HARLINGEN, RGV – A top administrator for a public-private partnership of about 200 organizations in North Texas says the biggest predictor of success for a student is their level of poverty.

Sagar Desai, chief operating officer of The Commit Partnership spoke at two events in the Rio Grande Valley late last week, one in Harlingen and the other in Mission. The events promoted the InvestED TX campaign. 

“A low-income student will perform anywhere from 20 to 30 percent worse than a non-low income student,” Desai said. “That does not mean that a low-income student is not capable. It means they have a different set of challenges and that we need to be providing strategic resources and deep resources to make sure they can be successful.”

The worst part of this, Desai said, is the impact on college completion. 

“In Texas now, more than 60 percent of living wage jobs require some form of a four-year or two year degree or vocation certificate. Currently, only about 18 percent of low income kids graduate high school and complete a four-year degree, a two-year degree or a vocational certificate, within six years of high school graduation,” Desai said.

“That is not the American Dream we like to take about. It is not setting us up to continue the Texas Miracle that we have enjoyed up until today.”

Desai said the reality is that the demographics of Texas are shifting rapidly. 

“Now, 60 percent of our kids in Texas are low-income. In the last ten years we have grown about 800,000 students and of these, 80 percent of that growth was low-income students. The demographics are changing and the funding system has not kept pace with the types of investments we need for our students.”

The Commit Partnership includes colleges, school districts, foundations, corporations, and civic leaders. Desai said they came together to “look at data to figure out how can we make the best decision for every child in Dallas County.”

In his speech in Mission, Desai said he wanted to focus own three main data points: job vacancies and the level of unemployment, uninsured medical costs, and incarceration.

“We have about 300,000 unfilled jobs across Texas. We have over half a million unemployed Texans. As a result, 70 percent of businesses are reported to be paying premiums to attract, recruit and retain talent. Obviously, this half a million is capable but does not have the skills set they need,” Desai said.

With regard to medical insurance, Desai said Texas spends about $6 billion annually in uninsured medical costs for the types of health insurance that come with a living wage job. 

As for incarceration, Desai said Texas spends $22,000 per inmate annually. “That is about two and half times what we spend on public education. The way I like to talk about it is, pay me now or pay me later. The more we can think about better ways to invest in public education system, we will start saving money get a better return on investment.”

Desai then spoke about the improvements in educational attainment made by Dallas ISD thanks to key strategic investments. However, he cautioned that the model used by the school district was not sustainable because it had to cut librarians and health workers and impose freeze pay increases for all non-teaching staff. 

Up until this year, Dallas ISD’s deficit budget would have depleted its fund balance for the next three years and had to limit teacher pay increases to less than two percent. 

“They just had to go to the voters to implement a tax ratification election that put in significant new dollars for the district but that is just to sustain what they are doing now,” Desai said. 

“It still does not mean they will be able to make significant changes, and they are still only getting 40 percent of their kids achieving grade level on many of these tests. This is not to say Dallas ISD is doing a bad job. It is just to say you need more resources to do better. That is what we want to fight for, for our kids. That is why we have a public education system, so we can provide them access to the best education possible.”

Desai also spoke about a school finance commission set up by Gov. Greg Abbott. He said three work groups had been set up to look at revenue, expenditure and outcomes. 

“Outcomes is the part we do not talk enough about. What is it we want for our kids? What is it we want for our public education system? What is our goal and what is it going to take to fund it?” Desai asked.

Desai said there are three important areas to look at. One of these is making sure every student is ready to learn. “We know that a student who cannot read by third grade is four times more likely to drop out,” Desai said.

Another area that needs attention is making sure every teacher is ready to teach.  “A teacher is the most powerful in-school factor we have,” Desai said.

The third critical area is ensuring students graduate high school ready to learn and that they do not require some form of remediation. “Right now, 42 percent of our high school graduates require some type of remedial education. How do we start creating the funding and structure to allow for more students to graduate high school, college-career and military ready?” Desai asked.

As poverty increases, achievement decreases, Desai said. He noted that while the general trend is of a decrease, Texas is also seeing large amounts of variation on poverty increases. 

“There are a number of districts that are doing great work, like Mission, Harlingen, Brownsville, McAllen. They are doing great work for low-income students, but the best we can get to is 40 percent (of students needing remedial education) because they do not have the resources to invest even further, even though they are trying to do everything they can.”

Desai said Texas needs to figure out how districts that are doing great things for its kids can access more resources so they can accelerate the progress they are making.

“We need to get beyond 40 percent and also allow for the right amount of local flexibility, knowing that what is happening in Mission is going to work in Dallas ISD or Waco ISD.”

Looking at figures on a power-point presentation, Desai said Texas is “mediocre at best.” Those figures showed that Texas is 43rd in per student public school funding and 28th in student achievement outcomes. “We are going to have to invest strategically and use our dollars more strategically, to really make the impact we need to,” he said.

Desai concluded his remarks by saying he and his colleagues “want to build a large movement that says, we want better outcomes for our students and we want to provide sufficient resources and equitable resources to make sure every student can be successful.”

Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium analysis

Alongside Saga Desai, another of the organizers of the school finance forums in Harlingen and Mission was 

Jennifer Esterline, executive director of Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, also spoke at the school finance forums in Harlingen and Mission.

Esterline started her presentation by praising the Rio Grande Valley for the collaboration that exists between the worlds of business and education. 

“You guys are ahead of the curve. You guys get highlighted a lot across the state as doing amazing work in education and innovation. So we are really thrilled to be here,” she said.

Esterline pointed out that she works with a group of 49 grant makers from across the state. 

“We are private family foundations, community foundations and United Ways from across the state. You have heard of the Gates Foundation in Seattle, there is the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in Austin, the Houston Endowment in Houston, the Meadows Foundation in Dallas. These are foundations that make lots of grants to nonprofits and schools across the state and I used to work for one.”

Esterline was executive director of a foundation in Austin that gave about a million dollars a year in grants. At one point, her board of directors urged her to make a dent in the cycle of poverty in seven Central Texas counties. 

“I said, with a million dollar grant budget, that is going to be a drop in the bucket. We are not going to get very far. And so we started talking about, how do we have more of a role in public education policy and advocacy. That was a shift for a lot of grant makers. A lot of foundations were a little scared to operate in this space. They like to fund programs. They do not necessarily like to get involved in policy advocacy.”

The shift occurred in 2011 when, Esterline said, grant makers had “a crisis on our hands.” It came in the form of state leaders proposing a $5.4 billion cut in public education. 

When state lawmakers zeroed out Texas Education Agency discretionary budgets, Esterline said, they were effectively zeroing out the grants the grant makers had been making. 

“That got our folks a little bit more fired up. In times of crisis people get organized. So, in 2011, we came together as a very small team of grant makers. We basically sat down with the chairs of the public education committees and said, we cannot fill a $5.4 billion dollar budget hole. The State has to pay its share. We are here to help with research and development and innovation but we cannot fill a $5.4 billion budget hole.”

Esterline noted that the Gates Foundation gives away hundreds of millions of dollars a year. “If you put all the dollars the Gates Foundation invests in public education, it is a drop in the bucket (compared to the proposed state budget cuts). So, we knew we had a role to play.”

Esterline said TEGAC has taken on school finance for this legislative session “because we saw the writing on the wall.” She said when the Governor Abbott set up a school finance commission, “we knew we needed to be in the conversation.”

TEGAC has been tracking the work of the commission, Esterline said, and urged the people of the Valley to pay attention also.

“We want to get the business folks in the conversation, but not exclusively. We want taxpayers, and stakeholders and parents and families to understand that the school finance system, as it stands now, has some serious flaws and is in need of some serious reform.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows Sagar Desai, chief operating officer for The Commit! Partnership, and Jennifer Esterline, executive director of the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium.