As Calls For Economic Diversity Get Louder, Survey Shows Houstonians Changing Their Tune On Public Education
More Houstonians than ever are prioritizing public education amid a desperate rush for educated workers and growing recognition that the city's economy must diversify by attracting new industries.
Over the past 30 years, the percentage of Houstonians who believe that public schools have adequate funding has nearly halved, from 60% to 34% in 2022, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.
For a city that is trying to shake its image as a one-industry oil town, Stephen Klineberg, who has been doing the Kinder Houston Area Survey for 40 years, says the shift is striking.
"It's a world where education has become heavily critical in a city for which education was never very important," said Klineberg, the Kinder Institute's founding director. "The great Texas fortunes were made from cotton, timber, cattle, sugar, oil. And now the source of wealth is no longer natural resources. It's knowledge."
Houstonians surveyed by the Kinder Institute in the 1990s generally agreed that public schools didn't need more funding and expressed worry about wasted money. But when the question was asked again in 2018 and 2020, the percentage of survey respondents agreeing education was sufficiently funded dropped to 41% and 42%. In 2022, only 34% of Houstonians believed that public schools were adequately funded.
"The big employers in Houston in the 1960s and '70s were [companies like] Cameron Iron Works. You could drop out of high school with a strong right arm, [work] in the oil fields and be able to make a middle-class wage," Klineberg said. "Those jobs are gone. In a new world of robotics and globalization, they're not coming back."
Klineberg said Houston is pivoting heavily away from jobs relying on the price of oil, and the city is looking for greener sources of energy. As that happens, an educated workforce will be needed to serve new rising industries and raise the quality of life.
"If Houston is to thrive in the new global, knowledge-based economy, it will need to become a 'learning society,' drawing on its considerable resources to ensure that the young people in this city, who are disproportionately African American and Hispanic—the two groups, as we have seen, who are the most likely to be living in poverty—will be prepared to succeed in the high-tech knowledge-based economy of the twenty-first century," the survey says.
Kinder Institute data suggests that Houston will have more work to do than the rest of the state. Houston lags far behind San Antonio and Dallas when it comes to access to quality preschool for children from impoverished families. Roughly 63% of Houstonians surveyed agree with increasing taxes for universal preschool.
"The surveys make it clear that area residents have changed significantly over the years in their understanding of the most important challenges facing this city," the Kinder Institute report states. "It remains to be seen whether Houston’s business and civic leaders will be able to build on the attitude shifts the data reveal to undertake the continued interventions that we know will be required to position Houston for broad-based prosperity in this time of remarkable economic, demographic, and technological transformation."