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Interview with: Billy Reagan
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: June 12, 2008
DG: Today is June 12, 2008. We are talking with Mr. Billy Reagan for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Mr. Reagan?
BR: Fine, David.
DG: Great. Let’s begin at the beginning. Tell us where you were born and what your early years were like.
BR: Well, I will start from now. I will be 78 in November. I have spent 53 years actively involved in education, teaching and administration research, 4 years in the United States Navy and if you count the 12 years that I went to public schools, we are getting way on up there into the 70 years that I have been associated in one way or the other with education and the military service. So, the old statement and adage is very true, that there is not a lot of water and a lot of waves that have come by since I started in 1936 in the 1st grade. I grew up in a small rural area in East Texas between Tyler and Athens on a farm outside of a little town called Brownsboro. I am 8 of 8 children. I went to the public schools in Brownsboro. At that time, we started off with 11 grades but in the 1930s or early 1940s, we added the 12th grade to the public schools. After graduating in a class of 37 in Brownsboro High School, I think I ranked about 3rd or 4th in that graduating class and I then spent 1-1/2 years at Tyler Junior College, Tyler, Texas, working part-time, going to school part-time, working 1 year, laying off 1 year. And then, I spent another semester at what was then the Henderson Count Junior College. Then, we had the beginning of what was really a war; it was not a police action. That was Korea. And I enlisted in the Navy in 1951 and spent the next 4 years in the Navy in the Pacific on destroyers and patrol frigates and traveled pretty thoroughly throughout the Pacific. My last tour of duty was on a small aircraft carrier which was like the Hilton Hotel beside those small destroyers but I had always promised . . . no one else in my family had gone to college - I had a sister that went to business college . . . and I promised my mother and father that I would go to college. And so, thanks to the G.I. Bill of Rights, we were able to complete that after I finished up my 4 years of the Navy in 1954. Now, while I was in the Navy, enlisted men, and I was an enlisted man, their quarters were quite different than the officers. We had 100 men to a compartment, 1 bathroom and so forth, but right up above us, about an inch steel deck, those young officers had state rooms, they had all kinds of good things to make their lives quality, and one of the things that I said, “If I ever get out of this place, I’m going to get me some more of what those guys have got and I will be able to sleep up above the deck.” But many factors influenced me to go ahead with education. I finished up Tyler Junior College and got my associates degree and I actually started off originally majoring in geology but back in those days, we had a lot of oil and we did not need many geologists. So, I changed my goals to go to law school and so I went from Tyler Junior College to the University of Texas in Austin, with the goal of majoring and going to law school, and I took that route, those courses, that curriculum for 2 years. And then, I had a brother-in-law who had a great influence on me, his name was Dr. James A. Turmon, who served 2 terms as Speaker of the House. So, I began to get involved in the political arena and that served me well as years went by. And so, I changed . . . he was getting his doctorate in elementary education and he introduced me around to a number of the college faculty and people, and they persuaded me that it was going to be a great opportunity for young men in elementary education. So, I finished up my baccalaureate in government prelaw but I shifted and then I did my master’s in elementary education and administration with a lot of reading and elementary courses. I started teaching at Jerry Johnson Elementary School in 1957. I taught a combination of fifth and sixth grade. I was the only man in the school besides an elderly janitor about my age now and the principal gave me a combined fifth and sixth grade, both the meanest and the smartest, and I got a great introduction and a great challenge into education through having to work about three times as hard. I got three years experience in every one that I taught those fifth and sixth graders. So, I had a great experience.
One of the greatest motivating experiences of my educational background was at the time I was working on my master’s at the University of Texas, they had a lab school, the name of that school was Cassis Elementary School and you got to go there and spend a year and they had almost every single element of programmatic services and elementary children, particularly special education and gifted all in that lab school. So, once again, I was fortunate to be able to get that kind of experience which prepared me very well. And then, the next step, there was a famous fellow, and this leads into some of my background and experience in Houston . . . most people or some people who will see this will remember Little Rock, Arkansas. They will remember the Little Rock prices, the desegregation, the bringing in of the troops and all of that trauma that really brought a lot of disruption to that city. Well, a fellow that was my first grade mentor was Dr. Virgil Blossom who was superintendent of Little Rock during that crisis and through agreements and politics, he agreed to be fired and get his pay off and the board resigned and Dr. Blossom then was brought to Northeast School District in San Antonio, 7,000 suburban rapidly growing and I had the pleasure of working with him for six or seven years until he worked himself to death and passed away. I was assistant superintendent for one year and then I moved in the superintendency for three years. So, this becomes now the experience of working in a rapidly growing suburban district where the white population was rapidly moving out of San Antonio and so we have that experience of dealing with those dynamics. Then, I thought I wanted to be a Federal employee; I wanted to get involved in the Federal government. My brother-in-law, Speaker Turmon, was, at that time, working in Washington with President Johnson and so through a lot of political Republican contacts, not Democrat, I was able to get appointed to the regional commissionership serving the states of Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa. That was a great experience except the weather was so cold in the winter, I came back to San Antonio looking for a custodial job. I learned a lot. The main thing I learned is after it took me 6 months to get a Selectric typewriter, I did not feel this was a place for someone who really wanted to try to do something to make a difference in education. I came back to Houston, worked for a foundation for one year. I worked with a consulting firm for one year on designing the early childhood education system under Governor Rob Briscoe, and then we designed the Regional Service Center setup that exists today, and I wound up at Region 4 Service Center as a deputy here in Houston and while serving as a deputy, I became a consultant to one of the political groups that was fighting over control of the Houston schools during desegregation, and my group that I was consulting with, the care group; the other group was CGS, Citizens for Good Schools. Well, our group won and guess what? I was nominated to become superintendent of schools in Houston, and that was in May of 1974. That began 12 years. I expected to stay 3 at the most but that began 12 years of the most challenging, the most rewarding years of my life because to be able to take and literally stay with a generation of young people during the desegregation of a school system and bring that school system with a lot of leadership that existed on the HISD staff, a lot of outstanding people that I inherited, and then a lot of key leaders in Houston, the city of Houston. So, together, we were able to bring Houston through with a minimal trauma of what most major cities underwent during that period of time.
DG: Can you take us through that chronology of the desegregation of the school district? There are some other issues we want talk about but when you became superintendent, what was the status of HISD in terms of desegregation?
BR: I came in the spring of 1974 and we had, in the United States, two ways of desegregation. We had the South and we had the Midwest, and then later on, a little bit in the North. So, desegregation started in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and others. The suits would be filed by individual plaintiffs, primarily with NAACP, against school districts. Well, that was true in Texas. There were probably 50, maybe 75, school districts in Texas that had desegregation lawsuit in the Federal courts. Houston was certainly one of them and as best my memory serves, the initial filing happened about 1954, 1956, was when the original suit was filed. It was filed under the term Dolores Ross who was a student in the Houston schools at that time. It stayed in the courts. There would be a ruling. There would be an appeal. There would be one judge change and another judge would come in. It got heavily involved in the community politics, as I mentioned earlier. One group conservative primarily did not want to have the schools desegregated. Another group that wanted to move expeditiously and get it done as quickly as possible. So, it went through a lot of politics during this period of time of 8 or 10 years of intensive political action but in 1968, HISD got its most direct court order which, at that time, I believe it was Judge Singleton, ordered that the district be desegregated, that students be mixed and a plan B devised to mix the students, in some way but primarily to force busing. Also, a very critical part of that order was to cross over the faculties, have an equal number of blacks and whites in each school, and that was the most traumatic event that happened in our desegregation court orders because that destabilized every single school in the district. I can say a little bit more about that in a moment if we had time. Now, at that time, Hispanics had not been declared a minority so when they drew the plan, this was in the early 1970s, 1972, when they drew the plan to desegregate and bus kids, they paired a group of kids over on the south side with a group of kids on the east side. Like, there are 22 schools that were paired together, that were going to switch and bus. Well, it just so happened that they paired black schools with Hispanic schools and that brought about a great deal of confrontational, a great deal of friction. So, I came aboard in May of 1974 and we went back to the court and we made a plea to the court to give us an the opportunity to develop a plan and the wrote in to the judge at that time was you develop a plan that will provide numerically as many whites that are integrated with blacks and I will approve the plan. So, we looked back and the greatest success model in history – a lot of people . . . I’d like to take credit for it but I really can’t, to be truthful and we must be truthful . . . the most successful Magnet school ever in the history of America was the old central technical schools. And nearly every city in America had one. Houston had one. Dallas had one. San Antonio had one. So, we took that model . . . that was a magnet school. Those were the grandpersons of the magnets, and we took that model and we expanded it for them. In fact, it had started when I got here. The first major schools was the High Schools for the Health Professions which is the DeBakey School of Health Professions now, the High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, and then that created a cluster of schools, Vanguard for the Gifted. So, we took that magnet concept and we expanded it and we took it back to the court and the court approved it. So, after 4 or 5 years and real important this point – we shifted our terminology, we shifted our actions from desegregation to integration. And everything we did, we did with the intent of integrating the schools, not forcefully desegregating them. Those are two very different strategies and very different outcomes. So, in 10 years or so under 3 or 4 different judges, we were able to create in excess of 100 magnet schools throughout the school district with all kinds of different things. The community chose what theme they wanted, whether it was a music academy, whether it was a technology academy, where it was a fine arts academy, whether it was an extended day academy for working parents, on and on. We had probably 25 different themes running throughout the district. And today, the islands of excellence in the district primarily still are the magnet schools. So, then we had to get what was called a unified status. Not unified, the word is unitary. The law required that after you had done everything that you could to desegregate and integrate, then you could go back to the courts, go through another complete trial, weeks and weeks of trial -- the Justice Department, NAAC, _______, 15 different lawyers in the courtroom at the same time, and we went to an extension trial because the plaintiffs were still saying, “No, you haven’t. No, you haven’t.” We were saying, “Yes, we have.” But we, with the leadership of a great judge, a couple of great judges that led us through that fight, we were granted unitary status in about 1984, but you still have to stay under the auspices of the courts and the Justice Department. I left the superintendents in 1986 but somewhere along about 1990, the district did receive its unitary status. So, it went through from the early 1950s to the early 1990s, all that period of time under the supervision of the courts.
Now, one footnote here . . . I look back on myself with great amazement of how I personally could have stayed during that period of time. When I was with the U.S. Department of Education, at that time, the U.S. Office of Education, I was stationed in Kansas City for those 4 states. The Federal government was getting ready to desegregate St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Wichita, Kansas, so I spent about half of my time in think tanks learning how they were going to approach it, what primarily the blacks position was going to be and so forth. So, I had the benefit of getting a lot of inside knowledge of what the strategies were such as the Atlanta Plan. The Atlanta Plan was the prime strategy that the black population used to desegregate schools, and that plan worked real well in most cities but it also created a massive flight of whites to the suburbs. But I came with a lot of that background and knowledge and it helped me with the strategies. There were some outstanding people in the city, many outstanding people. Dr. John Coleman, who is deceased now, was a black physician, a former regent at Texas A&M, the first black . . . he was extremely helpful in pulling key people in the black community and he was a crossover. He crossed to the white community. We had a committee of people that was led by Mrs. Wilhelmina Cullen, one of the great members of the Cullen family. Very quietly behind the scenes but they worked very, very well in helping pull groups together that would support these plans and help us get to the courts, so I have to give credit to a lot of these citizens, and a good school board. We had an outstanding school board during that period of time. Very stable. Seven single member districts, then 9 single member districts, but a good governor’s group that pulled together for these solutions. We had a triethnic committee. In the early days, the courts appointed a committee of blacks and whites in the community, and then later, it became triethnic. Outstanding people. They made a great contribution to helping desegregate the schools. Now, I mentioned earlier the crossover to teachers. The crossover was done on the basis of seniority, and what happened out of this, for many reasons, the senior black teachers primarily stayed in the black schools an the senior white teachers stayed in the white schools and we wound up with young, inexperienced teachers in the crossover and that was one of the really almost fatal blows to the school district. It, I don’t think would have been as bad as busing but there was a term used, the singleton ratio – you’ve got to have the same ratio of whites and blacks and that became a fighting word for everyone in terms of trying to get out from under court order. So, those are some of the highlights of 12 years of deep involvement in all of this. Then, we had a real interesting experience that came along. There was a gentleman who was a leader in Houston in many ways, and controversial in many ways, by the name of Commissioner Robert Eckels who started off as a school teacher in HISD. Became a politician, converted from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party but he, along with an extremely wealthy business person who is a geologist – I cannot think of his name right now – but they led the movement to break the Westheimer area away from HISD. Bob did it because that was his emotional issue to get elected commissioner. It did not work real well for him but they led the people to believe in the Westheimer court order that they were going to break away from it and have their own school district. Well, Bob and I had our love/hate relationship. I had known him for many, many years before I even came to Houston. I had lunch with him one day and he said, “Well, Billy, we are going to create the Westheimer school district.” And I said, “Bob, you are crazy. There is no way you can do that.” “Yes, we are. You just watch.” Committees were formed, meetings were held. He would go to a church and I would follow him up. I would be there and debate him and argue him over it, but it really became a divisive issue in the district and in the city because they would taken about 40% of the assessed value and about 8% of the children – things of that nature. Of course, the Federal courts were never going to let them do that but they found a very friendly Federal judge, Judge Knoll, who no longer is alive but Judge Knoll was very friendly and believed in their cause. And Judge Knoll had transferred his children to Spring Branch when Lamar High School desegregated. So, there were long issues here but one of the things that we went through, which was unique for me, was to get a Federal judge recused because Judge Knoll definitely had a biased and prejudiced opinion about that issue. We fought that for about two or three years and finally got that resolved, back on an even keel, so how we held the system together, how we had an educational system . . . when I left in 1986, we had all of our students through the 8th grade at grade level on the Iowa Test Of Basic Skills, which is one of the 5 really creditable measurements that you have in public schools. So, I could talk 4 hours on the desegregation situation itself but Houston needs to take great pride in all of the people living here today enjoying the stability, the inner city. The inner city was able to be renewed because we had a stable inner city that could be renewed. All of that owed a great deal to so many of the citizens in every dimension of the community, who worked very hard to bring it to a peaceful and constructive solution.
DG: It would be tempting to look back on that period and figure that is what you did every day – you went to the office and you worried about desegregation but you had kids to educate. You had a school district to run. How did you deal with the more traditional issues – teacher recruitment and staff development and building new schools? What were your challenges in those areas?
BR: Well, the teacher issue that was became as it is now. The number one issue in education today is quality of teachers. What happened in the crossover . . . when the young white teacher was sent into the inner city communities and schools, very quickly they rapidly left to the suburbs for Klein and Spring Branch and all of those districts. One time, we did a survey and 70% of the teachers in Klein had come from HISD. So, we had an incredible problem of recruiting because we had the singleton ratio. So, we went throughout United States, that was for alternative certification . . . we went throughout the United States recruiting everywhere we could – young Midwestern teachers, bringing them here and working with them and supporting with and staff development, but we put in a plan we called the Staff Stabilization Plan because our staff was just constantly turning over, and that Staff Stabilization Plan had a number of components, but the component that helped the most was our Second Mile Plan. The Second Mile Plan was an incentive pay plan by which we paid teachers extra increments like $1,000 a year extra if they taught in a given area. We had an achievement score based on it. We had an attendance factor based on it. So, the Second Mile Plan helped a great deal to stabilize for that period of time until teachers could acclimate but it was still, I have to say, a constant turnover of the white teachers leaving, going to the suburban districts. The district had some fantastic white and black teachers and white and black administrators and Hispanic. I came from Northeast where we had all white communities like a family, a small school district. I said, what on earth am I going to do when I got to Houston? Well, this staff in Houston was more experienced. Many of them came here for a lifetime commitment. So, Houston had an outstanding staff to work with that helped us . . . so we worked with our strengths and tried to overcome our weaknesses and just kept . . . the Magnet programs were a great incentive. Teachers loved them and liked to be a part of them so when you had 100 schools, half of your schools almost in a Magnet mode, you had created an environment that made it much more productive. We did a couple of little things that were unique during that period of time. Our teachers – we had a high absentee rate –and we gave our teachers, I think, 10 days a year for sick leave, family leave, and they were using about 7 days, 8 days a year. I met a fellow who had been on an airplane going to Corpus the Friday before and he said, “Billy, I did not know that last Friday was a holiday.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, that Southwest Airlines was almost full of young teachers going to Corpus.” Well, they were taking a rest day. We put in a plan whereby if the teachers would not use their sick leave, we would buy it back at $250 a day. So, we went from 94% attendance of teachers to 99% in 1 year. We had an 89% attendance with our students and you get state funds based on their attendance. We came up with a crazy idea and I thought the board was going to terminate me over this . . . Well, let’s give every child that has perfect attendance a free day at Astroworld. That is crazy. It won’t work. We spent $200,000, $225,000 on Astroworld tickets. The next year, we did not have an 89% attendance, we had a 94% attendance and we got 15 extra million dollars from the state, and the board went all over the state taking credit for their brilliant idea and I am most happy for them to do that. So, all of us worked together with every way that we could to build incentives and motivation and things that would get people pulling together.
DG: What was the role of the business community?
BR: The business community in the days of desegregation, the business community had a very, very significant role. They supported the election of outstanding leaders or outstanding people on the school board. They helped the volunteer program. We had the strongest volunteer in public school program and one of the strongest in the nation. They would serve on advisory committees. The district had not had a bond issue passed in, like, 15 years, so coupled with the turmoil in all of this, we had a massive deterioration of our buildings, but the business community worked together with us and we got the first bond issue passed in 1984, I think, for . . . I think it was maybe $40 million. And that was a real positive shot in the arm. One of the ancillary shots in the arm was that it helped us bring the minority contractors together to give them an opportunity to participate, so they bought in, and a lot of the people and their supporters. So, the passing of the bond issue was a great effort from the business community. The business community, in all the years that I’ve been in Houston, have always been excessively supportive. I think when they get good advice and advice that they can believe in, they are going to go with the program.
DG: Houston has been described by almost everyone as a city that has experienced tremendous growth and much of that growth occurred while you were superintendent at HISD. Of course, there was a big hiccup in the early 1980s but there must have been an advantage in living in a city in which the tax base was constantly growing, of course, population was growing and a dynamic playout where you were always sort of struggling to keep up. Was the tax base helping you to do things that would have been a challenge in other cities? What was unique about that growth situation in terms of the impact on the school system?
BR: Well, when I came, there were about 260,000 in the district but because of desegregation and white flight, that came down to about 210,000, when I left and of course it is now under 200,000, but it was a large population, and the population has grown. Today, you have a large population in private schools or in the suburbs. Up until the early 1990s, I guess, there was no tax appraisal system like we have now and the tax collector’s office was an incredibly political position - my dear friend, rest his soul, Mr. Carl Smith. And so, we did not have balanced values. It was just what you could get. So, we did not have the growth like they are having today in the billions but we had growth and we had basically adequate funding to do what we had to do, carry out the Magnet program and when the growth started, when it really took off, then, you know, just the growth and new appraised value today brings hundreds of millions of dollars of additional revenue to the school district, and that is one of the great things of looking at these tall buildings and things that take place and the benefits that they have.
DG: I think it might be helpful to clarify . . . we have done other interviews were we talked about this particular time in Houston’s history and it becomes clear that the Houston Independent School District was really an entity unto itself. Who did you have to answer to in terms of people looking over your shoulder? Obviously, the Federal Court system was involved in desegregation but there was no real connection with elected officials at the city level. Who were your peers and who were your bosses in a sense?
BR: Well, the history of the governance of the Houston School System, it started off originally like most urban school systems. It was under the mayor and City Council. And then, in the 1930s, the laws were passed to create independent school districts. And then, it became an independent school district with its own board of education of seven members elected throughout the district. And then, that board answered to the state commissioner of education that was elected from the state at that time but then became appointed and, of course, the Legislature. The legislature is the governing body of the school districts throughout the state. Most people do not realize that but by constitutional law, that who control. But our primary answer . . . we had to answer to state commissioner and the state board, but we also had to answer to the legislature. The legislature had a very keen role and a very keen interest in what was going on with their largest baby.
DG: We have talked about desegregation, we talked about teacher recruitment and your issues there. What were the other trouble spots that we have not talked about during your tenure as superintendent?
BR: I guess, again, I would have to say that there was always a battle to keep the support of the public. There was still that feeling of the racial tension among people and while we desegregated the schools, we did not integrate the housing and certainly today is a great manifestation although it is better than it was. So, you still had the blacks in one area and the whites in another area, and there was always that competition for resources or concerns that they were not being dealt with equally, and the blacks had not been dealt with equally for tens and tens and tens of years, so there is a lot of making up to do to try to bring equal facilities, try to bring equal teachers, qualified teachers, administrators. One of the great challenges that began two come aboard during that period time was the emergence of technology and the access to technology, which is still a great challenge, but we developed a technology department that was rated the finest in the United States, starting to train parents, teachers, students, and everyone on the utilization and providing computers. That was a great challenge, still is a great challenge, but that was something that we did and we took a great deal of pride in back during that whole program. Now, when we began to run out of whites, we said, well, how are we going to maintain a white population in the school district so we can integrate? So, we went to the state commissioner and the judge and we created what was known as a quality integrated education plan, QIE, of where we would go and bring students from the suburbs and let them transfer into, provide them transportation, let them transfer into HISD, white students to help us maintain balance, particularly in our Magnet schools, particularly the Magnets located in the black schools like the one at Booker T. Washington, the High School for Engineering Professions. The only way we could keep that school integrated was bringing students in from the suburbs and they would come in. And, there were a number of other schools that it worked that way. So, that was the challenge . . . as the white population declined, what are you going to integrate with? And so, we thought that battle and had some success with it. That challenge still exists today.
DG: A lot of that early desegregation fight was couched in terms of white versus black but, of course, the brown population, the Hispanic population has grown and you have been credited with the bilingual education program in HISD. Can you talk about how that came about and why you decided it was necessary?
BR: Well, it became obvious, when I came, the population was 65% white, 35%, and Hispanics were counted as white, so rapidly in this changing situation, when Hispanics were counted as Hispanics, the ratio went to about 20% Hispanic and 40% black. So, that ratio began changing dramatically. You could easily see, and we did all kinds of demographic studies along with our great gentleman from Rice University and a fellow that was the state demographer, Steve Feinberg. We did all of those studies and it was evident 25 years ago what was going to happen in terms of this massive Hispanic movement. So, we had all of these children coming in, could not speak English, we did not have teachers trained at that time to teach that way, so we started recruiting bilingual teachers, we went all over the world literally trying to find bilingual teachers. We found a few. Then, we started a program with Houston Community College and Texas Southern University of Houston going along. We would go out and recruit young Hispanic, primarily females, high school education, GED, HCC, Texas Southern or U of H and got them degrees. So, we train several hundred bilingual teachers that way, but we still kept our main emphasis on English as a second language. We believe that we should help these youngsters, help them get over a given point and then immerse them in English and move them along. And that model still has proven to be the most successful model that there is. If you could provide total immersion, if you could put them in total immersion and you had an outstanding teacher, it worked beautifully. But, you remember, I used about 3 “ifs” in making that statement. So, that is where we are today with this incredible Hispanic population growing so unbelievably. One point that I have to make before our time runs out . . . that I hope that anyone that sees this will never be guilty of using the word “reform.” Reform is the wrong word. It is a smoking mirror and it does not deal with the problem. What our nation is faced with today is the complete restructuring of our school system. We are still structured just like we were when I entered the first grade in 1936. The same amount of days, the same length of days, etc., etc. While our world has changed dramatically, this represents over 100 volumes of research that we have done, from reading, from teachers to dropouts and so forth. So, we feel pretty secure in what we say but two fundamental elements of education are time on task and motivation. Think about it in your own life. We have the shortest school day, shortest school week, shortest school year of any industrial nation in the world. In our time on task studies, the students in Texas and Houston and America get 3.8 hours a day contact with the teacher. Only 3.8. Calcutta, it is 10. In Shanghai, it is 11. We are not even on the playing field anymore as it relates to the time on task issue. So, there is no way we are going to be able to compete unless we stop now, restructure the school system for a longer school day, a longer school week, a longer school year, put a heavy incentive pay plan on achievement. We have created model that we call the model for developing intellectual capital. We need to get some terms here. We need to get some new terms that business people and educators . . . development of intellectual capital is no different than financial capital. In fact, it is the basis for it. So, our model of restructuring deals with the development of intellectual capital. No, teacher problem – we are getting the bottom 25%, whereas, you and I and most of the people who probably would ever see this, we got the top _____ in those days. So, we have to have a salary and compensation plan now that allows us to go up to $75,000 to $100,000 a year. $75,000 to $100,000 a year is the only way that we are going to be able to get bright, competitive people to come back into education. If you restructure the schools as they should be restructured, you can do that with no additional costs and bring about 30% to 40% to 50% productivity. The 54% dropout rate that we have now, and that is what it is, we can cut that to 10% or 15%, and I want to come back and remind me to come back to the dropout issue in just a moment, but restructuring the school, a model of restructuring education. We did a study. We took 20,000 students, kindergarten to the 12th grade, and we tracked them from kindergarten until they graduated. 8,000 of that 20,000 graduated. We spent $626 million in graduating those 8,000. We spent $624 million on those that dropped out. Then, each year, we spent $70,000 to $80,000 on retention costs. So, we have reached a point now where we are spending more on failure than we are on success. Absolutely. So, you have got to restructure the school system if you are going to save the nation. You can restructure it, reallocate the cost and move with a much, much more productive system.
Dropouts. Dropout has been a smoking mirror situation for many years. The first time we looked at it in a study, it was 8%, but now that we have finally got and pushed and got down, we’ve got about 5 different formulas, but the formula that is the most accurate points out that we have in Houston, about 54% of our students to 60% of them are graduating. Now, that is 40% out of 200,000. You do a longitudinal study on this of 10 years, you’ve got 200,000, 300,000 people in this city who have dropped out of school. So, it is an incredible problem that needs addressing aggressively. So, I want to make that a great plea for all of that. So, I hope that it is clear what I have said about the restructuring and what has to be done, and it’s got to be done now. It can’t be done . . . it can’t wait another generation. It has to be the top priority in the whole country.
DG: It is a national problem, but we are sitting here in Houston and you are familiar with Houston Independent School District and the dynamics of Houston. Are you optimistic about Houston’s chances for embracing the need for restructuring?
BR: I am beginning to see a flicker of hope. The Greater Houston Partnership is beginning to take a very deep interest in it and when they take an interest, they usually provide leadership and bring things to happen. Like most other things in the world, economics is going to be the great driver. We cannot afford to keep spending billions and billions of dollars on something that is totally nonproductive. Let me tie the element of reading – my doctorate is in reading. My doctorate, by the way, a masters from Texas and a bachelors and my doctorate is from the University of Nebraska. Now, why on earth would I go to the University of Nebraska and get a doctorate? Well, I like to jokingly say that, because at that time, University of Texas could win a national championship, but I did not. It was because of friends I made while I was up there during that tour of duty. But reading, my doctorate is in reading. This represents massive research on reading, and our reading system has totally collapsed. Our teachers are not prepared to teach reading. Vendors are now in control, and of all of the things that I say in this interview, this is the most significant. Vendors are now in control – I am going to look straight into that camera – vendors are now in control of the educational process. That is your textbook companies, that is your computer companies, and on and on. Now, we have done these studies 3 or 4 times. You have, in HISD . . . now, let me take it through Governor David Dewhurst as I have or Senator Shapiro or a number of others . . . we have in the state of Texas today, we are spending two billion dollars minimally each year on materials that students cannot read. It bothers me to say that but they would be better off building sand dunes with them in Galveston than sitting in the book rooms where they are. Valid evidence. No one has contested it. HISD is spending over $100 million, maybe up to $200 million a year in materials that students cannot read. They know it, they continue to do it. That is where your vendors are. That is the kind of influence that the vendors have. So, until the vendors’ influence is diminished dramatically, we will not see the restructuring in education that has got to take place. So, reading is the number one problem and there are methods to teach reading. There are methods to teach Hispanic bilingual kids reading but we are not organized to be able to do that. But of all the things that I have said in this interview, this is probably the most critical.
DG: As a wrap-up question, sir, to sort of put some closure to this with the Houston perspective, you chose to spend your career here contributing to the Houston Independent School District. What do you think has been unique about that experience because you chose Houston? Had you chosen any of those other cities, any of those other areas of the country, how do you think your career has been different because you chose Houston?
BR: Houston is unique. It has had overall stability but I chose Houston – scared to death when I chose it – a country boy coming to Houston – but Houston has a business community and it has a leadership component that really does believe in education and I knew that when we got into the fight or when we got into the desegregation and the Westheimer fight, the business community really stood strong. So, I have always had a deep feeling – I still do today because of the research that we continue to do, that Houston’s business community, once they know and once they understand . . . few people understand what the issues are, so everywhere I preach, understand the issues and your God given intellect will help you come up with the solutions. But we are talking here, we are talking here, we’ve got this model, we’ve got that model, we’ve got all of them, and we are not understanding what the core issues are. When they do that, we have always in this city and in this country, we have always come up with solutions. So, my plea to Houston is take time partnership, take time school boards, take time Mayor White, and he has a great understanding, but take more time in your life to really understand the core issues and out of that, we are going to come up with solutions that will continue to lead Houston into one of the world’s greatest cities. Remember, we are not competing with Dallas anymore. We are competing with Calcutta and Shanghai, and those are the cities, so we had better get our educational system up to par to be competitive with these great international industrial cities because I think the picture is very clear as to where the world is going.
DG: Thank you very much for your time.