement overall, but about 550 schools – or 3.5% – that would have gotten D or F grades were not rated by the agency.

The vast majority of these schools are located in the state’s poorest communities. In an op-ed that appeared in several newspapers around the state, two education professors argued this week that the Texas education system is at a “tipping point,” and that it’s failing kids, especially families with low incomes or with kids enrolled in special education.

David DeMatthews, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at UT-Austin, co-authored the article with University of Washington professor David S. Knight. DeMatthews told the Texas Standard that the state’s education funding mechanism, called recapture, has led to greater funding inequities for poorer districts, despite its goal of doing the opposite. The professors also say the state needs to hire and keep more certified teachers in the classroom.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You point to this year’s TEA ratings as an indicator of two fundamental problems with the state’s education system that have you concluding it’s at a tipping point. What specifically caught your attention? 

David DeMatthews: The state has really failed to adequately fund all schools, particularly those in poorer communities. And also for a long time now, the pandemic has made it worse. The teacher workforce is really struggling along. There’s not as many high-quality, experienced teachers as we’d like to see. And unfortunately, the most experienced, the best trained teachers often don’t work in schools with the highest need. And so we have both a funding problem that’s disproportionately impacting schools in poor communities, and we also have a teacher quality problem and a teacher experience problem. And you put those things together, and it’s not surprising at all why the overwhelming majority of schools that are struggling are in those same communities.

Am I correct in saying that none of the schools that would have received a D or an F in any other testing period were located in areas of affluence or relative wealth?

Looking at the TEA data, out of the roughly 8,400 schools that were reviewed, they only linked to 0.3% schools that they labeled as low poverty.

The Legislature added billions to educational funding in 2019. Was it not enough? 

So it came with some degree of strings, but it still has not created an equal playing field across all districts. And then also, as Texas has grown and has changed demographically, the state’s recapture policy is now having some negative effect on certain large urban districts. So in districts like Houston and Dallas that serve very large populations of low-income students and English language learners, which can be costly, those school districts are actually subject to recapture. And so in some instances, we have a school finance policy that is supposed to be helping school districts meet the needs of low-income students, and it’s actually taking funds away.

And so a one-time funding bump is great. And the pandemic has brought some additional federal money into schools, and that’s great. But we need something that’s long-term and sustainable, and we also need something that’s modern, and that reflects the way Texas has changed over the last 20 years.

Of course, you also need teachers. There’s plenty of research that shows the presence of certified teachers obviously improves educational outcomes. What more could be done on that score, especially if you’re struggling with some systemic funding issues? 

Yes, a lot more can be done, and the state has a constitutional obligation to provide a quality education. And so the state should be extremely concerned about the teacher workforce. And I don’t think our state policymakers have been concerned enough. Right now we’re in a situation where nearly 60% of the teachers in Texas come through alternatively certified programs versus university-based programs.

And something that we know about these alternative-based programs is that they tend to have teachers with lower undergraduate GPAs, lower certification exam scores, and they’re also more likely to work in schools that serve low-income students. They’re more likely to exit the profession, which is costly for school districts to replace these teachers, and they’re less likely to move students as fast instructionally as university-trained teachers. So that is a really big concern and again, it disproportionately impacts certain schools in the state.

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