State education commissioner Mike Morath celebrated the progress being made in public schools on Thursday but said Texas still has many challenges ahead.

Not nearly enough students are college-ready when they leave high school, Morath said during a discussion about the state of public education sponsored by the Dallas Regional Chamber.

Districts are doing more to reimagine high schools by partnering with community colleges and local businesses, which is helping. But Texas needs more high-quality teachers and expanded access to early childhood education programs that help youngsters get on track for success, Morath said.

Superintendents from Dallas, Plano and Garland joined the discussion highlighting their successes, challenges and what they’ll be lobbying for in the legislative session kicking off in January.

Here’s a look at the state of public education in Texas:

“Relentless” in wooing the best

The state needs to be “relentless” in recruiting and retaining the brightest to be teachers and principals.

That’s a refrain Morath has repeated across the state for much of the last year saying the profession needs to be elevated.

He pointed to countries like Singapore, where only the best students can go on to become teachers. But a 2010 study that found only 23 percent of America’s teachers come from the top third of their own classes.

And many of the best end up leaving because the job is high-stakes and incredibly demanding with teachers working long hours to help students — many of whom live in poverty.

“We’re driving professionals out of here,” Morath said. “And they’re not just leaving the school. They’re just not teaching anymore.”

Fewer than 5 percent of high schoolers taking college entrance exams note that their intended major is education, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Key to shifting the cultural view of teaching is increasing the pay as people respect money, he said.

Morath, a former Dallas trustee, promoted the idea of giving educators a bump in their paychecks similar to how DISD’s teacher incentive pay program does it: based on student performance.

Just last month he briefed lawmakers on how Dallas’ focus on the best teachers has helped turn around some of the state’s most struggling schools.

A focus on pre-K

Texas students who enrolled in prekindergarten outperformed their peers by 16 percentage points and went on to finish college at high rates, putting them on track toward earning liveable wages, Morath told the Dallas crowd.

A state study looking at outcomes echoes repeated research that shows quality pre-K can do more to catch struggling students up to their peers than any other intervention later in life.

“We know this works. In business you figure out what works and you do more of it,” Morath said.

Garland Superintendent Ricardo López said his top priority this legislative session will be pushing for universal pre-K. The district already has two centers that provide half-day programs, but it’s only for students who qualify. The state’s eligibility includes offering pre-K to students who are struggling to learn English, come from low-income families or are children of parents who served in the U.S. military.

Gov. Greg Abbott made pre-K one of his top priorities in 2015. Lawmakers approved millions in grants to help though many districts used it for one-time expenses as the funding wasn’t permanent.

That grant funding wasn’t renewed by lawmakers in 2017. However, they did require that all school districts use 15 percent of the pre-k funds they already receive to meet high-quality standards.

It’s all about money

All three superintendents said their main struggles come down to one thing: money.

Garland struggles to match nearby districts in teacher pay and North Texas is one of the most competitive markets in the state, López said.

Plano Superintendent Sara Bonser said her district will send about $208 million back to the state under the so-called “Robin Hood” provision that relies on property-rich districts helping to help poorer districts.

Meanwhile, Dallas is looking to cut back on celebrated programs that helped turn around struggling schools and even its teacher incentive pay program because funding at the current levels is unsustainable because DISD, too, will be sending millions of its tax revenue dollars back to the state.

DISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa said that’s why the district is seeking a tax ratification election asking voters to approve a 13-cent increase in November, which would give the district another $126 million in funding and raise its maintenance and operating tax rate to $1.17 per $100 in valuation.

“The bottom line is we’re going to do what we have to do,” Hinojosa said. “But is it going to be painful or is it going to be uplifting and exciting and delivering on a promise?”

Just last week, Morath presented the preliminary education budget at a legislative hearing that showed an estimated $3.5 billion drop in state support. That’s based on the anticipated increase of local property values, which make up the majority of public school funding.

The complex school finance system sets target funding for each district so that the more more money schools raise locally, the less the state has to pitch in decreasing its share by an equal amount.

Morath noted that a school finance commission has spent the time since the last legislative session once again looking for a better school finance solution.

“They’re not talking about band-aid changes. They’re talking about significant rewrites,” he said.

But it’s typically taken the courts to spur lawmakers into significant changes, usually after a lawsuit over funding levels. The legislature tried to address school finance in 2017, but the Senate wanted to include voucher-like programs for some students that the House refused to accept.

Last month, the governor met in a closed-door round table discussion with Dallas educators and other stakeholders to seek input on education policies for the upcoming session, which included discussing school finance.

He said then that a school finance rehaul needs more than money; it needs strategy for improvements.

Grading school performance

This year the state rolled out a new A through F academic accountability system that grades school districts on how well they are educating students.

Morath said the data shows that Texas is making progress in turning around low performing schools.

He pointed to Dallas ISD as an example of progress, noting that the district had 60 high performing campuses, more than any other in the state. Those schools would have earned A’s if the new grades had been given to campuses this year; they’re being formally introduced at individual schools next year.

But the number of Texas campuses that failed the state’s standards under the old pass-fail system dropped only slightly from 358 last year to 349 this year. Another 79 schools that received accountability waivers due to Hurricane Harvey would have failed if they were rated this year.

Morath said while testing and accountability are often criticized, they serve a purpose by identifying which schools need more help and resources and which should be copied for their success.

“We do this because it helps kids,” he said.