This commentary originally appeared in the El Paso Times on November 9, 2014.
My grandfather loved his job and was good at it — he was a foreman for R.D. Lowman, where he directed the construction of many buildings in El Paso that still stand today.
My dad, when he was a teenager, began working on the job sites with my grandfather. One summer in high school he was earning enough money that he began to reconsider attending college.
When driving home from a job one day, my dad explained this to my grandfather, who listened quietly.
Come the next day, my grandfather put him on a special assignment — from the time they arrived on the job to the time they left, my dad was digging and setting fence posts.
My grandfather looked at him when he got in the truck at the end of that day, exhausted. He told him, "If you want to work rather than go to college, fine. But know what you're choosing."
My dad understood and enrolled at UTEP, where he earned a degree in civil engineering.
My grandfather never discouraged hard work, but he knew that hard work plus education would be better than hard work alone.
The same is true today.
According to a recent study by Michael Cox, "Rebuilding America's Middle Class," Americans need a strong education if they want to live a financially stable life — a life in the middle class.
Cox found that, among men 25 to 34, workers with a bachelor's degree earned an average of $63,000 per year. Those who didn't finish high school earned $27,000 — well short of what it takes to join the middle class.
Here's the problem: in Texas, 24 percent of students leave high school before they graduate. The rate is even higher for Hispanics: 31 percent leave before they graduate.
The problem goes deeper. Only 17 percent of Texans who do graduate from high school achieved college-readiness on the SAT or ACT.
As a result, we're not performing well on the world stage.
Cox fond that American students rank 25th in reading, 17th in math, and 14th in science when compared to 34 other developed countries, and that these rankings have persisted for decades.
It's not for lack of money. Cox found that spending per student has more than doubled in Texas since 1970.
In fact, Texas is now spending $10,549 per student every year, which means we're spending upwards of $250,000 on the average classroom. (Teacher pay, by the way, averages $48,821.)
Simply, our system struggles because of the way it's structured.
Government is good at many things, but efficiency, flexibility, and innovation are not three of them.
In Texas, we've had the system of assigning kids to a specific school in a specific school district since the end of World War II, when the Gilmer-Aikin laws were enacted. (Google it.)
Would anyone say Texas is the same today as it was then? That improvements can't be made? That, maybe, students don't need to be assigned to schools based on where they live?
School choice is finding acceptance as an alternative.
As Cox concluded: "The alternatives to traditional public schools differ in many ways, but they all discard the idea of government dictating where students go to school, how money is spent and what's being taught. Instead, students and their parents pick the schools. Money goes with the student."
Democrats and Republicans have come together in other states to promote this idea. Each party has its own reason for doing so, but both acknowledge that parents need to find support — not prohibitions — when they choose a school that meets their child's needs.
Michael Barba is policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin. He may be reached at email@example.com.