ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block in Dallas, Texas, this week, hosting for member station KERA.
I'm in a state that's in the midst of a population boom and a demographic sea change. Texas has more than doubled its population in just 40 years, from 11 to 26 million. It's grown faster than any other state. And overwhelmingly, the fastest growth is among Hispanics, who now make up 38 percent of the state's population. Hispanics will be the largest single group in Texas by 2020.
When demographer Steve Murdock started tracking this trend decades ago, he met with resistance.
STEVE MURDOCK: At first, there was a lot of denial. I like to say that I've become increasingly brilliant over time.
BLOCK: As state demographer appointed by Governor Rick Perry, Murdock drove tens of thousands of miles all over the state. And what he saw was clear, Texas was zooming toward becoming a majority minority state.
MURDOCK: People would say that'll never happen. You're wrong.
BLOCK: Well, it did happen back in 2005. Now, Murdock warns unless this growing Hispanic population is helped up, the state overall will become poorer and less competitive. Texas will spiral downward.
MURDOCK: The reality is that the future of Texas will be tied to its minority populations. And how well they do is how well we will do.
BLOCK: The key to that future, Murdock says, is better education, leading to higher paying jobs. So we went to school. We stopped by Dr. John Folks Middle School, in the far northwestern suburbs of San Antonio. It's brand new; opened just this past August. And it's gorgeous - two gyms, a hallway lined with music practice rooms, corridors named after colleges, University of Oklahoma Lane, Trinity University Road. About 60 percent of the student body here is Hispanic.
Love the bow. Looks cool.
Barry Perez is the school principal and chief booster.
Come on, you can do it, Danielle. I have faith in you. You're gonna make it. You're gonna do fine.
This school was built with explosive growth in mind. There are almost 600 students now and the projections are that number will more than double within five years. After that?
BARRY PEREZ: I do know that when the campus was built, there were provisions so that if we had to put an addition, they already know where that addition will go.
BLOCK: Perez points right there at the end of this hallway. This school is part of the Northside Independent School District, which is humongous, the fourth largest district in Texas. And it's growing by two to 3,000 students every year.
BRIAN WOODS: The growth is really - it's staggering.
BLOCK: It's up to Superintendent Brian Woods to try to manage this growth. He shows me a map with a cluster of red and green dots in the outer reaches of San Antonio's suburbs. These are new schools they plan to build to accommodate the latest growth, as the population expands farther and farther away from the city. Think about this, the district opens roughly three news schools every year. Is that a scary thing to look at as the superintendent of this district?
WOODS: It's a little scary. It's one of those things that wakes you up at 3:30 in the morning, you know, is how are we managing this and are we doing the things that we need to do far enough out in order to plan for and manage growth.
BLOCK: And overwhelmingly, as with the state overall, that growth has been Hispanic.
WOODS: This has gone from a primarily Anglo student population to a vast majority Hispanic student population.
BLOCK: Which means when Brian Wood's son goes to his Northside Elementary School each day, the faces there reflect the new Texas. The school that he attends is very diverse racially and ethnically and from a socioeconomic standpoint. And that's just the norm for him. It would never occur to him, I think, to see the world any other way.
He's the minority.
WOODS: Oh, very clearly, he's the minority. I think if you went and looked in his classroom, he would probably be among the, say, 20 percent of students who are Anglo.
BLOCK: Now, most of the growth in the Hispanic population here is not from immigration, people coming across the border from Mexico. These are folks coming from other states or moving within Texas. Remember, as demographer Steve Murdock points out, Texas has had Hispanics since before there was a Texas. The Hispanic numbers grow, too, because this population skews younger with a higher birth rate. It also tends to be more economically disadvantaged, with higher poverty levels.
For Superintendent Woods, that means he needs more resources, more staff, to bring the disadvantaged students along. So imagine his dismay when the Texas legislature slashed 60 million dollars out of his budget three years ago.
WOODS: It was absolutely infuriating. It was heartbreaking.
BLOCK: He had to cut almost a thousand staff positions at a time when his student population was ballooning.
WOODS: To ignore the changes in our state and to ignore public education and health care as infrastructure projects is really to set the state up for dismal times in the out years. These are long-term issues. The great Texas Miracle, to borrow a George Bush phrase, cannot last if we don't fund infrastructure.
BLOCK: And do you see any appetite for doing just that?
WOODS: Virtually none.
DIANA NATALICIO: I just think squandering talent is one of the ugliest things I ever watch.
BLOCK: And so, Diana Natalicio has made it her mission to cultivate talent in higher education among the Hispanic population of El Paso. She's been the president of the University of Texas-El Paso, or UTEP, for 26 years. She looked to the future and decided the institution had to transform itself, both to better serve the city's low-income Hispanic population and to raise the university's national standing.
NATALICIO: I was told it couldn't be done. It just can't be done. You can't do high quality higher education with commitment to diversity, commitment to low-income students because it's just never been done before and you're not going to be able to do it. And I said, well, we're going to try. And we're going to make it happen, and we're going to be the model.
BLOCK: Under Natalicio, UTEP has doubled its student enrollment. Now, 80 percent of the students are Mexican-American, mirroring El Paso. More than half are the first in their families to go to college. Nearly all of them work while going to school. Natalicio says this is the new reality and we ignore it at our peril.
NATALICIO: The peril is that you will have an undereducated and growing group of young people who won't be able to find employment. I mean, this is a story in many countries around the world, right, where, you know, one of the biggest challenges in many of the countries where we're seeing huge unrest is disaffected young people who can't find work and have nothing to do.
BLOCK: Demographer Steve Murdock has called this the Texas Challenge. But he points out, it's not just Texas. It's a challenge facing the whole country as our demographics shift and minorities become the majority. And tomorrow, I'll explore how the changing face of Texas could alter the political landscape here. I'll talk with the mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro. He looks to the future and sees eventually a blue state.
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