TAOS, New Mexico, April 27 – I am always concerned when a supposedly informed leader of an organization makes proclamations that are data free and not substantiated by facts.

In research such statements are referred to as anecdotal and dismissed for having no merit. It is apparent that such standards do not apply to individuals, such as Mr. Kenneth Patridge, the president and CEO of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation. Mr. Patridge, and others, offered some very data free policy interpretations to a gathering of south Texas economic development professionals at a recent meeting in Mercedes, Texas.

The hot topic issue of the Mercedes meeting was the limited allocation and funding of economic development initiatives through the Governor’s Texas Enterprise Fund [TEF] in support of south Texas. In this column I will present a brief overview of TEF and provide some policy driven questions for the consideration of economic development professionals of south Texas. I will do so within the context of the role and scope of leadership in guiding its followers as they jointly attend to a shared future.

In leadership there are several sources of power and influence that drive how followers respond to the individuals with titles. It could be that neither the presenter nor the audience, at the Mercedes meeting, was aware that they were involved in the phenomenon that is referred to as position power. This power is derived from a particular office or rank held in a formal organization. It is, according to Northhouse, “the influence capacity a leader [the director of agency/organization] derives from having higher status that the followers;” in this case the audience at the Mercedes meeting. So that I could be better informed, I decided to conduct some research on the Texas Enterprise Fund, its regulations, policies and procedures for the acquisition of funds and the historical trail of its funding from 2003. Before proceeding further it is necessary to dispel some erroneous interpretations of data that was set forth in Mercedes.

Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr.
Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr.

Let’s review the issues and related facts:

• According to the Guardian, Mr. Patridge stated that it costs about $350,000 to $500,000 to educate a student from Pre-K to 12th Grade. He also asserted that one considers adding the costs of a community education into this mix.

• The figures he cites are way off any baselines if one considers a 2013 report from the National Education Association. According to NEA, “Funding for Texas public schools has plunged by $1,062 per student, measured in spending per average daily attendance (ADA), since the Legislature slashed $5.4 billion from the public education budget two years ago, the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) announced today. Texas now ranks 49th among the states and the District of Columbia in that category, according to research compiled by TSTA’s national affiliate, the National Education Association (NEA). Only Arizona and Nevada spend less per child on education. The figures are based on state budgetary data. During the current school year (2012-13), per pupil spending in Texas is $8,400, more than $3,000 less than the national average of $11,455. Two years ago, Texas spent $9,462 per child during 2010-11, the last school year before the deep budget cuts.”

• By multiplying the Texas annual allocation of $8,400 by 14 [two years of Pre-K and grades 1 to 12] one comes up with a fourteen-year grand total of $117,600. Furthermore, when one uses the $9,462 annual allocation from the prior fiscal year, since the Legislature slashed $5.4 billion from the public education budget two years ago, the fourteen-year total to educate a Texas student comes out to $132,468. What the data shows is that Mr. Patridge missed the mark, in either scenario, since his figures are off by a minimum of $217,532. It is obvious that the audience was not informed and took his word as fact and his validation came from his position power.

• To consider the cost of attending a community junior college [CJC] is not a statistical valid reference since attendance at such an institution is not mandatory and the vocational technical education and academic transfer tracks are not normed at a set chronology. As a former community college president, I was perturbed at the students’ stop and go academic participation experience. They come and go as economic and familial considerations come into effect so it is rather difficult to chart a two-year timeframe for such an education. It is even more difficult to tie a cost factor to a matrix.

• For reference, the following are the states with the highest per pupil allocations and expenditures as of 2013: Vermont ($19,752), New York ($19,523), New Jersey ($19,291), Alaska ($18,192), and Rhode Island ($17,666).

Mr. Patridge made two other assertions that need to be supported by data and not by hyperbole. He contends that Valley universities, community colleges and high schools are doing a much better job of training students for the modern economy. Data show that this is, unfortunately, not true.

Previously, in a March 31st Guardian column, I provided the following data from the United States Census Bureau that show that from 1970 to 2010 that this is not the case, especially for Mexican Americans who make up 90 percent of the population of south Texas. Only 17 percent of Mexican Americans in Texas have an associates degree or higher. By comparison, the overall Texas adult population with an associate’s degree or higher is 34 percent [double the outcome for Mexican Americans].

I will, again, refer to data from the same Guardian column on college completion. The data from the College Completion Project show that in Texas, in 2010, only 24 percent of college students graduated in four years, 49 percent graduated in six years and the balance of 27 percent are still meandering through a college or university or have simply given up. The data is rather disheartening when one finds that at UT-Pan American only 36 percent of its students graduate within four years and at UT-Brownsville the four-year graduation rate is 19 percent. These are the two institutions that will comprise the backbone of the new UT-Rio Grande Valley that has a stated mission of becoming a Tier I research institution.

Additional data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, show that the community colleges in south Texas reflect the same negative trend: 1.) The completion of an Associates or Technical Certificate was 29 percent at TSTC Harlingen, 2.) Thirteen percent at Del Mar College, 3.) Nineteen percent at Texas Southmost College and 4.) Eleven percent at South Texas College. This data reinforces the contention that these numbers reflect the inadequacies and shortcomings of Texas public schools to prepare our students after fourteen years and millions of dollars in investment of our limited tax dollars.

The outputs [high school students] that are directed toward community colleges, technical training institutes and four-year institutions do not meet the expected standards for success. There are simply not enough outputs [graduates] to enter a post-secondary education institution or to be engaged in significant employment.

What the data does tell us is that south Texas has one of the lowest percentages of citizens with college degrees. The Intercultural Development Research Association [IDRA] provides drop out data that tells us that the cumulative attrition rate in the thirty-seven school districts in south Texas is at 39 percent and that in the 2012-2013, the school districts in Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr Counties failed to improve their retention rates. If education is to be the cornerstone for the Rio Grande Valley’s economic development then all levels of education must step up and produce more success outcomes. Their current performance is not satisfactory and it should not be tolerated or accepted as the norm by the taxpayers.

It is my opinion that the only individuals that are using a reality-based litmus test to scan the landscape of the Rio Grande Valley’s economic development are Mr. Richard Cortez, McAllen’s former mayor, Texas State Senator Juan Chuy Hinojosa and Dr. Danny King, the superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District. Mr. Cortez needs to be acknowledged for providing some sense of order and reality to the current and emerging economic situation in the Rio Grande Valley. Senator Hinojosa’s support of the position that Mr. Cortez puts forth about education as the driver of the future is a solid reflection that needs further action by all public agencies in south Texas and the members of the south Texas legislative delegation. Dr. King is setting the standard for how school districts should go about recovering dropouts from its academic rosters.

Another item that requires data is a reference to the supposed brain drain of talent from south Texas to points north, in some instance as far as Chicago. Really? Again, where is the data to back up this assertion? Since 1974, I have been educated, lived and worked at all points of the alleged Triangle, I now reside in Waco. I know that there are sufficient economic opportunities at those major municipalities to attract talent and I am on the lookout for such assets. The talent that is leaving south Texas is doing so willingly because there is an absence of opportunities in this region. If this region is to retain its talent then it needs to become more competitive. Young educated professionals with families will migrate to where there are jobs and social amenities as well as a quality education for their children. Using the Texas Infrastructure Fund and the limited flow of funds to south Texas is not the best use of the stick to hit the piñata.

The Texas Infrastructure Fund [TEF] was legislated into being by the 78th Texas Legislature in 2003 to help attract new jobs and investment to the state. The fund was re-appropriated by the Legislature in 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011. As the largest “deal-closing” fund of its kind in the nation, the TEF continues to attract businesses to Texas. The fund is used only as a final incentive tool where a single Texas site is competing with another viable out-of-state option. Additionally, the TEF will only be considered to help close a deal that already has significant local support behind it from a prospective Texas community. TEF has been the nexus of controversy and much political analysis as it has been portrayed as Governor Perry’s cash cow to provide funds to favored industries and in some instances, friends of the governor. Another consideration here is that there is no legislative guarantee that TEF’s funding and requested appropriations will be favored by the next legislature. That is an issue that will not be addressed here.

The only data that one can refer to is that found on TEF’s website: http://governor.state.tx.us/ecodev/financial_resources/texas_enterprise_fund/. The data shows that since its initial funding cycle in fiscal year 2004 119 projects have been funded to-date. Of the 119 funded projects, 85 or 71 percent are located in what is being referred to as the Triangle. The balance of 34 are scattered in the balance of the state with the South Texas region having only three projects funded in that 11-year span and only two, one in Edinburg and one in Brownsville, are in the Rio Grande Valley, the other is in Corpus Christi. I propose the following policy directed questions for the consideration of those entities charged with the economic development of this region. This what I would ask of those present at the Mercedes dialogue if they should decide to again have a robust dialogue on this issue:

• What coordinating agency is in charge or has been designated to be the provider of technical services and guidance to all potential applicants for TEF funds for the Rio Grande Valley?

• Why have only two Rio Grande Valley projects received TEF funds in the past ten years?

• How many project applications were submitted for consideration by TEF during the past ten years?

• What does the analysis of capacity inform us about the Rio Grande Valley’s to take on major economic development initiatives?

• How do this region’s demonstrated capacity and assets compare to those of the other six TEF regions? Can it really compete on an equal footing?

• How will the Rio Grande Valley respond to other economic development considerations, challenges and opportunities such as those on a global scale?

• Is there a central agency that is charged with the continuous improvement and expansion of capacity of private/public sector enterprises to make them competitive  in the global economy?

• What agency is benchmarking the emerging industries in the Rio Grande Valley with norms that are synced with human assets?

• Is there a central Rio Grande Valley Economic Development Strategy in place that is data based and normed to accountability standards that are directed at success outcomes?

• What organization is or should be leading the charge to develop an integrated action plan that makes education, at all levels, the core for economic development? I propose, like Mr. Cortez, that the county judges should lead this charge.

• How is the south Texas legislative delegation involved in setting the pace for economic development in south Texas? This delegation should always be meeting on this matter and should have a data based legislative strategy in process in anticipation of the de-obligation or reauthorization of TEF.

To view this issue as one of disenfranchisement demonstrates an absence of imagination and a commitment to the development of an assertive strategy to create the future of the Rio Grande Valley. The director of economic development for the city of San Benito, Mr. Salomon Torres, said it best when he observed, “that we (the Valley) are on our own.” I would suggest that the Valley’s leadership, charged with economic development, anchor its emerging strategy to the wisdom of Rabbi Hillel. He asked a most profound question that stills anchors Israel’s action plan for its survival when he queried, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

My question is not as profound but I will simply ask, “So what is the Rio Grande Valley leadership going to do next to respond to the challenges and opportunities to expand the quality of life of its diverse constituency?”

<I>Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr., Ph.D., was the founding president of the College Without Walls, which was charged by the Houston Community College System with the provision of all economic development, workforce and technology training for residents of the City of Houston. He left UT-Pan American as a tenured professor of leadership and research in 2012. His research is directed at exploring quality of life issues that impact the Mexican American community, principally in Texas and the Southwest. He writes regularly for the Rio Grande Guardian.</I>