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Laying the Foundation

About one in five Texas public school students hail from the 43-county Border region. The region's 155 public school districts serve more than 850,000 children. Across the 79,423 square-mile region, school districts range in size from Duval County's 29-student Ramirez Consolidated School District to the 64,000-student El Paso ISD neighboring New Mexico.1 The districts draw upon local property tax bases ranging from $1.5 million per student in oil-rich Kenedy Countywide ISD, to approximately $13,000 per student in the border's poorest school district, Santa Rosa ISD in Cameron County2(see Terlingua High).

Terlingua High

Offering a sizable financial booster shot to the state's poor districts, Texas lawmakers during the 1990s made progress toward equalizing per pupil educational revenue among school districts. This made more level a playing field long skewed by an unequally distributed property wealth base. Before legislative adoption of a funding method approved by the Texas Supreme Court, districts had huge gaps in relative wealth. In 1988, for instance, the average Border region school district's revenue per student was $3,341, while other Texas districts taxing vastly more valuable residential property and mineral wealth had a revenue per student two to three times greater. Funding reform, beginning in 1992, assured substantially more money for poor districts.

As a result, by 1997, Border districts had seen their total revenue increase by 57 percent. In fact, the same districts, neglected for decades by an unbalanced funding system, actually drew upon more money per student than the state average. Border districts in 1997 had access to total revenue of $5,269 per student, $134 more than non-Border districts, and $103 more than the state average.3

Educational challenges persist for Border districts, namely a lag between improved funding and student performance. Moreover, if the region is to make the transition to a high-skill, high-wage economy, Border educators and community leaders should not be satisfied with merely doing better than before. And they're not. With help from the state, they are seeking ways that students can consistently match, or exceed, the educational performance of other young Texans.

Equalizing School Funding

Before 1992, the amount of revenue a Texas school district could devote to its students depended almost exclusively on its local property tax base. If a district happened to possess a great deal of property wealth, its school board could raise a considerable amount of money at a reasonable tax rate. If a district lacked significant property wealth, however, the school board was pressured to impose much higher tax rates, without a realistic chance of keeping up with wealthy school districts. For example, in 1988, total state and local public education revenue in the Border region was $2,944 per student, 9 percent less than the state average of $3,202. At the time, public school funding consisted of a minimum foundation program from the state that required a modest local share in the form of a local property tax. That local share varied greatly according to the ability of the local school districts to raise property tax revenue

Following court challenges to the finance system, Texas lawmakers approved a funding approach ensuring all school districts access to similar revenue at comparable tax rates. Under this system, the Legislature established that property wealth of $210,000 per student would raise sufficient revenue at a tax rate of $1.50 per $100 of assessed valuation to provide a basic educational program. In each instance, the state would equalize funding so any district could raise the additional funds that a $210,000 tax base per student would provide. If a school district has less wealth than the benchmark, the state funds the difference on every penny of tax rate up to $1.50. Once a school district exceeds the $1.50 cap, each additional penny raises money only from the school district's local tax base.4

Most Border districts, lacking large oil and gas reserves or massive petrochemical or manufacturing complexes, traditionally have had relatively poor property tax bases. Since 1992, they have gained from the state's equalization plan. During the 1990s, state funding for Border public schools soared from a pre-equalization amount of approximately $1,819 per student in 1988 to $3,260 per student in 1997.

Combining these state payments with local tax effort, the Border region's school districts achieved a revenue of $4,997 per student in 1997, compared to the state average of $4,983 (see Figure 3.1).

Higher Educational Costs

The Border region is distinguished by its poverty and the number of Spanish speakers in its population. Sixty-eight percent of Border students are economically disadvantaged, compared to 41 percent of other public school students. Seventy-seven percent of students in the Border region are Hispanic, compared to 26 percent in the rest of Texas.

And perhaps most significantly, the Border region serves 21 percent of its students through bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, more than twice the share served in non-Border districts.

Across Texas, children of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) have been educated primarily through bilingual programs, although students entering the school system in the upper grades are typically served in ESL programs (see Teaching Non-English Speakers).

Teaching Non-English Speakers

By law, such determinations are made by a committee of educators and parents when the students enter the system. ESL classes, usually smaller than other classes, require more individualized instruction. Programs for LEP students are a costly investment but one supported by educators as appropriate for bringing students up to par with their English-speaking classmates (see Figure 3.2).

Generally, educating economically disadvantaged students and students with limited English proficiency is more expensive than educating English-speaking students who are not poor. Poor students, for a variety of reasons, are likely to arrive at school less prepared to learn. Poor families who cannot afford to buy books, computers, and other learning materials for their children lack the means to provide a rich home learning environment to ready their children for formal schooling. In addition, the educational level of a child's parents, which tends to be lower for poor families, is one of the greatest predictors of academic success.5 Due to these factors, the schools must play "catch up" with such students after they enroll, by familiarizing them with the written word and training them in basic learning skills.

Texas has historically attempted to cover this additional cost through a weighting system used to determine a school district's average daily attendance, which in turn is used to distribute state education aid. For example, state and local funds deliver about $270 more for each student in bilingual classes, $540 for each educationally disadvantaged student, and $810 for each student who is both LEP and economically disadvantaged. These additional funds are used to lower class sizes, buy materials, and pay for aides to help in classrooms where students with special needs are taught.

The Border region in 1997 had 868,305 actual students, accounting for 23 percent of the state total. But taking the additional weights into account, the region had 1.1 million "weighted" students, or 24 percent of the state total. This 1 percent may not seem like much of a difference, but in a system that spends over $20 billion a year, it represents a significant sum of money.

Bilingual Education
in Texas

Texas began funding bilingual education in 1972 by providing $25 per student with bilingual needs. In 1984, House Bill 72 substantially increased the amount of money for bilingual programs.7

The federal government currently provides about $10 million annually to Texas for bilingual education programs and teacher training, and $9 million for immigrant education.8

The cost of bilingual instruction remains high. In 1997, school districts budgeted nearly $400 million for bilingual instruction. Yet, the state and local allotment for bilingual programs was approximately $111 million, with the difference made up from other program revenues.9

A 1998 study by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) concluded that students kept in a consistent bilingual program over a five-year period were less likely to be held back than those who had a mix of services or a break in service.10 This conclusion echoed earlier research, which found that students in late-exit bilingual programs, in which instruction is provided in both languages through the sixth grade, performed better in other subject areas than peers shifted into English-only instruction earlier.

School districts tend to differ in philosophy. Practices at two schools with award-winning programs for LEP students illustrate this. The principal of one school, located in the Rio Grande Valley, contends that students should be placed into English by third grade, and the vast majority of the students in her bilingual program follow this model.12 The principal of a bilingual program in Houston does not feel that early-exit from bilingual programs is that important, stressing instead that each child's individual needs must be met.13 Programs in her school are for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Their approaches differ, but both programs are recognized for their success. Many educators feel that bilingual programs should be tailored to fit the population they serve. Given the many forms of bilingual education, the concept of bilingual education as a whole shall not be negated, because one form is favored over another for different student populations (see Bilingual Education: A Tale of Two States).

Bilingual Education: A Tale of Two States

In many districts, Texas teachers with bilingual skills receive a stipend in addition to their base salary. The number of bilingual students in the Border region required that 13 percent of its teachers be certified to teach bilingual classes in 1997, compared to only 4 percent in districts statewide. In part reflecting this, the average teacher salary along the border was $31,887 ($1,215 more than the state average of $30,672).

Better Funding,
Better Education

Without a doubt, the state's revamped public school funding system has helped level educational access in the Border region. But did the additional state money enhance student performance?

Of course, each student's educational success derives from his or her personal background, educational environment, and the day-to-day commitment of teachers, administrators, and parents (see Ivy League Texans).

Ivy League Texans

But two important trends suggest that, on balance, the infusion of equalized education funds has bolstered student achievement in the Border region. The first, shared by students on the border and throughout Texas, is a rising rate of passing the state's mandatory Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) since 1994--good news for all. Texas public school students must pass the 10th grade, or exit-level, TAAS to qualify for a high school diploma (see Figure 3.3).

Beyond this generally rising trend is an indication that students in the Border region are also "catching up" with students elsewhere in the state. In 1994, 47 percent of students in the Border region passed all sections of the TAAS, compared to 57 percent outside the Border--a performance gap of 10 percentage points. By 1997, 67 percent of Border students passed all sections of the exam, only seven points less than the average of 74 percent in the rest of the state.

Additional educational funding sent to the Border in the 1990s appears to have been a vital factor in shrinking the TAAS performance gap. This can be seen by comparing TAAS scores in various grades along the border with scores statewide before and after funding increased and the accountability system was implemented. If the equalized educational funding helped raise the TAAS results of children in the region, this would be most evident among younger students, who have enjoyed the greater funding for a larger percent of their schooling.

According to 1997 TAAS results, students in third, fourth, and fifth grades in the Border region--those students who have enjoyed the full effects of more equalized funding--performed an average of 4 or 5 percentage points below their peers statewide. The TAAS performance gap widens between Border and students statewide in the higher grade levels, including students tested in eighth grade and in high school; the same students were already in at least third grade when the funding system changed in 1992 (see Figure 3.4).

Since the school funding and accountability system was put in place in the early 1990s, the gap between students educated along the border and students in the rest of the state has narrowed. For example, the gap between TAAS scores of children entering public schools since 1992 lagged behind those outside the border by six percentage points. Scores of the older students--who did not benefit as early from the new system--lagged as much as 12 percent (eighth grade scores). If a connection between funding and TAAS success is truly valid, as time goes on, the overall performance gap between students at every grade in the Border region and the state should shrink further.

The Texas Public School Accountability System, lauded by many as the best in the nation, may also have contributed to increases in TAAS scores, both in the Border region and statewide. This system, implemented in the 1993-94 school year, rates school districts by the percentage of their schools whose students have passing scores on the TAAS. The accountability system measures the achievement of four groups of students at each campus. Each of these groups has to achieve the same established standard in the ratings system for an individual school to receive an accredited rating. In addition to TAAS scores, the state accountability system takes into account drop-out rates and attendance. Since inception of the accountability system, student performance has increased markedly across the state, even while the standards have been raised each year. The tradeoff for local districts has been increased local control over programs and funds.

One explanation for the remaining gap in student achievement rates in the Border involves the region's teaching population. In 1996, the teacher turnover rate was higher in the Border area than in the rest of the state, despite the higher salaries.

In cases where schools continue to perform below the state average, certain measures can make a difference. School districts that have space for enrollment growth at their campuses can benefit from open-enrollment policies. Choice among public schools can inject competition into the complacency that often sets into low-performing schools. This practice has been used with great success in the Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso(see Open Enrollment in Ysleta ISD). In school systems that lack the capacity to use open-enrollment, low-performing schools can be re-staffed and administrators re-assigned. San Antonio--once required to re-staff its low-performing schools--now uses this as the method of choice for reforming its schools. Finally, if schools can find the revenue to do so, they should provide campus-wide bonuses for teachers who lift their campuses to a higher level of performance. This approach has been successful in other parts of the country, and deserves a try in Texas. This would be especially helpful in attracting quality teachers to the Border area.

Open Enrollment in Ysleta ISD

Another approach to improving student performance is enhancing the quality of bilingual educators. Many observers perceive the number of uncertified bilingual and ESL teachers as indicators of a shortage in this area. About 9 percent of the teachers in elementary-bilingual classrooms in the Border are not certified to teach bilingual education. Yet 38 percent of the elementary level teachers certified to teach bilingual education in the Border region are not teaching in bilingual classrooms. So, while a good number of teachers are assigned to bilingual classrooms though uncertified for these positions, about seven bilingual teachers are teaching in non-bilingual positions for each bilingual position filled by a teacher not certified for bilingual instruction. This indicates that there may not be a shortage so much as a lack of desire to teach in bilingual classrooms.

The State Board for Educator Certification produces guidelines for colleges of education that outline the requirements for bilingual certification. These programs are supposed to include training in linguistics, psychology, methodology, and culture, but they vary greatly from one college to the next. The only test of a teacher's grasp of the second language is a state exam, the Texas Oral Proficiency Test (TOPT). Furthermore, teachers who already possess certificates in other areas may easily become certified for bilingual education by meeting two requirements. They must pass the Examination for the Certification of Educators in Texas (ExCET) for bilingual certification, which is administered in English, and the TOPT.14

Battling Growth,
Keeping Teachers

Texas has made huge strides in educational funding. For the Border, this has contributed to improved overall educational performance when compared to the rest of the state. But this commitment could erode due to the strong growth in educational demand in the Border and the lack of state funding to deal with the problems of growth.

Many school districts along the border have rapidly growing student enrollment. But their growth is not unique; it is representative of a statewide trend. Border district enrollment has increased at an average rate of 9 percent since 1992, four percentage points below the rest of Texas, at 13 percent. But TEA projects the Border districts will grow slightly faster than the rest of the state, at the rate of 10 percent by 2001, compared with a growth of 9 percent for the non-Border districts.15

Students are more mobile. Student mobility rates, calculated by dividing the number of students who have six weeks or less at a given school by the number of students in attendance for the whole year, are also slightly higher for the Border area, 24 percent, than for the non-Border area, 21 percent. This mobility is stressful for the school districts, which must plan for an uncertain number of students at different times of the year and try to offer a meaningful curriculum to students who may have attended several other schools in one academic year.

Washington recognizes the mobility in the Border region and elsewhere in the state with federal funding of about $43 million a year for migrant education through Title I, Part C of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.16

Enrollment growth requires school districts to constantly adjust and revise their plans, while administrators never know exactly how many students will register at the beginning of each year. Growth not only means acquiring additional supplies and hiring more teachers, but building new school facilities as well. Unfortunately, unlike the change in funding for operations in the early 1990s, the state did not provide direct assistance for the acquisition and construction of facilities until 1995, when the Legislature appropriated $170 million in facilities grants. These were awarded to districts based on need as measured by their relative wealth. Sixty of the districts in the Border area received a total of $76 million through these grants, which sparked a modest building boom.

The 1997 Legislature made a lasting commitment to help districts with the cost of facilities, spurring a true building boom throughout the Border area. Border districts either have issued or plan to issue $1.1 billion worth of bonds for facilities renovation and construction through the Instructional Facilities Allotment (IFA) program, 58 percent of which will be paid for by the state. The state share for districts outside the Border area will average 40 percent.

The concept behind this program is simple. Local school districts issue bonds, and the state pays a portion of the school district's annual debt service, based on the district's state share of funds. The less property wealth a district has, the greater the share is of debt paid by the state. Texas lawmakers appropriated some $200 million for debt service payments in the first two years of this program, which is expected to continue to be appropriated for the lifetime of the debt. The amount of debt issued in the Border region represents slightly more than one-fourth of approximately $4 billion of debt issued statewide through IFA.

A school district's ability to meet its need for facilities depends on several factors. Local school taxes, relative property wealth of the district (which affects school funding), and the likelihood that local voters will approve a bond issue all play a part. The historic level of debt service and total tax rates along the border limit most school districts' access to facilities funding. In 1997, maintenance-and-operations tax rates in the Border were 3 cents less than the non-Border average of $1.30 per $100 of assessed valuation, but average debt service rates were 4 cents higher (23 cents compared with a non-Border average of 19 cents), largely reflecting the need to tax at higher rates to achieve the revenue necessary to build adequate facilities. Total school tax rates averaged $1.50 in the Border area in the same year, a penny more than those in the rest of the state. Thus, many Border districts, facing the prospect of swelling student enrollment and the need for additional facilities and staff, can rely only on their local tax bases.

In 1998, school districts in the Border region had approximately $82,400 worth of property wealth per student, considerably less than the state average of $137,000 per student.17 So the average Border district could raise a little less than half of the state average with a one-penny addition to their tax rates. To add to the stress of this situation, 54 percent of the students in the Border area resided in school districts with tax rates above $1.50, compared with 40 percent in the rest of Texas. To raise similar amounts for new schools, given this lower tax capacity, Border tax rates for debt service would need to be almost double those in other parts of the state once they exceeded the tax cap of $1.50. This combination of low-wealth districts serving high-growth populations is a serious challenge to the Border region, which faces the prospect of huge tax increases to fund the building needs of school districts.

This presents a special problem to those rapidly expanding school districts in the Border region exceeding the $1.50 cap. Border districts responding to a 1997 survey by the Comptroller's Office said that by 2003, they will need an additional $1 billion worth of renovations and new facilities to serve their growing student populations. They also report a need for $1.8 billion in immediate renovations and new facilities. At least $800 million in needs were unmet by the IFA program (not counting the needs in Border districts that did not respond to the survey).18

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