Investing in Education   

   "Investing in our children's education promotes prosperity for all." - State Representative Mike Villarreal.

 

When we invest in our children's education we create opportunity for them and prosperity for their families and our community. College graduates earn almost one million dollars more on average than high school graduates over their lifetime. They have the opportunity to follow their dreams and become productive citizens that reinvest in their communities.

 

Today, Texas is failing to make a smart, responsible investment in education, with predictable results: We rank 49th in the nation in high school completion rates -- with some communities graduating only half their students.  If they do graduate from high school prepared to continue their education, they will face rising college tuition costs that for too many put college out of reach.

 

Improving the educational experience of our children requires that we not only invest more, but that we also improve how we invest our limited education dollars.

   

Early Education

 

Research shows the first three years of life are critical for healthy brain development. The more we can shift our investment to these early years the greater success our children will achieve in the following years. Research in Texas has found that every $1.00 invested in high-quality pre-k returns at least $3.50 to our communities by boosting school success and lifetime earning. Unfortunately, we know children receive different levels of nurturing and mental stimulation during these early years. For example, researchers have found that four-year-olds in poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than those whose parents are professionals, and therefore have starkly more limited vocabularies when they start school. Consequently, some children show up to kindergarten ready to learn while others fall behind starting on day one.

 

We can change this by providing state funding for high-quality universal, full-day pre-kindergarten.  Today the state funds pre-k classes for certain students, such as low-income, non-English speakers, or children of active military.  In 2007 I passed HB 482 to expand eligibility to former foster care children, and I will keep working to expand and strenghten pre-k, particularly in those elementary schools where students need the most help. To ensure that pre-k truly provides the boost that we know it can, we must continue to improve the quality of instruction by employing certified teachers, using developmentally appropriate curricular activities, providing professional development for teachers, and limiting the student-teacher ratios and class size, as I sought to do with HB 135 in 2007. Parent education programs, such as the Nurse-Family Partnership, also play a critical role from pre-natal care through age three. 

 

College Affordability

 

We must invest in everyTexas student who is prepared to pursue a college degree by making college affordable. Today, too many bright students with limited means fail to apply for college admissions. Many that do pile up excessive debt, place a heavy financial burden on their families, or struggle to work long hours while keeping up their grades. Over the years the state legislature has contributed to this problem by failing to adequately fund its main college scholarship program, TEXAS Grants, or by cutting higher education funding. In 2003, rather than raising TEXAS Grant funding to keep up with growing demand, the state legislature instead passed a budget that scaled back the program. With insufficient state funding, tuition rates at Texas public universities increased 45 percent between 2003 and 2007.

 

We took an important step in increasing TEXAS Grant funding by $96 million for 2008-2009, but we must raise our investment in the program until it can meet the need of all qualified applicants. Along with better financial aid, we must control costs for items such as textbooks and help families save for college.  The Texas Tomorrow Fund II  that we passed in 2007 will help by allowing parents to buy tuition credits at today's prices. We can also encourage savings by working with employers and others to match low and moderate income families' contributions to the state's 529 college savings plan or similar accounts.

  

College Access

 

The high cost isn't the only thing keeping children from going to college. Many children don't pursue higher education simply because they do not know how or aren't expected to go to college. High school counselors, for example, are often found administering standardized tests rather than helping students plan for college. 

 

The state should provide funding so that every public high school has enough college counselors to help every student plan for college and apply for admissions and financial aid. With adequate resources from the state, school districts would also be able to require that all freshmen and their parents attend a meeting with college counselors about the path to college readiness.  To ensure that our publicly funded universities continue to serve Texans from all parts of the state, I have blocked legislation to chip away at the policy ensuring admission for students in the top 10% of their high school classes.

 

Valuing Community Colleges

 

Half of the students in public higher education in Texas attend community colleges. There is a growing demand in our economy for workers with a community college associate's degree. Community colleges also serve as an avenue into higher education for the growing number of "non-traditional" older and part-time students while providing an excellent bridge for students who are not prepared financially or academically to go straight to four-year schools. Yet our budgets, transfer policies, financial aid systems and higher education strategies under-utilize our community college system.

 

Every community college student who works hard and completes their first two years of course work deserves a place at one of our state's universities. We can improve that transition by passing our legislation to expand financial aid access for transfer students and ensuring that students can transfer their course credits other schools.  Instead of cutting state support for community colleges, as the Governor's veto temporarily did in 2007, we need to provide funding that reflects the critical strategic role they play in our state's economy and education system.

 

Finishing High School

 

More than 20 percent of Texas adults do not have a high school degree. The numbers are much higher for Hispanics and African-Americans, perpetuating poverty and inequality in the state. A majority of Texas' working poor families have a parent who dropped out of high school; poverty is both a cause and effect of dropping out of school. If every child graduated, the state would boost combined earnings over four years by about $3 billion while also reducing poverty.  Best of all, we can help all Texans reach their full potential. 

 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to our dropout crisis. Expanding early childhood education, innovative schools, timely individual assistance for struggling students, and college access are important academic reforms.  Addressing teenage pregnancy, poverty and other social challenges are all part of the solution, too. The right curriculum is fundamental; schools must provide courses and career opportunities that are relevant to students, challenge them, prepare them for life after graduation, and accommodate their schedules if they must hold jobs to support their families.  One of the key steps I've taken is helping to expand dropout prevention programs -- such as Communities in Schools -- that provide comprehensive services, including mentoring, parental engagement, career counseling, eye care, after-school programs, mental health treatment and other aid targeted for at-risk students.

 

Testing and Accountability Reform 

Testing and accountability play an important role in our educational system, but in recent years we have begun to lose perspective and control. Teachers spend too many days administering and preparing for tests instead of educating students so they can pass any test that comes their way.  We have increased the punishment for low performance instead of increasing the rewards for high performance and the assistance for low-performing schools and students.

In 2007, we took an important first step away from the over-emphasis on high stakes testing and teach-to-the-test instruction by replacing the high schools TAKS test with end-of-course exams starting with freshmen in 2011.  We must continue to improve the system and provide responsive intervention, such as stronger early education programs, when schools report low scores. 

Supporting and Innovating our Schools

 

When it comes to education, like many other things in life, we get what we pay for.  Texas doesn't invest enough in schools in low-income neighborhoods, nor in our teachers. We must ensure that all school districts regardless of their demographics can raise enough funding locally and from the state to provide all students a first-class education.

  

In 2006 I was one of a just a few legislators to vote against tying the hands of school districts trying to raise funding for our students. The next year I filed legislation, HB 1876, to allow districts to raise revenue from developers building new neighborhoods that fill their schools. I also helped to secure a pay raise for active teachers and boosted retirement benefits for retired teachers. Along with investing resources, we must also encourage innovation, which is why I've supported the expansion of charter schools that agree to compete on a level playing field with public schools.

 

Safe, Healthy and Well-Rounded Students

 

Effective classroom instruction and high test scores are part of academic success, but we must also broaden our understanding of successful students and schools. If we want students to succeed in the classroom and in life, we need to make sure they are safe, healthy and well-rounded.

 

In response to parents' concerns about recess disappearing from elementary schools, I passed HB 366 to require districts to establish a local recess policy based on the documented physical, social and academic benefits of recess. I also passed HB 1345 to improve school safety near railroads, a danger San Antonio residents know all too well. By enrolling more children in CHIP, we can ensure they have the glasses they need to see the board and the care they need to go to school everyday and focus on learning.  Finally, we also need to make sure students are eating enough nutritious food at school to pay attention in class and maintain healthy weight levels.