Public Education Is an Essential Public Service, Like Electricity

Essay by Pete Geren, President and CEO, Sid Richardson Foundation

School districts run campuses and educate a city’s students. But an entire city’s leaders and citizens are responsible for the success of their students. The current and future health and welfare of the city depend upon their progress. The collective responsibility starts with knowing whether our children are learning at grade level – and taking action to make sure they do.

Pete Geren after greeting a school bus that dropped students at the Sid Richardson Museum in Fort Worth. (Courtesy of the Sid Richardson Foundation)

Editor’s Note: This essay is based on a speech that Pete Geren, President and CEO of the Sid Richardson Foundation in Fort Worth, delivered to the Downtown Fort Worth Rotary Club as the 2022-2023 school year began.

I want to begin by asking you to close your eyes.

For a moment, imagine a full yellow school bus on its way to the first day of school. Now go inside the bus and imagine those 50 children. Not as a crowd, but individually. Imagine their faces. Their clothes. Their shoes. Their haircuts. First day of school. Nervous. Excited. Back with their friends. Spend a moment with them.

Now open your eyes. And let’s talk about those kids.

Public education is an essential public service

In Fort Worth, my hometown, 160,000 school-aged children attend 241 public schools located on real estate within our city limits. Seventy thousand, 44%, attend schools operated by the Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD).  Ninety thousand, 56%, attend schools run by other public-school systems.

Whether they are our children, grandchildren, or somebody else’s children, every Fort Worth kid matters to us. We have a moral obligation to provide every one of them with an education that prepares them for a bright future, wherever they live in our city.

If that is not sufficient justification for some to engage, there are very practical reasons we need our kids to get a good education. Like electricity, no city can thrive without it. As Alan Greenspan once said, “If we don’t solve the problem of K-12 public education, nothing else will matter all that much.”

That is true, and data tells us that something fundamental has to change. We need to consider education as the essential public service it is, like electricity, public health, public safety, and transportation. City leaders cannot sit on the sidelines and hope for the best.

Fort Worth has 12 major providers of this essential service, 12 school districts chartered by the State of Texas to serve our kids. And our city leaders must hold every provider accountable as they do for every other essential service. We as voters and citizens also must hold our city leaders accountable for ensuring the quality of that service.

If our electricity worked 36% of the time, what would we do?  Water at our homes at 36%? 36% of our roads passable?  We would not stand for it. Why are we okay with 36% of our kids at grade level?

Downtown Fort Worth

Numbers tell the story

Recently the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released its letter grades for every public school in Texas. TEA began giving letter grades in 2018. With letter grades, TEA made school performance reports legible.  Before 2018, the annual TEA assessments might as well have been published in hieroglyphics.

Our 12 school districts received good report cards this year reflecting recovery from the COVID-wracked 2020-21 school year. Our teachers, parents, kids, and school leaders demonstrated remarkable grit, innovation, commitment, and determination over the last school year. The report cards reflect this.

We must be realistic, though, about what those report cards tell us. For the most part, our schools rebounded from 2021 to pre-COVID 2019 levels. The letter grades reflected that rebound, that “growth.” But let us not forget that we were not where we needed to be in 2019.

We need to talk about public education differently than any of us may have heard before. We need to think of education as an essential public service, like electricity, public safety, and transportation.

As part of its annual report, in addition to the letter grades, TEA tells us the number of our students who finished the academic year at grade level. In our city, 36% of elementary and middle school children finished the year at grade level; 64% did not.

That is the most critical and time-sensitive information in the TEA report. A recent Learning Heroes study found that 92% of parents think their child is at grade level. As parents and grandparents, we need to know the truth, and in time to do something about it.  Our city leaders must know it to hold the school districts that teach our kids accountable.  And you cannot discern that information from the report cards our kids bring home from school or from promotion rates.

Many if not most of our children who receive A’s and B’s on their school report cards are not at grade level. And regardless of grade level attainment, nearly 100% of our students are promoted to the next grade every year.

Our kids can “graduate” from our elementary schools while reading two and three years behind grade level. Twelve children recently enrolled in the fifth grade at a new public school in our community and did not know the alphabet.

A former Fort Worth high school principal was asked in a public forum recently about the importance of the “meets grade level” standard. His high school offered an excellent aviation tech program that would prepare its students for great jobs and bright futures. He shared that his students did not have the literacy skills to read the aviation manuals.

There is a very dark side to ignoring these stories and numbers. Research shows a correlation between third-grade literacy and the dropout rate, and the number of youth in our juvenile criminal justice system and later in our prison population.

TEA provides “at grade level” data for every child every year. Every year that we fail to act on that information, the challenge compounds. Recovery becomes increasingly difficult and finally impossible.

Some may think that everything is okay in the suburbs. In our city’s three highest-performing suburban districts, the percentage of students at grade level ranged from 42% to 49%.

Why do we accept performance levels well below other essential services? If our electricity worked 36% of the time, what would we do? Water at our homes at 36%? 36% of our roads passable? We would not stand for it.  Why are we okay with 36% of our kids at grade level?

The statewide number for “meets grade level” is 44%. What are the long-term outcomes for our kids in a statewide system with 44% of its elementary and middle school students at grade level?

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board tracked educational outcomes for roughly 300,000 Texas 8th graders until they turned 24.

Approximately 25% of those students dropped out before finishing high school. By age 24, only 20% had an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Do the arithmetic: 240,000 Texans turned 24 without a post-secondary degree, including75,000 without a high school diploma.

We should be shocked. But should we be surprised at those outcomes when only 44% of our Texas elementary and middle school students are at grade level? What are the outcomes for a city with 36% at grade level?

Elementary school kids climbing on to a school bus.

What can we do about it?

Most of us are not experts in education, nor are we experts in transportation, public health, or electricity generation and distribution. We don’t tell our city leaders how to provide those essential services. But we count on them to hold the providers of those essential services accountable on our behalf. And we hold our city leaders accountable when we don’t get those services with the dependability and quality we expect. Public education should not be an exception.

In our city, 36% of elementary and middle school children finished the school year at grade level; 64% did not.

It does not take any imagination to understand that high-quality public education is as essential to the well-being of our city as any other public service.  That if we fall short in providing high-quality public education throughout our city, it degrades other essential public services. It degrades public health, and public safety, it increases poverty, and leads to the decline of neighborhoods, property values, and employment opportunities.

Brent Beasley, CEO of the Fort Worth Education Partnership, recently reported to the Fort Worth City Council on the percentage of students at grade level in each City Council district. The “meets grade level or above” rating ranged from a low of 27% to a high of 48%. Not a single council district had half of its students at grade level.

So, what can we do about it? The short answer is support mayors and City Council members who work hard to improve this essential public service for their constituents and hold them accountable. Just like we do with electricity.

Please close your eyes again, and let’s get back on the big yellow school bus, this time with 50 children drawn proportionately from the 12 school districts that serve our city’s kids.

What can we do about situations like that in our communities? The short answer is support mayors and City Council members who work hard to improve this essential public service and hold them accountable.

Remember the report provided by the Higher Education Coordinating Board and TEA’s 36%. Walk down the middle aisle and consider each child individually. Eighteen are at or above grade level. Fifteen will drop out before finishing high school. And 10 will get an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Now let’s get off the school bus and open our eyes.

Our eyes are open now. Remember that yellow school bus every time you see one on the streets of Fort Worth. If you remember no other numbers, remember two – 36% and 18.  Eighteen of the kids on that bus are at grade level.

Mayor and Council members, those big yellow buses are carrying around the future of our city.

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