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Dallas, we have a duty to kids and to ourselves to fund good education

by Michelle Vopni | October 12, 2018

As a lifelong Dallas native, I’ve always had a general awareness of poverty in our city, especially in southern Dallas, and that kids living in poverty have significantly fewer opportunities than those in families with some financial means.

However, this reality was brought home to me recently through a conversation about the Ernst & Young mentoring and development programs for youths living at the poverty level. A colleague commented that some of the students we bring into our office may be riding on an elevator for the first time in their lives. I had never envisioned a life with such limited experiences that even riding in an elevator is a significant event.

With just a passing comment, I was struck by how difficult it must be for children living in poverty to imagine going to college to provide their families a better future. With Dallas rated as having one of the highest poverty levels of any U.S. city, I believe we have a responsibility to respond and do what we can to change the lives of these children and their families. And to me, the only chance to change the path of these children’s lives is to provide them education and opportunities.

One school that has mastered this challenge is Cristo Rey, a college prep high school in southeast Dallas for select students living at or below the poverty level. The school has 375 students and 107 job affiliates, like Ernst & Young, that fund students’ education in return for the students’ hard work in their offices every week throughout the school year. These students graduate from high school job-ready and college-ready, with confidence that they are capable of attending college and working in a professional environment. And most importantly, these students leave the program understanding there are many opportunities available to them outside their current environment.

Cristo Rey is an outstanding model, but serving 375 students and families is simply not enough to make a lasting difference in Dallas.

To make real impact, we must turn to our public schools, and to our own Dallas ISD, where nearly 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. And in doing so, I think we have cause to celebrate. DISD continues to make remarkable progress in improving its schools through innovation and leadership. With the assistance of Dallas County Community College and local businesses, 25 early-college DISD high schools allow students to earn associate degrees upon the completion of high school. Additionally, local businesses provide these students with mentoring, internships and jobs.

Like Cristo Rey, these early-college high schools provide students with a means to become job-ready upon graduation and help instill confidence that the students will be capable of obtaining an education. DISD is also making significant investments in teacher excellence and principal programs and providing pre-K to approximately 12,000 students. The district also boasts 58 magnet, choice and innovation schools, all contributing to a Texas Education Agency rating of 81 percent.

However, there is a major roadblock. DISD needs more funds to continue the investments and improvements. While I could whine all day about Texas school finance issues, including the problem with “recapture” or “Robin Hood,” I am not confident that our Texas Legislature will resolve those funding issues in the near future.

But we need to understand that the needs are immediate. I think many of us longtime Dallas residents use Texas school finance issues as an excuse to resist providing as many resources as we can to the district that serves those most in need. We tend to want to kick the can down the road to a time when Texas can figure out its money situation and there is no risk that our property tax dollars will be  “recaptured” and distributed to other districts.

In November, voters can make a difference by ratifying a tax increase that will bring DISD property tax rates in line with other districts in the area. I feel it is crucial to view this tax ratification as a way to provide DISD a path forward, to educate young students from our lowest income families and to fuel the workforce needs in our growing city.

We have to pause and realize that we are talking about people’s lives and children’s futures. We are talking about the opportunity for children to graduate from high school with the ability, desire and means to further their education, to take the first steps to become first-generation college graduates, to pull their families out of poverty. We are talking about the significant needs for an educated workforce as North Texas continues its tremendous growth.

DISD is making significant progress and is providing Dallas residents a lot to celebrate. We need to enable that success to continue.

Michelle Vopni is the Dallas office managing partner for Ernst & Young LLP. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

This article was originally published by The Dallas Morning News and FWD>DFW had no influence on the content created.

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