Gov. Greg Abbott made his first official trip to Houston on Thursday since becoming the state’s CEO to talk to business leaders about his urgent goals – led by a focus on early childhood education – and to articulate his concern for the most challenged students in a visit to a Galleria-area public school.
In his first State of the State address outside of Austin, the new governor outlined his top priorities for Texas during a luncheon hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership.
Before a crowd of more than 600 at the Westin Galleria Ballroom, Abbott said early childhood education is his top priority and the “first emergency item” in his proposed budget.
“The journey on the pathway to keeping Texas No. 1 begins at our schoolhouse doors. We must develop the best education system in America right here in the great state of Texas,” he said, noting the Lone Star State’s success in employment. “We can be No. 1 in education in Texas if we commit the same tenacity and dedication to focusing on education as we have in job creation.”
Emergency items, he said, can be “fast-tracked” and receive expedited consideration by the Legislature. This was evidenced on Thursday as state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Republican who represents Humble, unveiled a bill to spend $100 million to improve pre-kindergarten programs in certain school districts that target at-risk children – specifically youngsters who are unable to speak English and those who receive subsidized school meals, are homeless or have an active-duty military parent. According to Huberty, there are 250,000 children in Texas who meet these criteria.
Abbott, who was elected in November and assumed office last month, listed higher education as his second emergency item – noting his desire to attract top scholars to increase the prestige of the state’s public research universities as well as to support community colleges in producing highly paid skilled workers such as welders.
Building roads, border security and ethics reform rounded out his focus areas, which initially were presented last week in his first State of the State address before the Legislature. Abbott added that he said he would reject any budget that doesn’t reduce the tax burden on individuals and businesses.
Mid-afternoon, the governor switched to the more colorful confines of the School at St. George Place, a Houston Independent School District academy with students from pre-kindergarten to grade 5. After visiting classrooms, he spoke with educators in the teaching trenches: HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams in the school’s tidy and bright library about improving achievement.
Where to invest
“The classrooms here look good. Every classroom in HISD should be like this. If there are some that are different, we need to focus more on those,” Abbott said. “We have to admit that there are certain kids in certain schools where we throw all the resources we can and we’re going to move the needle just a tiny bit. There are other kids in other schools where we provide equal resources and we’re going to be able to move the needle a lot. I want to see the biggest movement of the needle possible. That means, in a way, probably investing more resources in the under-resourced schools.”
He predicted that if Texas can “double down” in the early years – pre-K to third grade – “we are going to start setting some outstanding records.”
Bob Harvey, the partnership’s president and CEO, credited Abbott’s “vocal and immediate” endorsement of early childhood education for getting the issue “moving so well and so rapidly in Austin.”
Education is one of the partnership’s top priorities, along with transportation and economic development incentives.
“The fact that he made early education his No. 1 priority and higher education his No. 2 priority says it all,” said Welcome Wilson Sr., chairman of the partnership’s Higher Education Committee and a former member of the University of Houston System’s Board of Regents. “I am convinced that he’s sincere when he says that before he leaves the governor’s office, he wants Texas to be No. 1.”