By Matthew Wells, President
Science Teachers Association of Texas
Science Department Chair, Cypress Lakes High School
I am reminded of the old West Texas adage, “Please, Lord, one more oil boom and this time I promise not to throw it all away.”
Well, we had it, and we saved it and we now have a $10 Billion Rainy Day Fund that some legislators want to protect from themselves with Constitutional Amendments and statutes limiting access. I’m not saying we should raid the fund for recurring state expenses such as, say, educating our population explosion of young people. Maybe I’m saying that with so much of our state resources based on a single commodity which has a tradition of fluctuating, we should ask if we are structurally sound enough to promise the social services Texans have come to expect. From a state finance perspective, we can at least draw comfort from knowing that the price of gasoline is rising at the pump.
Policy-makers’ hearts are in the right place: they passed high school curriculum reform to provide more options to students and reduce drop outs, though without enough counselors to implement it. They adopted a new higher education plan – named 60X30TX – calling for a significant increase in the number of college degrees and certifications for specific employment needs, though without a plan of who is going to teach this anticipated new demand.
State appropriators last year increased school funding. Some say thank you and some say not enough. They added three-quarters of a billion dollars to teacher health insurance (thank you), yet face a similar budget hole next year (not enough). The Texas Supreme Court has told us that school funding is “constitutional” when it is 25 percent below the national average and those other states aren’t doing so well, either. Legislative leaders will have to rethink who tells parents how much extra college tuition to pay, and also explain to K-12 teachers how they will accomplish more with less.
Governor Abbott recently celebrated STEM Week and campaigned to promote the faculty in our universities. He understands the importance of investing in the people of the educational enterprise, and no doubt remembers a previous Texas Comptroller study that shows investment in higher education returns a five-to-one ROI.
The key word here is “investment”. The 84th Texas Legislature made a great start to filling the financial hole created during the last recession of 2011, but they’re chasing a rapidly growing need. More than half of Texas public education students belong to low-income families and that percentage is growing. And we want – and our employers require – even more of those students to attain a post-secondary degree or credential, especially in the area of STEM.
Meeting these growing needs is a challenge that falls to our dedicated science teachers and their school districts, who struggle with overcrowded laboratories, rapidly changing demographics, building and opening new schools, and hiring more educators to address larger enrollments and staff turnover. We are a growth industry to be proud of!
As another graduation season is upon us, the question seems to be not who slices the pie of educational resources, but how can we generate more pies?