A Billionaire's Push to Bolster One of the Biggest K-12 Systems in America

 Photo:  Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

Photo:  Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

Texas has the second-highest number of public school students in the U.S., just after California. Some 5 million kids are enrolled in more than 1,000 public school districts around the state. And nowhere is the K-12 population growing faster than in Texas, which is projected to see a 14 percent increase in students enrolled between 2014 and 2026. Already, the state is struggling with teacher shortages and experts believe the problem could get much worse. 

Enter Charles Butt, a Texas grocery mogul with a net worth of over $10 billion, who earlier this month announced his latest push to improve public education in his state, launching a $50 million initiative aimed at teacher training. The grants will provide scholarships for aspiring teachers and technical support for teacher training programs across Texas.

The gift from Butt, chairman and CEO of the HEB grocery chain, is the latest in a multimillion-dollar effort to improve Texas education. Earlier this year, Butt gave $100 million to establish a leadership institute for school administrators

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Beyond the size of Butt's gifts—among the biggest for K-12 in recent years—what's significant about these commitments is that Butt is not focused on bolstering charter schools or the array of nonprofits that support choice and accountability strategies. Instead, this mega-donor is looking to improve leadership and teaching in the traditional school districts that still educate the vast bulk Texas school children—and will for the foreseeable future.  

Whatever you may think about charter schools, funders have struggled to scale this approach to improving student outcomes. Butt has apparently concluded that his giving will have the greatest impact by bolstering the school system that exists, as opposed to building out a parallel K-12 universe. These days, more top donors seem to be thinking along the same lines as Butt. Even as existing charter funders double down on this strategy, it appears that fewer of the new mega-donors arriving in K-12 are focusing on choice. 

A notable feature of Butt's gift to improve teacher training is that it targets university-based programs rather than groups such as Teach for America, a perennial favorite of many ed reform funders and a key supplier of teachers for charter schools.

Some of Texas' top university programs for educating and training future teachers will receive funds under the new initiative, called Raising Texas Teachers. The schools include Southern Methodist University, Rice University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, and the University of Texas in Austin. Raising Texas Teachers will help at least 500 students each year, awarding each student an $8,000 annual scholarship, according to a report by The Dallas Morning News.

With initiatives aimed at school leaders and now at developing teachers, Butt is putting his money in the right place to improve education. Research has demonstrated repeatedly that quality teachers and effective school leaders are the most significant in-school factors influencing students' academic success. “To improve academic achievement, it is critical that Texas elevate the status of the teaching profession, strengthen the existing pool of aspiring teachers, and inspire our most talented high school graduates to consider a career in teaching," Butt said in a news release.

Butt's initiative is coming at the right time. Experts believe that one way to deal with the Lone Star's projected teacher shortage is to provide more financial support for would-be teachers, drawing more young people into the profession. The Dallas-based education nonprofit Commit! estimates that the state's higher education institutions are not producing enough teachers to keep pace with the growing demand. 

Butt hopes that the scholarships funded by his gift will defray the high cost of a college education and enable new teachers to enter the profession with little or no student loan debt. At SMU, a private university in Dallas, the grants will cut the cost of the school's master's program by more than half. Other schools are taking a different approach. The University of North Texas at Dallas will fund full two-year scholarships for incoming students with an interest in bilingual education—an important consideration for Texas, a state with a large and growing proportion of English learners.

With Raising Texas Teachers, Butt is the latest education funder to turn his attention to teacher training. Funders big and small are writing checks for programs to improve teacher training. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a nearly decade-long interest in teacher effectiveness, ever since its Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study, that it began in 2008. There's the 100Kin10 effort, the Carnegie-backed campaign to develop 100,000 new STEM teachers by the year 2021. These are only two high-profile examples. Numerous other funder-backed initiatives to improve teacher training can be found across the country.