State Senator José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.
State Senator José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.

EL PASO, Texas – Education is the single-greatest key to strengthening our long-term economic future.

Now, demographic changes in our country require a different approach when educating large numbers of children who are not proficient in English. These children, who will make up our future labor force, will be either limited in English proficiency or will be proficient in two or more languages. We have the opportunity to choose which one will serve us better.

According to the Texas Education Agency’s March enrollment report, English Language Learners (ELL) make up 15 percent of the Texas student body, which is higher than the national average of about 10 percent. In communities along the border, the number is nearly 30 percent. These percentages will only continue to increase.

Already, we are seeing the changes in the labor force of border communities. The Brookings Institution recently studied English proficiency among workers in 89 large metro areas in the United States. El Paso ranked number two; almost 30 percent of El Paso’s working-age population lacks proficiency in English. McAllen had the largest percentage at 32 percent.

While this poses a challenge for Texas, it also presents the opportunity to address the issue head on. Numerous studies show not only the cognitive, social and health benefits of being bilingual, but the economic benefit as well.

Experts recommend an additional 30 to 40 percent in funding for students in bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. However, today’s state funding formula, which hasn’t been updated since 1984, only adds 10 percent.

Next session, I plan to file a bill that would provide a 25 percent add-on funding weight for ELL students. This won’t solve all of the problems with our current school finance system, but it will address one important facet that has been ignored for more than three decades. For far too long, we have been underfunding the language instruction that would benefit our children and our state immensely, and I plan to fight for a solution now.

Time and again, the Texas Supreme Court has found that the state isn’t meeting its obligation to our schools under the state constitution. In his ruling on the most recent school finance lawsuit, District Judge John Dietz wrote that the wide gap between expectation and actual performance in Texas “is even larger when considering the performance levels of economically disadvantaged and ELL student populations. Massive gaps also exist between ELL students and non-ELL students on every performance measure.”

While some argue that we cannot solve problems by “throwing money” at them, we clearly set our priorities through our budget. Further, when the problem is inequity in funding, we most certainly need to add more funding where it is needed. The bottom line is that our students deserve better, and our future success depends on it.

This is one of the reasons why, as chairman of the Senate Hispanic Caucus, I have been traveling around the state to visit with local community leaders and advocates. The other SHC members and I know that the state needs to do better on issues like education, health care, and economic opportunities for low- and middle-income Texans. Providing these opportunities will be better for all of us in the long run.

The SHC is hosting a summit in El Paso on Oct. 25th at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. I hope you will join us as we discuss how we can do better for our students, our workers, our families, and our state. For summit information call (915) 351-3500 or (800) 544-1990, or check our Facebook page at Facebook/TxSHC.

José Rodríguez is state Senator for District 29, which includes the counties of El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, and Presidio. He is chairman of the Senate Hispanic Caucus.

Editor’s Note: The Texas Association for Bi-Lingual Education holds its annual convention at the McAllen Convention Center from Oct. 15-18.