HISD Superintendent Richard Caranza reminds new president that a well-funded public educational system is crucial for our democracy to flourish.
If our country is to remain a strong democracy, we must stay committed to a great American tradition, one as crucial to our shared identity as democracy: public education. As the son of two blue-collar workers, I owe everything I have accomplished to my parents, who were my first teachers, and to our nation’s public education system. My parents put their faith in the U.S. public school system to provide me with a strong educational foundation that would lead me on a path to success, a truly American dream. I am proud to say that, in my case as in so many others, that dream became a reality. As you begin your term, I would like to highlight some of the challenges Houston Independent School District (HISD) and other urban school districts face in delivering on the promise of that dream to so many others.
Over the past three decades, local and state governments have increased spending on prisons at triple the rate of funding for public education. Texas spends more than $100,000 a year for every juvenile in lockup, and less than $10,000 a year per pupil on education. Imagine if we shifted those funds to invest early in a child’s life, rather than pay later. Too often, educating a child is viewed as an expense rather than an investment. Texas’ flawed school finance system is forcing HISD to pay the state more than it receives in aid — despite the fact that 76 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged. The Texas Supreme Court says this system fulfills “minimum” constitutional requirements for funding schools. We owe our students more than the “minimum.”
Resources are important, but where we point them is also critical. We will not have a country equipped to lead the world without a world-class public education system — for everyone. In the U.S., we talk a lot about equality, but we don’t talk enough about equity. We must create systems that examine the disparities in opportunity among our students, identifying those who need additional assistance and helping our schools build the capacity to deliver it. When we uplift our most vulnerable students, everyone benefits. While school choice is important, it has come at the expense of neighborhood schools — which are underfunded and often staffed with less experienced teachers — even though these schools are the heart of our educational system and serve our most disadvantaged students. Our nation’s teachers need more support, too. They shouldn’t have to take a vow of poverty to do their jobs.
Teachers have an awesome responsibility: prepare America’s future workforce to compete on a global scale. Participation in arts, music, sports and other extracurricular activities builds confident, well-rounded students who can do more than fill bubbles on a test sheet. When hiring members of your administration, will you choose only candidates who can ace a test, or will you seek people who can solve problems creatively, work in a team, and communicate effectively? I imagine you would choose the latter. Our children must be held academically accountable, but we must also help them become more than their test scores.
While there are challenges, there are also solutions when communities are willing to pitch in. I have seen the wonderful things that can happen when people and organizations come together to address the societal issues that make it difficult for our children to learn. You might have heard of Liyjon DeSilva, an HISD graduate whose story went viral after he overcame homelessness and went on to win a full college scholarship.
Liyjon’s principal at Wisdom High School and a volunteer from Communities in Schools worked to get Liyjon a home and the resources he needed to succeed. HISD is embracing the “wraparound services” model that gives students and families access to health clinics, food pantries, and mental health services, so that schools can focus on teaching. I have seen partnerships with businesses that bring resources into underserved classrooms and match learning programs with the skills industries are seeking. And I have seen school districts across regions share data on what’s working and what’s not, getting closer to closing the achievement gap. If we are a country that believes everyone can fully participate in the democratic process, then our top leaders must support a well-funded education system that serves everyone. I hope this administration believes, as I do, that the future of our democracy depends on it.
Richard A. Carranza Superintendent
Houston Independent School District