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PHARR, RGV – The business community of the Rio Grande Valley has been praised for the key role it played in persuading the Texas legislature to pump more money into public education.

State lawmakers invested an additional $6.5 billion into public education during the 2019 legislative session, with Hidalgo County receiving an additional $90 million over the next biennium and Cameron County receiving just shy of this amount.

“For sure,” said Jennifer Esterline, executive director of the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, when asked if the Valley business community frequently went to Austin to support meaningful school finance reform.

“And they did not do it just in Austin. They did it in their own communities. The fact that the business community was writing op-eds, speaking out in press conferences about the importance of meaningful reform was absolutely critical.”

Jennifer Esterline
Jennifer Esterline

The Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium’s website states that the group is a “collaboration of private, corporate and community foundations across the state that is “working to promote, protect, and improve Texas public education through advocacy and public policy.” The consortium is an initiative of Educate Texas.

Esterline spoke to business leaders at a meeting at the Pharr Economic Development Corporation in early November. At the meeting she praised Pharr EDC and the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, the Valley’s regional chamber of commerce, for playing its part in public school finance reform. “They were amazing partners,” she said. “The business community is a critical voice when it comes to legislative decisions.”

Esterline had previously been in the Valley in December 2018, just before the start of the 86th legislative session. On both trips Esterline was accompanied by Sagar Desai, managing director of The Commit! Partnership.

During the December 2018 visit to the Valley, Esterline and Desai held events in Brownsville and Mission to urge the local business community to get more involved in the public school finance debate. During the November 2019 visit to the Valley, Esterline and Desai held events in Brownsville and Pharr to thank the local business community for helping to ensure more funding for public ed.

Desai said the 2019 legislative session was the first time in 35 years that state lawmakers pumped a significant amount of additional monies into public education without being told by the courts to do so.

Speaking of the business community across Texas, Esterline said: “Sometimes the business community would testify during the legislative session. They would meet privately with individual lawmakers and especially the leaders, the speaker, the lieutenant governor, the governor. There was a very real recognition in January, right after we left McAllen and went back to Austin, that the legislators, particularly the leadership, heard loud and clear, if they did not do something about school finance, they would have to deal with it when the elections came around.”

Sagar Desai
Sagar Desai

Desai gave an example of the role the business community played during the legislative session.

“One concrete example, 40 business CEOs of large corporations signed a letter making the case.. asking for funding for early childhood. They published it in major newspapers across the state as a way to show the business community is really watching and paying attention. It was amazing. I had not seen other states have that kind of movement from the business community before,” Desai said.

Esterline said this push by business CEOs was “even more impressive” because they were talking about early education. “That does not have immediate payoff. These business folks had enough vision to say, these are kids, we need to invest in now, for 20 years from now.”

Dramatic Gains

Interviewed after the meeting in Pharr, Desai was asked if public school districts will now be under pressure to deliver improved educational outcomes, having received a large infusion of additional dollars.

“We expect and hope there will be dramatic gains. We just think the timeline is going to take some time. It is going to take thoughtful implantation from districts. It is going to take a lot of support from the community and community based partners to help districts make it work,” Desai said.

“We believe we need to see dramatic gains, we just now it is going to happen in one to two years. We think there will be a lot of success stories along the way that we can share and that we will plan on sharing in collaboration with many other partners, like Educate Texas.”

Dual Language Education

In his presentation at the Pharr meeting, Desai said the 2019 Legislature correctly identified dual language education as deserving of additional attention and funding.

“Currently, the legislature funds bilingual instruction. But all the research points to dual language, which is an emersion program, so half the students are English language learners and the other half are native English speakers,” Desai told the Rio Grande Guardian, after the Pharr meeting.

“Dual language is an opportunity to bring them together, reduce classroom segregation. But it is also an incredibly impactful practice in terms of increasing English proficiency. The bill gives about 50 percent more funding compared to bilingual instruction. Not forcing districts to do it, but providing a financial incentive, especially as it is more expensive to implement dual language programs.”

When it was pointed out to Desai that state lawmakers were not always supportive of bilingual or dual language education, he said: “I think there are some political realities to it. The changing demographics. The reality is one in five kids in Texas are English language learners. That is a significant part of our student population.”

Esterline agreed. “Half of all kids, zero to eight, are English language learners. In the Valley, it is probably higher than that,” she said.

On this point, Desai added: “If you want better (education) outcomes it is going to be (about) making sure we are funding the students that need it.”

Low Income Students

During his presentation in Pharr, Desai also spoke about the high number of Texas students that come from low-income families. He said about 60 percent are in this category.

“Ninety percent of the enrollment growth we have seen in Texas over the last ten years has come from low-income students,” Desai told the Rio Grande Guardian, after the Pharr meeting had ended. He said low-income a federal definition for those students on free or reduced price lunches.

Desai said only one in ten low-income eighth graders complete some form of a post secondary degree in Texas. He said this statistic shocks a lot of people.

“It is a realization that Texas looks different to when we grew up. I have this concept of, oh, these are middle class kids, whether they be upper middle class or lower middle class, they are okay, why are the educational outcomes rates failing?” Desai told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“It is a complete shift when you are saying, well, no, more than half of our kids are low income. They have a whole different set of problems that go outside the four walls of the school. That is not to say that poverty can be an excuse. We can find ways to overcome that in the classroom but it takes a different type of investment.”

Esterline said more people outside of the Valley are shocked by the statistic that 60 percent of Texas students come from low-income families.

“It is outside of the Valley that people are surprised to hear that. It is really a recognition on the part of the Legislature, through the school finance bill that poverty does matter. We need to acknowledge it and understand that these are our kids. They are not some sub-population of kids, this is a majority of our children,” Esterline said.

Desai agreed. “Poverty does matter and poverty is not an excuse,” he said.

Continue to Engage

Esterline said it is important the business community continues to engage in the discussion on public school finance because it is written into the funding formula that there is an expectation on the part of the state that the legislature will continue to fund public education at a higher level moving forward.

“If that is true, then we are going to have to, at some point, have to talk about new revenue sources to be able to do that. On top of that, some of this incentive funding, if you were to play it out, to its fullest extent, let’s say it is the most successful version of how it could be, it means a whole bunch of new money,” Esterline said.

Desai agreed. “Some of these things will take years to roll out. The pre-K is a good example of that. If you are talking about full day pre-K for a lot of these districts, they can’t do it. It will take years for them to do that. They will get a waiver until they can make that a reality.”

Desai said the business community should not ease up in its support for public education.

“Getting the policy passed is one of the hardest parts of this work. But making sure the policy translates into the successful implementation of the spirit of it is carried forward is going to be the most important part.

“We need school districts and teachers and other stakeholders engaged in the process, in the rule-making, in giving feedback, to make sure we can really implement this wealth. It is not just about getting the money, it is ultimately about making sure outcomes improve.”

“I feel pretty optimistic. I think the business community knows how much effort they put in this time, they want to continue that engagement.”

Keep the Gains Coming

In her remarks at the meeting in Pharr, Esterline said Valley school districts are doing amazing work that is now being recognized across the state. “What you all are doing in the Valley is a model for the rest of the state,” she said.

After the meeting, Desai said this was a good point.

“Jennifer said it in the presentation, the work that is happening in the RGV is very well respected, given the level of poverty, despite the level of poverty. The districts in South Texas are doing an incredible job relative to the rest of the state,” Desai said.

“Even then we have to go further. We are only have 43, 44 percent of our kids reading at grade level in South Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. We need to take it to the next level. Even though they are doing better than the rest of the state.”

Desai added: “We still have half of our kids not reading. That is not to shame a district because they are doing hard work. It is just, not only how do we provide the resources, but how do we provide the technical support to the next level.”

Asked for any wrap-up remarks, Esterline said:

“It is incumbent upon folks in the Valley, educators and administrators, community members, business folks to talk about what is happening here and how this new infusion of funding is or isn’t getting the job done. This is the beginning of the story. We need to continue to talk about what else it is going to take to get us to the 60×30 goals that the state has identified.”

Esterline was referring to an overarching goal of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. That by 2030, at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 will have a certificate or degree.

Esterline added: “Tell your story, shine a light on your bright spots but also tell us what is not working.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows, from left to right, Dr. Rodney H. Rodriguez, senior director of RGV Focus, Sagar Desai, managing director of The Commit! Partnership, Jennifer Esterline, executive director of the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, Beth Bull, senior vice president and chief financial officer at Communities Foundation of Texas, Becky Calahan, projects director for the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, and Victor Perez, executive director of Pharr Economic Development Corporation. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

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