While some see Texas as headed downhill with regard to education, income and other areas and report the need for Texas to “change course” toward more government involvement in the economy, the state is, in reality, outperforming states, such as California, which have embraced increased government spending.
Lisa Falkenberg, in a recent opinion piece called “Hard for the Lone Star to Shine at the Bottom of the Heap,” relies on statistics compiled by Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson in his book Lone Star Tarnished. However, many of these statistics are misleading because they lack proper context.
Jillson repeatedly uses per capita income and public expenditures in comparing Texas to other states, and he posits that Texas’ low per capita income compared to the national average shows that many Texas workers are not benefitting from job creation in the state and that “many Texans don’t have the opportunity to take part in what for some is an economic boom.”
However, Jillson fails to consider the sometimes substantial differences in cost of living between states. Falkenberg’s statement, “We’re being left in the dust by states like New York” on per capita income, completely disregards the fact that New York’s cost of living is 33 percent above the national average while Texas’ cost of living rests at about 10 percent below average. A typical consumer has far greater buying power in Texas than in New York, thus a comparison between the states’ per capita income is misleading at best.
Falkenberg also observes that Texas is “at the bottom or near bottom … on education funding.” Again, after adjusting for Texas’ low cost of living, Texas spends more per pupil than the national average. In fact, Texas’ per pupil spending is higher than that of six of the seven other largest states in the country. The only comparable state that exceeds Texas in per pupil spending is Pennsylvania, but despite spending less, Texas has exhibited better testing results. This is largely due to state tendencies which prefer to optimize the school system rather than simply increase funding.
In Lone Star Tarnished, Jillson states that the SAT scores of Hispanics have been stagnant for the past 20 years, which seems to substantiate Falkenberg’s claim that “we’ve refused to invest” in the education of minorities. However, SAT scores are not a good measure of educational outcomes for two reasons: Not all students take the SAT, and the number of foreign-born students has risen over the past 20 years, changing Texas demographically in a major way.
A better measure of educational achievement is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), where state scores for math, reading and science are reported for students in the fourth and eighth grades. In 11 of 24 categories and across ethnic boundaries, Texas scored first among the eight biggest states. Conversely, California, which spends much more on education, and has a Hispanic and foreign-born composition similar to that of Texas, scored last in 15 of 24 categories. Texas also tied with Florida in having the smallest achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students.
According to Falkenberg, “We have to face the facts, acknowledge the rankings, and stop explaining them away.” However, the facts in this case show that some rankings prove to be irrelevant in the big picture of the economy.
Instead of fretting about why Texans earn less per capita than citizens of other states, perhaps other states should examine why their cost of living is so much higher than in Texas. Very simply, the problem with comparing states via per capita income is that money means nothing in a vacuum, but only with regard to its exchange for goods and services.
That’s not to say that Texas doesn’t have room to improve, but that improvement will not come as a result of increased government spending. Rather it will result from real, market-oriented reform that aims to make current government-provided services work more efficiently.