Commentary: Education is the key to the future of Texas

It’s hard to reflect on the past decade — or look to the next one — without considering Texas’ role in both.

The past 10 years have brought Texas dramatic growth. Today, more than one in 10 Americans calls Texas home.

But prosperity requires work, and the next 10 years hinge on Texas’ ability to educate our children and create the well-trained, versatile workforce that job creators covet.

Texas will add 10 million people between now and the state’s bicentennial in 2036. That means Texas will need around 8 million new jobs. The vast majority of those jobs will require a post-high school certificate or degree, which means Texas needs to significantly increase the number of students who have completed some form of education beyond high school.

In short, we to need educate more Texans to much higher levels, quickly and affordably.

In the ’80s and ‘90s, increases in achievement among Texas’ Hispanic and African American children led the nation. The state set high expectations for student performance, tracked performance based on student demographics, and held adults accountable when the numbers showed students missing out on an education. Many other states followed Texas’ lead, including Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi and Massachusetts.

But Texas took its foot off the gas.

While we commend the Legislature for its recent investments in public education, Texas has plenty more to do to prepare growing numbers of students for the jobs Texas will need to fill in the decades to come.

It will be a challenge for students to build sustainable careers if they cannot read proficiently. But Texas’ 4th grade and 8th grade reading scores continue to drop while other states move ahead, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress. The NAEP — the nation’s report card — shows that more than 70 percent of Texas 4th- and 8th-graders cannot read at grade level. That deficiency creates challenges that will grow harder to overcome.

As for math, in 1990, only 17 percent of Texas African American 8th-graders and 28 percent of Hispanic 8th-graders met the most basic expectations for math proficiency. But by 2011, achievement had skyrocketed, with 71 percent of African Americans and 76 percent of Hispanics scoring at or above those basic targets.

But instead of building on that success, Texas has fallen back. From 2011 to 2019, the percentage of Texas students who failed to meet that basic 8th grade math standard increased from 29 percent to 48 percent for African American students and 24 percent to 37 percent for Hispanic students.

These setbacks should raise everyone’s concern about the challenges that this new decade will pose for Texas. The good news is, there’s still time: we can — and we must — make up ground. That’s why, in the upcoming year and well beyond, Texas 2036 will push for data-driven solutions, ideas and investments to ensure all students have access to an education that will prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow.

Texas has made gains in educational attainment and performance in the past; we can do so again. The state’s school funding initiative this year will help, but it’s going to take a sustained commitment to set high expectations, focus on best practices and maintain accountability.

We should all be proud of what Texas has accomplished during the last decade. We have compiled an economic record that any state would envy.

By paying close attention to the data, working together, and prioritizing our human capital, we can ensure opportunity continues to bloom in Texas for years and decades to come.

Spellings is the CEO of Texas 2036 and a former U.S. Secretary of Education.