As Texas legislators and education officials are scrambling to find ways to reduce school spending, a few of the politically savvy ones are spinning the budget crisis as a means to “reinvent public education in Texas.” However, the cost-saving measures they are proposing are simply more strongly-worded versions of the same complaints we’ve heard from both sides for years. Administrators want to roll back the introduction of new achievement tests and reduce other costly requirements imposed on their districts by the state. Legislators want to cut the fat by slashing funding for expansive new programs like grants for full-day Pre-K. While the specifics might have changed slightly this time around, it largely remains the same old song and dance, just at a more frantic pace.
To be sure, carefully evaluating new programs and unfunded mandates is a worthwhile exercise, but it is at best a cosmetic fix, given the huge hole we’re in now. Legislators and school leaders need to do some deeper thinking and truly reevaluate the structure of our public education system and the way we intervene with struggling students.
One of the biggest drags on the school system that has yet to be mentioned in the midst of all this budget slashing is the problem of in-grade retention. One study estimated holding kids back a grade cost Texas roughly $1.7 billion a year, which is a sizable chunk of the $5 billion in cuts per year legislators have proposed so far. This number solely reflects the costs of an added year of education for this struggling population. However, when you consider that retained students are much more likely statistically speaking to drop out and go to jail, the social costs of this inefficiency are likely much higher.
Also, each retained student loses a year of income from post-graduation employment, which a results in a delay in their ability to meaningfully contribute to our economy.
Granted, eliminating retention would require some up-front costs in the form of targeted, preventative interventions. However, research suggests that these are more effective in bringing students up to grade-level and require less time and resources than another year exposed to the same learning environment that failed these students the first time.
A related issue is the cost of summer learning loss. Study after study has found that poorer students do not retain the same levels of information over the summer break as their middle- and upper-class counterparts do. This is largely assumed to be the result of unequal access to educational opportunities and resources when school is not in session.
As a result, teachers spend roughly the first three months of every school year simply rehearsing past material to these disadvantaged students. One investigation concluded that this costs an urban district roughly the size of Austin ISD $138 million, which, coincidently, is about the size of the shortfall the district is currently facing. By taking steps to prevent the “summer brain drain” and offering targeted programs to vulnerable populations, we can make sure students progress through the system in a cost-effective way that maximizes academic outcomes.
While these solutions require new innovations in the way we deliver interventions to our most struggling and most vulnerable students, it’s clear that the old way isn’t working. As many a budget-slashing legislator will point out, education spending has increased three-fold in recent years, while performance levels and numbers of dropouts remain the same. But the solutions these leaders have offered—increasingly stringent standardized tests—have done little to address these underlying problems.
When asked to prioritize a list of potential cuts at a hearing in front of the House committee on public education, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott compared the experience to “asking a guy on an operating table if he wants his heart or his lungs back.” Scott has it right that these cuts will be painful – but he isn’t acknowledging how unhealthy and unsustainable our current system is. What Texas schools really need isn’t an amputation of programs or mandates after the fact, but a prevention plan that will keep them off the operating table in the first place.