Owner's Box

Chapter 3: The Texas Dropout Epidemic

While you won’t hear Rick Perry or Kay Bailey Hutchison talking about it, in Texas today, the American dream is distant for far too many. Texas is dead last in the percentage of residents with their high school diploma and near last in SAT scores, and the results of these poor figures are staggering. In today’s Texas, what you learn defines what you earn. Texans that earn a professional or graduate degree will earn around $3.9 million during their lifetime. High school dropouts, on the other hand, will only make around $1 million.

Despite this, too few people in Austin are talking about “the Texas Dropout Epidemic.” If Texas leaders make the choice to invest in the minds of our children, Texas will be the state of the future. If we do not, family incomes will fall an average of $6,000 by 2040.

No group has a greater interest in ensuring a prosperous tomorrow for Texas than the group that will soon make up a majority of the state: Hispanics. Hispanics already make up about 37 percent of the state, and experts predict Texas will be majority Hispanic by 2035. This growth is evident when you look at the first grade enrollments at major school districts across the state:

08-09 School Year First Grade Enrollment % of Students Classified as Limited English Proficient Hispanic %
Austin ISD 7,499 40.7% 61.9%
Dallas ISD 14,261 51.0% 69.4%
El Paso ISD 4,929 46.8% 81.1%
Houston ISD 17,577 46.1% 63.6%
STATEWIDE 379,263 28.1% 50.6%

Source: TEA

When one takes a look at the entire demographic shift being predicted by experts, it becomes clear that state leaders have failed to plan adequately for the future. As mentioned above, Dr. Steve Murdock cautioned that if the state continues on its current path, the next generation will “not only will be poorer, less well educated, and more in need of numerous forms of state services than its present population but also less able to support such services.” Such dire warnings demand immediate action.

To reverse this trend, there needs to be leadership from the top of the state aimed at improving the educational outcomes of the growing Hispanic cohort. Currently, far too many Hispanics fail to graduate high school and attend college, resulting in a median income for Hispanic families that is 36 percent lower than it is for Anglos. When 42 percent of Hispanic freshmen fail to reach their senior year of high school, the situation has become an absolute crisis. After all, Texas’ future is wholly dependent on the state’s ability to educate future generations, particularly Hispanic children. That is why the absolute failure of Republicans to address deficiencies in the education system threatens the future of Texas.

While the state’s high dropout rates have spurred increased rhetoric out of Austin, they haven’t resulted in increased funding for the state’s largest and most successful dropout prevention program: Communities in Schools (CIS). Administered by the Texas Education Agency, CIS helps students improve in academics, attendance, and behavior, encouraging more students to stay in school, graduate, and prepare for college and/or employment. The 28 local CIS programs are 501©(3) non-profit organizations established to support schools by working with at-risk students in order to decrease the dropout rate. Further, CIS is unique because it is able to leverage local private dollars to help fund its program. In 2008, CIS received about $20 million in state funding and then raised an additional $35 million from various state, federal, and local sources. This is a 175 percent return on state investment, and this number will increase correspondingly as the state’s investment in CIS increases.

Despite its success, the Legislature has been hesitant to increase funding for the program without having conducted an effectiveness review. So the 80th Legislature’s budget appropriated $300,000 for TEA to conduct an effectiveness review of CIS. The review was recently released and concluded that CIS has significant and lasting impacts on students and their families. The study concluded that CIS increases graduation rates and decreases dropout rates. CIS was also found to improve parent involvement for students with pronounced behavioral problems— a key to student success. Additionally, TEA recently released a report on best practices in dropout prevention, citing CIS as one of the three dropout programs with the most potential for success. The report stated that “only one program (Communities in Schools) reported meaningful effects on both reducing dropout and increasing graduation.”

Finally given an opportunity to replace rhetoric with action, Republicans instead chose to decrease CIS funding in the most recent budget.

Much like dropout rates, Texas’ broken bilingual education system needs immediate fixing. The federal courts have recognized the need for evidence-based, proven education policy to assist limited English proficient students. In July 2008, a federal district court ruled that Texas’ bilingual education programs fail to provide an equal education to the state’s English language learners and ordered the state to remedy this immediately. Yet during the past legislative session, when 18 bills were filed to reform the state’s bilingual education system, none passed due to a lack of leadership from the top. So despite the obvious dropout crisis and the overwhelming growth in students who are not proficient in the English language, Governor Perry and other Republicans have failed to address the issue.

Evidence based studies point to clear solutions. For years, experts in academic vocabulary have cited dual language programs as the key to keeping limited English learners in school. Dual language programs promote bilingualism, biliteracy, and grade-level academic achievement by placing both native English-speaking and non-English speaking students together in one classroom. Studies of dual language programs have shown that both non-native English and native English speaking students who receive grade-level cognitive and academic instruction in both their first and second languages, for numerous years, succeed at the end of high school. The programs also experience lower dropout rates than other bilingual education programs.

Districts across the state have, on their own, implemented dual language programs to great success. So why haven’t state leaders recognized this and promoted this concept statewide? As too many in Austin now know, Texas Republican leaders are ideologically constrained from delivering real solutions on Texas dropouts, especially where language learning is the issue.

At a hearing in Austin on March 15, 2007, the Senate Education committee discussed a key bill our office filed regarding dual language education. The bill would have created a state-funded dual language education pilot program across the state. Talk show host and Republican Senator Dan Patrick asked me whether it was a “cultural issue”—especially “compared to the Asian culture”—that prevented Mexican Americans from completing school. He also commented that he couldn’t “understand if you’re born in this country, and you’re five years old, and you’re going to school and have been exposed to television … why we have to teach you a dual language.” You can watch the exchange beginning at the one hour mark here. Patrick’s words and ideology speak volumes as to why Texas can’t get education correct: too many Republican officeholders fear a backlash from the radical right if they change education policy to reflect the facts on the ground. Right now, there needs to be dramatic change focused on closing the gap between the growing Hispanic cohort and the rest of the state

The fact is that until Hispanic students in the early years get the academic vocabulary to succeed in English, Texas will not succeed. If Hispanic students are both dropping out at much higher rates than other students and not acquiring the language skills necessary to compete, then it’s apparent the education system is not adequately preparing them for graduation and competition in a 21st century workforce. What’s needed is a holistic analysis of Texas’ education pipeline to identify where problems exist and reform is needed.

Two years ago, our office began organizing Equipo Bowie with community stakeholders to perform a comprehensive baseline analysis on the Bowie High School feeder pattern, identify best practices, and develop systemic solutions to key, prioritized challenges. This effort grew out of the potential closing of Bowie High School under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Simply put, closing Bowie, an iconic El Paso institution, is not an option for our community.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is currently compiling a detailed report that will analyze the entire Bowie feeder pattern and beyond—from Head Start to the University of Texas at El Paso. The report will allow Equipo Bowie to identify and make the necessary systemic changes in the feeder pattern to improve the education of all students passing through Bowie’s halls. As almost every expert agrees, the lack of an academic vocabulary in the early years leads to dropouts in the later years. Ninth grade dropouts don’t start in the ninth grade—they start in Head Start. Such an approach can and should be used across the state to help all struggling feeder patterns.

By using both what we know works and new efforts at reform—CIS, dual language programs, and holistic analyses of entire feeder patterns—Texas can reform and improve the state’s education system. Doing nothing is simply not an option. It is time for Republicans to stop saying “no” and start acting in the best interest of Texas’ children.