OP-ED: Six key challenges for Texas to overcome in 2021

Published 12:29 am Friday, January 1, 2021

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Margaret Spellings
Texas 2036’s President and CEO

A.J. Rodriguez
Texas 2036’s Executive Vice President

This hard year is almost over. Now it’s time to look to our future and imagine what’s possible. Texas has six key challenges that we could overcome if our state leaders seek to tackle them.

— Only 30% of Texas fourth graders meet grade-level reading standards.

Wide education achievement gaps separate students from different backgrounds, and data suggests COVID-related school closures are hurting students’ progress.

Addressing this challenge starts with measuring existing gaps through student assessments; expanding access to research-based literacy instruction; providing high-quality teaching and tutoring; considering innovative school-year models; and offering more rigorous courses.

— Only 32% of Texas high school graduates earn a postsecondary credential within six years of graduating.

Texas’ unemployment rate remains just over 8%, more than double its level a year ago. To meet the needs of an increasingly diverse Texas, the state must better align postsecondary programs with workforce needs and data-driven student outcomes.

Community colleges, private sector credentials, and workforce training are more important than ever; they connect people with the jobs employers need to fill. Higher education programs at all levels should offer clear returns on taxpayer and student investments.

— Nearly 1 million rural Texans lack broadband infrastructure, and more than 3 million urban-area households do not subscribe to available high-speed internet.

The pandemic has shown how gaps in digital connectivity choke access to 21st century services like remote learning and telemedicine. Texas can close its digital divide by coordinating local, federal, and private-sector efforts; removing barriers and developing incentives to enhance market dynamics; finding pathways to stable funding; and promoting digital literacy.

— Sixty percent of Texas households skipped needed health care due to cost.

Texas has the nation’s highest percentage of residents without health insurance. And many Texans — both insured and uninsured — do not receive necessary care due to cost or the lack of available care options. Before the pandemic, 56% of Texas households with insurance, and 75% of households without insurance, reported skipping or postponing health care because of costs.

Skipping care can have long-term consequences, both for patients and pocketbooks. Texas ranks among the worst large states in key health metrics like death caused by treatable or preventable conditions. The state should explore options to increase federal health care funding, improve price transparency, and support telemedicine, which would expand access for patients and help address rural health challenges.

— Fewer than 20% of state agencies report significant progress in modernizing services.

Too many state agencies lack the technology or personnel to use data in ways that best serve taxpayers. This costs Texas time and money. In 2020, for example, Texans experienced long wait times for unemployment claims, while public health data was often delayed or confusing. In addition, nearly half of the state’s technology agency’s employees are eligible to retire in the next three years.

Basic steps, such as establishing a revolving technology investment fund, can help address this problem. Texas can also change processes to improve data-sharing and modernize contracting.

— The state projects a $4.6 billion budget shortfall, on top of health, education, and pension cost growth.

The pandemic’s health and economic crises have set the stage for a potentially difficult budget session in 2021. State leaders must think differently about spending priorities, be clear about what those priorities are, and stick to them with discipline. Legislators will need to acknowledge the structural imbalances Texas faces as the tax base shifts, exemptions grow, and unfunded pension liabilities accumulate.

In 2021, let’s work together to take on these challenges to ensure Texas is the best place to live and work for years to come.

Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, is Texas 2036’s President and CEO. A.J. Rodriguez, a long-time business and civic leader and former Texas Association of Business Chair, is Texas 2036’s Executive Vice President.