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Poverty Poses Challenges For Schools — And Texas’ Future, Education Leaders Say

Poverty may be playing a bigger role than ever in education. That’s according to education leaders and thinkers who gathered in Dallas on Monday for an all-day session on schools and the economy.

College is getting more expensive and students need more help than ever to pay for it. Michael Sorrell says many university students are now on Pell Grants, government funds that help the neediest students pay for college. He says help is needed even sooner.

“The majority of students in public K-through-12 education require free and reduced lunches just to be able to ensure that, when they show up to school every day, they have had nutritious meals that allow them to participate fully in the educational experience,” said Sorrell, president of Dallas’ historically black Paul Quinn College. 

He moderated a panel of education thinkers at SMU at ElevatEd, presented by the Holdsworth Center, a new Texas-based education nonprofit.

The panel included Robert Kaplan, president of Dallas’ Federal Reserve Bank. Kaplan says for children growing up today, problems start young.

“Too many students today, because of where they’re coming from, are starting first grade behind grade level,” Kaplan said. “And all studies have shown if you start first grade behind grade level, you never do catch up.”

Kaplan says in some ways, the infamous achievement gap between white kids and students of color that he remembers hearing about more than 30 years ago hasn’t much changed. In some ways he says things seem worse.

“And so the reality is we probably need programs to get at children who are zero to 5,” he said. “In particular at-risk kids, and I don’t hear enough emphasis about that.”

Kaplan said getting more kids enrolled in pre-kindergarten will help more of them master math, science and reading by the time they’re teens. He points to statistics showing U.S. students are behind many industrial nations. 

And that affects the Texas economy. Kaplan said hundreds of thousands of Texas jobs go unfilled by small businesses that need skilled workers.

“The biggest reason why I think we don’t solve these problems? I don’t hear them discussed,” he said. “My job is to flag issues, frame them, debate them and I’m not hearing these issues broadly discussed. [There’s] not enough focus on human capital.”

It wasn’t all negative. Richard Reeves, with the Brookings Institution, cited some public education accomplishments, like improved high school graduation rates.

“Candidly, I think the public education system has done a nearly miraculous job in holding achievement gaps to where they are now,” Reeves said. “That’s not to be complacent. It’s not say there isn’t more to do. But like the welfare system, the education system is running harder and harder just to stand still.”

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is looking for more runners. He said the biggest factor facing Texas education today isn’t necessarily students. It’s too few dedicated, qualified, motivated teachers and principals. In visits around the state, he often asks a school’s top students if they want to be teachers. 

“Have we organized the teaching profession so that it’s the desired destination for all the highest-performing kids currently in high school?” Morath said. “Unfortunately, the answer is not ‘yes’ at anything close to the rate that it needs to be.”

Morath said a change is needed in how the public views teachers and how leaders view teachers in order to attract the state’s best, young scholars to the field. 

“If we do that, it’ll change trajectory of the state in a fundamental way, and if we don’t do that, then every other issue that we talk about won’t really matter,” he said.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.