Engage Breakfast panelists speak on challenges in Austin's education system

Education officials and leaders highlighted the challenges in the area's education system at the Engage Breakfast on Feb. 5.

"We've got some very critical issues facing our region right now," said Erin Cargile, KXAN-TV reporter and moderator of the discussion.

Panelists included Texas State University President Denise Trauth; Vincent Torres, Austin ISD board of trustees president; Susan Dawson, president and executive director of E3 Alliance; and Ed Vara, deputy executive director of academic services with Region 13.

The discussion focused on three main areas, including demographic changes and challenges, funding and keeping variety in the education system.

Dawson said in the past 10 years in Central Texas, the student population has grown by about 40 percent. She added that low-income student population has grown 80 percent in the past decade and the English language learner population has grown by more than 100 percent during that time.

"On the one hand, you have a wave of students who are more and more challenging on our educational systems, and on the other hand you have a significantly higher requirement for rigorous skills, both academic and nonacademic skills, to succeed in the 21st-century global economy," she said. "That's what our educators and educations systems are dealing with."

Vincent said securing adequate funding for schools is a paramount issue to address the educational needs of students. AISD is considered by the state to be a property-wealthy district and gave about 11 percent of its revenue to the state in 2012. He said two-thirds of the students in AISD are on free- and reduced-lunch plans, Hispanic students make up 60 percent of the student population and one-third of the students speak a language other than English as their primary language.

"The [recapture] system is not designed to help fund where the students need the most assistance in terms of the amount of dollars that are needed for those students," Vincent said. "It does not provide equity in the way it distributes the funds throughout the state of Texas."

In San Marcos, Trauth said she was part of a group to identify a way to fundamentally change the school system there, and one result that the group came up with was a universal, full-day preschool program.

"If you look at national data, you find that across the system, just the K–12 system, the investment of one dollar in preschool yields a savings of five to seven dollars," she said.

For an immediate effect on the education system, Vara said what the public can to do is get involved in the education system and to ask their children engaging questions about schools.

"I'm going to invite everyone in this room to drop in," Vara said. "Drop in to your schools, find out what's going on. And give yourself the gift of going to a school to see what's going on. It is enlightening. There are a lot of good classrooms and a lot of good things going on."

The next Engage Breakfast will be March 6 and will cover the topic of public safety.

For more information, visit www.leadershipaustin.org/programs/engage.

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