A Brief History of Texas Public Education

by Dr. Jerry R. Burkett
Originally Published: June 27, 2011

Founding Father Wisdom
In the times of worry and crisis, our country will often turn to the Founding Fathers for advice. In the last 10 years, we have looked to the great men who led the American Revolution and our newborn country for their enduring wisdom and for a reminder who we once were and how we came to be as we are.

The historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote in his book “American Creation” that there has been a shift in focus to our Founding Fathers in recent years “rooted in conviction that mainstream politics is overworked terrain”. This shift has “coincided with the publication of comprehensive editions of the papers of the most prominent founders that, taken together, constitute the most complete documentation of human endeavor by any political elite in recorded history” (Ellis, p.12). Simply put, in times of governmental uncertainty, we romanticize the Founding Fathers for their intended wisdom for the future of our country during times when we question the direction our current elected leaders take our nation.

Public Education in Texas
I submit this to you as a preamble for commentary on the directions our current elected Texas leaders are taking our state. Most significantly, in reference to their defunding of public education through extensive cuts without raising taxes to meet the needs of growing student populations. The Founding Fathers of our own state would be sorely disappointed.

When Texas declared its independence from Mexico, one of the reasons cited in the declaration was Mexico’s lack of a comprehensive public education system for its citizenry. In response, the newly formed country of Texas founded a public school system with money given to the newborn country from a land dispute settlement with the United States. After Texas achieved statehood and survived the perils of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Texas began increased investment in public education through the establishment of the Permanent School Fund.

Over time, the state legislatures of the time recognized the need for local control and gave governing school boards increased authority, established accreditation procedures, equalized the playing field for rural school districts, and guaranteed public money or the purchase of textbooks (a provision by which is still in place today and largely drives the national textbook industry).

In later years, Texas offered legislation to give teachers pay raises, overhauled school funding to aid poorer school districts, and took steps to improve the academic achievement of students. In the 1990’s, the state once again addressed school funding to create an equitable system and established improved accountability for school districts.

Throughout the long history of Texas, since 1836, the state has continually made movements to support and improve public education.  Since the United States Constitution does not address the issues of education (purposely, I would add) the issues is lumped into the 10th amendment and “left to the states” to decide. Governor Rick Perry has, in recent years (and even mentioned it today on the Glen Beck Show), been an advocate for the 10th amendment backing a resolution in 2009 affirming the sovereignty of the state as related to the 10th amendment (http://governor.state.tx.us/news/press-release/12227/). However, Governor Perry has been noticeably absent during the current Special Session by which the state legislature has not yet settled on final figures for the defunding of public education, a first in nearly a quarter century.

In his absence, the legislature has worked to be the first in Texas history to reverse the progressive course of Texas public education through budget cuts, teacher furloughs, unfunded mandates, more rigorous testing, and proposals to increase class sizes. Now, Texas, which already ranks 44th in per pupil spending, could trend to lower numbers before the next biennium particularly at a time when Texas is responsible for over 8% of the national economy.

Perhaps our legislature and our current governor could learn a lesson from the first President of Texas, Senator, Governor, and Father of Texas, Sam Houston:

“It is a matter of great satisfaction to me to hope that my children will be in circumstances to receive a good education. Mine was defective and I feel the inconvenience, if not the misfortune of not receiving a classical education. Knowledge is the food of genius, and my son, let no opportunity escape you to treasure up knowledge.”


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