This article was originally published on Dallas News powered by the Dallas Morning News here.

The good news for Texas public schools is that some gaps in opportunities and achievement are closing in public schools but unfortunately not nearly fast enough to ensure that all kids have the ability to succeed in life, education experts said in Dallas on Monday.

The state needs to invest in early childhood education, quality teachers and other programs to ensure that students get the skills they need to go on to college or pursue careers, they said at a daylong conference. But that’s complicated by the fact that more and more families are facing financial hardships and the government resources available to bolster public schools are limited.

“Education is having to run harder and harder just to stand still,” said Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank.

A policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute recently raised the question in an op-ed piece of whether or not a “public good” is served by public schools, saying they aren’t producing the results desired.

Leaders from across the nation and state gathered at the daylong education conference at Southern Methodist University called ElevatEd. The conference highlighted successful programs in the state and promoted discussions on how Texas could ensure that schools remain a public good — if they are at all.

But if education isn’t a public good, then what is? asked Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University.

She told educators, politicians and business leaders that even if a child grows up in a challenging household where families are faced with daily traumas, quality schools can make all the difference in his life.

“That environment can light a fire and overturn the worst possible circumstances. What is not a public good about that?” Simmons said.

But education needs public support and investments to work, the leaders said.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said the single most important priority is making sure kids have quality teachers. That means doing more to train, recruit and retain educators. He referenced the need for legislation that would provide the best-performing teachers in the state with significant raises, a plan similar to one implemented in Dallas ISD.

Too often the best and brightest are discouraged from becoming teachers because the profession has been devalued, Morath said. But the job is as hard as neurosurgery — though the pay is at least one comma off, he added.

“Our teachers walk into operating rooms every day and are — in fact — operating on 20 brains simultaneously. And of course, those brains are not asleep,” Morath said.

The education leaders discussed how income gaps remain the most critical factor in determining how well kids do in the future. Those living in poverty are more likely to have underqualified teachers and less likely to graduate from college.

But where should money be spent when funding is so limited? Could free college for all push society forward just as high schools did when they were made available to the public at large?

Morath noted that the rapid expansion of early college high schools in Texas means that more kids are on track toward earning associate’s degrees along with their diplomas, making them more marketable for jobs and better prepared for college.

Harvard University’s Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy, said investing in pre-K for all would be a better use of funds. Researchers have long found that quality early childhood education can do more to help lagging children catch up with their peers than any other intervention later in life because so much brain development happens in the early years.

“Most of the hurdles are not at the college gates,” Putnam said. “They’re happening much earlier in life.”

The ElevatEd discussions were sponsored by the Holdsworth Center, which was founded by grocery magnate Charles Butt with a $100 million donation aimed at training principals and superintendents. Much of the day also centered on how to help those running schools.

“Leadership is often the blind spot in education,” said keynote speaker Andreas Schleicher, a noted statistician and education researcher at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris.

He told the crowd at the nearly full auditorium that good leaders can ensure that the focus is on quality and not quantity, particularly in a way that allows teachers to be innovative.

For example, Schleicher said in some countries where teachers spend less time on instruction, more learning gets done than in countries where a lot of time is spent on instruction with very little result. His data was based on survey and test results done as part of the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. He oversees that international test that focuses on how well 15-year-olds do in certain areas, such as math and literacy.

“The quality of education can never exceed the quality of teaching,” he said. “And the quality of teaching can never exceed the quality of the leadership that you have around you.”