The idea that wealthy school districts have an unfair advantage over poorer districts is commonplace. It has driven a 27-year legal fight over school finance that is once again before the state Supreme Court.
However, the Midland Independent School District puts that truism to the test.
Midland ISD is among the top 2 percent of school districts in the state with regard to wealth, thanks to the oil and gas industry, yet its academic results are poor by almost every measure.
“As a district, we literally have some of the lowest scores in the state compared to districts our size,” Superintendent Ryder Warren wrote recently.
It’s not just by size, either. When compared to other districts with similar demographics, wealth, region or tax rate, Midland ISD still academically ranks among the worst districts in Texas. According to an assessment by the state comptroller, Midland ISD’s per-student costs are higher than 90 percent of its peers, while the district trails 35 of its 40 peers in academic performance.
Its junior high schools, in particular, are a problem. All four of them finish at the bottom of statewide rankings of year-to-year academic progress. That creates further repercussions for all the grades that follow.
Despite its own problems, Midland ISD is sending $32.3 million in locally collected property taxes to other, poorer, districts around the state this year.
This state policy is known as the “Robin Hood” approach because it takes from the rich districts and gives to the poor districts. A ruling from the state Supreme Court on this arrangement is expected soon.
However, Midland’s wealthy reputation doesn’t always match the policy reality.
The area has plenty of working class families, and its schools are populated with the children of immigrants who’ve come to work in the oil fields.
And much of the region’s wealth is in its oil infrastructure. So, thanks to a 22-year history of judicial oversight of the state’s school financing system, much of that money is unavailable for improving the local schools.
In the name of equality, rich districts in Texas are prevented from tapping into much of their property wealth through property tax caps, and the taxes they do reserve for annual operations are redistributed above a certain point. In effect, local officials are powerless to raise taxes to pay for more or better teachers.
Taxes that school districts in Texas collect to pay off bonds, however, are free from garnishment by the state, which is one reason that school bonds measuring in the hundreds of millions—or even billions of dollars—have become commonplace, while teaching reforms have languished. Even though teachers in Texas aren’t unionized, the system favors building new classrooms over reforming what takes place inside them.
Midland, however, has resisted calls to put money into its school buildings. Longtime residents of this oil patch town have seen the population hollowed out before following busts and are reluctant to invest heavily in infrastructure that might not be needed for long.
All school districts in Texas collect a dedicated tax for bond repayment; Midland’s is one of the lowest in the state. Although the district got a $163 million bond approved in 2012, residents had rejected six separate school bond measures dating back to 1996.
School officials have been working with a group of community leaders for the past two years to try to gain support for a larger construction bond, but have reached an impasse: officials say more spending would produce results, but some of the influential community leaders want to see results before putting any more money into a system that hasn’t been working.
The policy of a former longtime school superintendent has been characterized as delivering “average results at below average costs,” and for years, that’s roughly what happened. Only now, according to the assessment by the state comptroller, it’s become poor results at a high cost.
The comptroller’s study seized on a single telling measurement from among the hundreds maintained by the Texas Education Agency (TEA): a three-year average of individual student progress on state math and reading tests.
Statewide, Midland ranks in the 26th percentile on this “academic progress” measurement. That’s a marked improvement from the district’s position in the 9th percentile when Warren took over as superintendent in 2010.
Also in Warren’s favor (as well as a testament to the power of a good principal), several of the district’s elementary schools are outperforming schools of similar size and demographics across the state.
DeZavala Elementary School, for example, ranked in the 82nd percentile for academic progress in 2012-13, despite the fact that 40 percent of its students were English language learners, and 78 percent counted as economically disadvantaged. The 23,491-student district has a dozen other elementary schools, out of 27 in all, that rank above average on academic progress.
On the other hand, seven of the district’s elementary schools have been languishing on the state’s Needs Improvement list for anywhere from two to five years.
Unfortunately, the students who make such good progress through their early years stop performing as well academically once they hit junior high school. The best of Midland ISD’s four junior highs is in the bottom 4 percent statewide for academic progress. The other three: 2nd percentile, bottom percentile, bottom percentile.
That forms a sort of choke point, where every student passing through the system suffers through two years of minimal learning. After those children spend two years in Midland ISD’s junior highs, they arrive at high school far behind where they should be.
Midland High School is in the bottom 3 percent statewide for academic progress; Lee High School is a step better, in the 13th percentile, according to data assembled by the state comptroller’s office.
Meanwhile, over the last decade, the number of college-ready students that Midland produces has fallen by nearly half, even as graduating classes remain the same size. Texas sets a benchmark for achievement on the two main college readiness exams, the SAT and the ACT. In Midland’s Class of 2005, 22.6 percent of the class met it. By 2014, it was down to 12 percent.
Charting a new course
That dynamic, of bright and eager children of working-class families slipping into an institutional quagmire in junior high, is all the more apparent when contrasted with the record of Midland Academy, a public charter school housed in an unimpressive little concrete and aluminum building east of downtown.
Midland Academy starts out with struggling students: in 2013, just 37 percent of its third-graders could hit the state’s math benchmark; just 21 percent of its Hispanic fourth-graders hit their mark. Reading scores were scarcely better. By comparison, in Midland ISD, 54 percent of all third-graders (and 48 percent of Hispanics) hit their math benchmarks in 2013. In this case, a common argument against charter schools – that they peel away the best and the brightest – doesn’t match the data.
By eighth grade, Midland Academy’s students are almost all doing well. In 2014, 95 percent of its eighth-graders met benchmarks in both math and reading, with Hispanics at 92 percent, and they beat the statewide averages in science and social studies by more than 15 points and Midland ISD’s scores by 30 to 40 points.
According to a racial and special needs breakdown required by the No Child Left Behind Act, Midland ISD has left many children behind over the last two years. The report, which in Texas is called System Safeguards, breaks down the student population by race, economic disadvantage, special needs, and whether or not English is their primary language, then cross references each group by whether or not it hits a benchmark in reading, math, writing, science and social studies. In 2013, Midland ISD was meeting the standard in 36 of 47 categories. Two years later, it was down to 19 out of 45.
In 2013, English language learners were the only group falling short in every category; in 2015, white students were the only ones hitting every mark. The state has had to intervene in both the district’s special education and English language learner programs.
A common explanation heard in Midland is that the district’s struggles are a result of an influx of non-native speakers whose parents have come to work in the oil fields. While the district is 60 percent Hispanic and 28.6 percent white (compared with statewide averages of 51.8 percent and 29.4 percent, respectively), the district actually has a much lower percentage of non-native speakers than the rest of the state. Just 10 percent of its students are in ESL or bilingual classes, compared with 17.5 percent statewide.
District boosters say that it is difficult to retain talented teachers because of Midland’s remote West Texas location. That’s reflected in a turnover rate of 22.5 percent, six points higher than the state average. A group of backers put together a pool of money to pay new teachers $10,000 signing bonuses last year. The school district even spent $850,000 last year to build a small neighborhood of prefab housing to offer teachers, to offset the rising cost of rent caused by the many oil workers moving to town.
However, Midland ISD isn’t that different from other districts around the state. In 2013-2014, just 11.7 percent of its teachers were in their first year, compared with a statewide average of 8.3 percent. Local teachers on average are just a half-year less experienced than their colleagues elsewhere. Teachers at all levels in Midland ISD make $2,000 to $3,000 more than the average.
District administrators, however, have an edge on their peers, collecting an average of $117,089, compared with the state average of $94,630. That focus on administrative compensation hasn’t yet produced results. The complaints from teachers reveal a host of things that can go wrong: the principal at one school is years too slow to shift students into special education classes; central administrators change up the curriculum too quickly, replacing one year’s program with another that leaves gaps at best, or leaves the children crying in frustration at worst; another is too wrapped up in managing personalities to attend to results. The specifics of the dysfunction remain a mystery, to the insider as much as the outsider. It’s the curse of all large bureaucracies; nobody can know enough to run them perfectly. Charter schools present the opposite dilemma: they’re small enough that the successes stand out clearly, but that intensely local excellence is difficult to build out on a large scale.
West Texas woes
There are some successes at Midland ISD.
A no-frills Early College High School that shares space with a community college produces results for a few hundred students a year, but attendance is limited to those who face some sort of disadvantage.
But one factor that’s kept Midland residents from realizing how poorly their district performs is context. If you don’t count Del Rio, a remote town along the Mexican border that does quite poorly in academic progress, there’s only a single school district among Midland’s 40 peers that is inarguably worse, and it’s right next door.
According to an assessment of school district performance by the state comptroller that grouped districts by their financial and demographic profile, Ector County ISD in Odessa is the worst of the bunch — not only very expensive, but weak academically, ranking in the bottom 2 percent of all districts for academic progress.
Together, Midland and Ector County dragged their West Texas region — Region 18, as TEA calls it — to the very last place of 20 regions in all four of the major categories that TEA tracks: student achievement, student progress, closing performance gaps and postsecondary readiness.
Among 44 other similarly sized districts around the state, only Waco ranks consistently worse than Midland. With the five districts most closely matched in demographics—Lamar, North East, Pflugerville, Hays in San Marcos, and Spring Branch—Midland ranks last in all four of the TEA’s major categories.
And so it goes, through comparisons by wealth, tax rate and geography, Midland ranks at or near the bottom for Texas schools, dragged down most of all by its low-performing junior highs.
In October, Warren announced some reforms. While admitting that “we stink at standardized testing, and we have for years,” he decried the state’s insistence on using one standardized test to judge all its schools. Henceforth, he said, Midland would be measuring itself other ways, both objective and subjective. These included attendance rates, graduation rates, Advanced Placement tests scores and second-grade reading levels (which the state doesn’t start testing until third grade).
It was a peculiar position in its way, one that sums up the accountability problem. No one test or metric captures a whole student or a whole school, yet the billions of data points the state collects paint no better a picture, virtually incomprehensible to anyone but a statistician. Even in those cases where outlying data show that something is broken, the folks who are supposed to manage it all, the data and the fixes, sometimes don’t.
The junior highs stay broken. And the man who doesn’t want to reduce a child to a number calls for collecting more numbers.