Will School Funding Take a Beating From a Pandemic-Pressed Budget?
Some of 2019's "Texas Plan" gains are at risk
The last time the Texas Legislature met, it pumped billions of dollars into public schools, providing districts like Austin ISD with some much-needed financial relief. Though some of the "Texas Plan" school finance reforms were permanent (and long overdue), the funding stream was not, and with the Legislature now facing a $1 billion budget shortfall, AISD and other districts fear their gains may be on the chopping block.
The 2019 package, House Bill 3, spread a $6.5 billion boost to public education across increases in basic per-student funding, teacher pay, and funding for prekindergarten programs, as well as recapture relief for districts with the highest property values, who are required to send much of their tax income to the state. Though AISD was one of the bill's biggest beneficiaries, it still gives up more than 40% of its tax revenue to recapture, and it currently faces a $50 million deficit, which will grow if the state docks its funding because of pandemic-induced enrollment declines.
With the Lege under stress both to balance the budget and to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak, a streamlined session may not allow for pressing public education topics to be considered, certainly not to the extent seen in 2019. "There are rumblings that not much is going to happen," state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, told the Chronicle. "I don't understand how that's possible when we're in crisis mode in our public schools. We need to figure out how to remediate most public school kids in the state of Texas."
Hinojosa, former president of the AISD Board of Trustees, said one main issue raised for her by the pandemic is public accountability for the Texas Education Agency and its commissioner, Mike Morath, who currently has broad latitude to make decisions on topics such as testing and funding for remote learning. She has filed a bill that would make Morath's office an elected position, as it is in 13 states.
Other members have filed big K-12 reform bills in the wake of the pandemic, such as measures taking aim at the STAAR and other high-stakes testing; a bill by Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, would enable growth-based assessments that focus on academic progress over time rather than a threshold of academic achievement. In addition, virtual education has drawn attention to the Texans who lack broadband internet: "Remote education has exacerbated the inequities in public education that exist, and we need to do something," Hinojosa said.
Broadband is expected to be an issue with significant bipartisan support this session, as many Texas students will go for at least a year without setting foot in a classroom. Nearly 1 million Texans across the state, including 25,000 households in AISD, lack a high-speed internet connection at home and thus have little or no access to virtual classes. A report by the Governor's Broadband Development Council recommended Texas establish a state broadband office and a plan for statewide access; bills filed by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, would establish a broadband office and grant program and allow the universal service fund (a fee collected on telephone bills that supports low-income access) to support broadband build-out in rural areas