By Brian Woods
Texas School Alliance President Brian Woods wrote this article for the San Antonio Express-News, where it was published on July 22, 2022.
A teacher in Somerset ISD works with students in 2021. How can Texas be sitting on a sizable surplus — including within the Foundation School Program, the primary source of state funding for schools — as districts are experiencing shortfalls in the tens of millions of dollars?
A teacher in Somerset ISD workds with students in 2021. How can Texas be sitting on a sizable surplus — including within the Foundation School Program, the primary source of state funding for schools — as districts are experiencing shortfalls in the tens of millions of dollars?
Can our state have a budget surplus at the same time its public schools are underfunded?
Though troubling, the answer is “yes.”
While school districts across the state are grappling with difficult decisions due to budget deficits, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar estimates that an extra $27 billion in state funds will be available when the Legislature convenes in January.
How can Texas be sitting on a sizable surplus — including within the Foundation School Program, the primary source of state funding for schools — as districts are experiencing shortfalls in the tens of millions of dollars?
A few key factors have contributed to this situation.
First and foremost is declining enrollment. During the 2019 legislative session, the state appropriated funds that would be sufficient for covering stable, if not slightly growing, enrollment. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has diminished attendance and enrollment for various health and societal reasons.
As most can imagine, the cost of running a school does not decline in a linear fashion for each child that leaves it. Schools have fixed costs. Operating a class with 21 students costs essentially the same as a class with 22 students. We should not diminish the quality of education for remaining students when enrollment fluctuates, but because of a faulty funding mechanism, we risk doing that.
Additionally, though the state recently agreed to assist schools with lost funding due to lower-than-expected attendance rates, this assistance only applies to four out of six attendance reporting periods for the 2021-22 school year. Considering schools are funded based on
average daily attendance, this still leaves districts with a massive loss for a third of the school year.
You may recall that states received federal funding to address the ongoing impact of the pandemic via the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, grant program. These are one-time funds that expire in two years. With this funding cliff in mind, school districts had to grapple with how to effectively use the money, knowing that any newly developed programs would likely be unsustainable after 2024.
Also noteworthy is that the state used a substantial portion of ESSER money to cover its own funding obligations rather than sending it directly to schools. Funds that school districts did receive are being spent on things such as heating, ventilation and air-conditioning upgrades, summer school, tutoring, after-school programming, expanded pre-K, mental health services, instructional materials and additional support staff. The need for these and other targeted pandemic recovery efforts will not end when ESSER grants expire. We need to be thoughtful about moving forward to continue providing the support our students deserve.
In response to the comptroller’s revised revenue estimate, Gov. Greg Abbott said we can “expect a very large property tax cut coming out of this next legislative session.” While the need for property tax relief is real and undeniable, so too is the need to properly fund our public schools.
As inflation soars, the main funding allotment for schools remains stagnant as it includes no inflationary adjustment and does not reflect the actual cost of educating a child. Additionally, the school safety allotment provides $9.72 per student — an amount utterly insufficient to secure our schools, meaning school districts are left to make up the difference on their own with local taxes and the sale of voter approved bonds.
As ideas circulate on how to use surplus state funds, we ask you to encourage your elected representatives to prioritize public education and increase the basic allotment and school safety allotment. Doing these two things will improve student safety, teacher pay and the overall educational experience for all public school students.
The difficulties we have experienced over the past two years have made it abundantly clear that having a safe and stable education system is critical for our society. Properly resourcing our public schools is not a trivial matter. Few sectors have a reach as broad and make an impact as consequential as public education. School finance is complex, involving state and federal funds, property taxes and bonds, but our mission is simple: to ensure all Texas children have access to a quality education. We must invest appropriately to realize this mission and enable all students to achieve their potential.
Our budgets reflect our values, and we call on state leadership to properly support that which we value most — our children.
Brian Woods is superintendent of Northside Independent School District and president of the Texas School Alliance.