UP NOLAN CREEK: Then and now
Tuesday, 19 March 2013 by Wayne Carpenter
Every March Texas celebrates both our independence from Mexico and Texas Public School Week. You might be surprised to know the two events are not unrelated. Back in 1824 after the revolt from Spain, the Republic of Mexico wrote a constitution providing for the states of Mexico (of which Texas was then part) to be responsible for creating public schools. Of course, there was a small catch, there was no provision included for how to fund those schools. Sound vaguely familiar? When our rebellious Texan ancestors wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1836, one of the grievances listed against the government of Mexico was that they had "failed to establish any public system of education." I suspect the Texans had other motives as well, but at least they included education in their concerns. After the Republic of Texas was created, the constitution of the republic called for the government to develop a system of public education to serve the children of settlers they hoped would come here. Unfortunately, the young Republic of Texas was a shaky proposition from the get go. Texas possessed a great deal of land but little money. In addition, an angry government in Mexico didn't take lightly to the rebellion, and native tribes didn't appreciate having their land overrun with settlers. Given the situation, President Sam Houston couldn't do much more than keep Texas afloat. Spending money the Republic didn't have on a public education system took a backseat to survival.
The second president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau B. Lamar, was the driving force to establish an educational system for Texas and is often called the "Father of Texas education." He pushed the Congress of the Republic to adopt a plan to pay for public schools through the sales of the one major resource the Republic had, land. Sadly, given the shaky situation in Texas at the time, land prices were so low that this didn't succeed as well as Lamar had hoped, but it was a start. When Texas was annexed into the United States in 1845, it adopted a state constitution, which included public education as an essential responsibility of the state government.
The quest to provide quality education has continued to this day. The path to school excellence, especially when it demands adequately funding education and providing equity for all students statewide has proven to be about as rough and rocky as the old Chisholm Trail. There is still an enormous gap in the amount funds different districts have to educate their students. The Texas Supreme Court has once again ruled the state's funding system unconstitutional because it is inequitable, but the solution to the problem remains as elusive as ever.
Down in old Mexico, a primary reason so much poverty and inequality persists is the government has not provided a quality system of public education. There are many fine schools for wealthy students, but the vast majorities are not privileged to attend those institutions. Many children attend woefully inadequate schools in deplorable conditions with poorly trained teachers. The government demands little accountability for student performance and the problem is made worse by the enormous power the national teachers union has held over public schools for decades. Just last week, the head of the national teachers union was arrested for stealing millions of dollars of union dues paid from working teachers. People cross borders not only for jobs, but also to provide better educational opportunities for their children.
Here in Texas we have a much stronger system than our neighbor to the south, but our demographics are changing, our student population is growing and our system faces increasing challenges. Public education, the future of the state's economy, and our quality of life remain irrevocably intertwined.
Texas has been more fortunate in the "great recession" than most states, not only because we are a low tax state, but also because our state revenues and employment have been bolstered by a major oil and natural gas boom. This current energy boom shall pass, just as all the others have. The question remains, as it has since Lamar's day, will the state of Texas make the financial investment and the hard choices necessary to insure all students are adequately prepared to meet the challenges of the future?