Poorer Texas Kids Lead to Higher Education Costs

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by CHRIS TOMLINSON, Associated Press

AUSTIN Texas — Texas’ high child poverty rate is beginning to make demands on the state’s budget, and experts warn the state needs to spend more on education or the state’s economy could slow.

About 60 percent of Texas children live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census, and many of those children are unprepared and need extra attention when they start school. If they do eventually get into college, the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board says they are relying on a shrinking pool of financial aid.

Public schools and state universities are calling for more money as the state’s Republican leadership pledges to dramatically limit government spending. In 2011, the Legislature reduced funding for public education by $5.4 billion, cut pre-Kindergarten programs and cut funding for college scholarships.

Conservatives argue that low taxes and low government spending have helped the Texas economy grow by leaps and bounds since 2000, but the percentage of Texans living in poverty has grown also. According to 2010 Census data, 15.3 percent of Texans live in poverty and most are under 40 and Hispanic, the fastest growing segment of the Texas population. The poverty rate among Hispanics is 26.8 percent.

Hispanics account for 38 percent of the population and 48.3 percent of Texas children. This same group has the highest percentage of people aged 25 years or older without high school diplomas, at 40.4 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of poor students has gone up 45.9 percent to 2.85 million children.

More than 600 school districts have sued the state for failing their constitutional duty to provide enough money to educate Texas children. Experts have testified at the trial that more children begin kindergarten without basic learning skills, putting them behind other pupils on day one and requiring special attention. The number of children who have limited English skills among the most expensive students to teach was 1.59 million in 2010.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, has made improving the Texas work force through better education a top priority, demanding greater school accountability for preparing students for work or college.

“We must ensure that our schools continue to improve to meet the demands of a workforce that is ever changing,” Hammond said. “Almost everyone who enters the workforce of the future will need to have post-secondary training of some kind, and our schools’ number one job should be preparing our students for that training.”

He says industries will stop relocating to Texas if the state does not have educated workers. The biggest barrier for poor students to attend college is cost.

Fred Heldenfels, chairman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, warned the Senate Finance Committee last week that Texas lags behind the national average in workers between the ages of 25 and 34 with a post-secondary education. There are not enough young workers obtaining a degree to replace the highly-educated workers approaching retirement, he added.

“Texas must significantly increase the education and skills of these workers or risk decades of declining competitiveness,” Heldenfels said. “Creating such a workforce will require a productive higher education system, restructured student financial aid and a rigorous public education system.”

Heldenfels called on lawmakers to spend more on the Texas Grants program that helps poor students pay for higher education.

There is little doubt education pays off in the long run. In 2011, a high school drop-out made $451 a week on average while a college graduate earned $1,053. A professional degree brings in $1,655 a week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If current trends in public school spending, educational achievement and family income continue, former state demographer Steve Murdock forecasts that the mean annual income for Texans will drop and poverty will rise as the percentage of educated workers decreases.

Over the next 120 days, lawmakers will debate every aspect of education, from per-student funding, accountability systems, grant programs to tuition rates. The Texas Supreme Court will decide later this year whether the current school finance system is constitutional. The outcomes of these deliberations will determine the education level of the future workforce, and the strength of Texas’ economy.

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