Coverage of Changing Texas Schools Ignores the Racist Elephant in the Room


Cindy Casares Portrait

A version of this story ran in the June 2012 issue.

Last week, the San Antonio Express-News did a piece on the changing face of Texas schools. It seems the system has gotten noticeably browner and poorer and now we have the undesirable task of figuring out how to get these brown, underperforming people educated.

“Demographers and educators worry,” the Express-News’ Gary Scharrer reports, “because Hispanic participation in higher education lags far behind that of whites.”

Watching policymakers, journalists and statisticians dance around the obvious reason for underperformance from poor students of color would be funny if it weren’t so infuriating.

Let’s see if we can solve the mystery of why kids of color do worse in school. First off, let’s look at their home life. As people of color, these kids’ parents are subjected to a higher unemployment rate than their Anglo counterparts. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate for whites in Texas is at roughly 6.5 percent. For Latinos it’s 9 percent and for African-Americans it’s a whopping 15.5percent. Texas Hispanics not only make less money on average than Anglos, they make less money than Hispanics living in other states, according to a report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. As this year’s redistricting debacle has taught us, minorities in Texas have been historically discriminated against in the political process and still have to fight just to gain fair representation in government. And people of color also have a higher chance of being targeted by police as was reported in the landmark 2004 study “Racial Profiling: Texas traffic stops and searches,” which was the nation’s largest survey on racial profiling. Six out of every seven law enforcement agencies in Texas reported searching blacks and Latinos at higher rates than Anglos despite those searches turning up nothing 98 percent of the time.

All these issues can lead to students coming to school less prepared than their white counterparts. Now let’s look at the inequities in the classroom. A 2008 study by The Education Trust to learn why Texas is failing to make headway with lower-income students and students of color reveals a lot. (Spoiler: It’s not that said students are inherently stupid.)

Looking at the state’s 50 largest school districts, the study found that, year after year, Hispanic, African-American and low-income students are less likely to be assigned to teachers who know their subject matter, less likely to be in classrooms with experienced teachers and less likely to attend schools with a stable teaching force. “Not surprisingly, their teachers are paid less, too,” the study reports.

Not surprising to anyone who studies the data. Consistently, people of color are given the proverbial shaft.

  • Poor and minority students in Texas are far less likely than others to have certified math teachers.
  • 58 percent of Algebra I teachers in predominantly African-American schools are certified in math, compared to 82 percent of the teachers in schools with the fewest African-American students.
  • Of the state’s 
50 largest school districts, 43 have the highest concentration of novice teachers in the poorest schools.
  • Across Texas, at every school level and in all
core subjects (English, math, science and social studies), Hispanic, African-American and low- income students are more likely than their more affluent and white peers to be taught by teachers who do not meet state requirements.
  • A similar analysis of teacher and student data in Los Angeles concluded that “having a top- quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.”
  • In Arlington, for example, the average teacher salary in the district’s highest-poverty middle schools is $4,750 less than the average teacher salary in the more-affluent middle schools.
  • In Amarillo, teachers working in elementary schools serving mostly Hispanic and African-American children earn on average $2,405 less than those in the elementary schools serving greater numbers of white students.

People who question the existence of systemic racism need only look at the numbers. Take the emotion out and see for yourself. The statistics are quite simply stacked against people of color in this state. Yet the media covers the issue in code, leaving it to sound like some unsolvable mystery.

“All the school districts will have to make adjustments to make sure they are prepared to address the needs of young Hispanic learners. We have this huge challenge. It’s kind of daunting when you look at it,” Texas State Demographer Lloyd Potter says.

The idea of treating everyone the same does seem to be daunting to those in power, but guess what? If you treat a huge portion of your population like they don’t matter, it’s going to come back to bite you economically. So pull your head out and do something really different: Give poor kids of color the best teachers, all the money and all the support you give affluent Anglo kids. Give their communities economic opportunity, too. You know, as if they were your own white families. Then see how far they lag behind the education curve.