Despite a record-breaking $33 billion-dollar budget surplus, the 88th Texas Legislative Session concluded in a dead end for critical public education issues.

As it stands, Texas teachers remain underpaid, the basic allotment did not increase, and special sessions hold the threat of private school vouchers. Local school districts are facing a number of issues during this period of historic inflation with no additional funding from the state.

Bob Popinski, Senior Director of Policy at Raise Your Hand Texas, said the lack of state funding is putting superintendents and school board officials in a financial bind, causing districts to dip into their fund balances and adopt deficit budgets as they struggle to pay teachers’ salaries among a number of other inflated costs.

“Our schools are in dire need of funding,” he said. “With double-digit inflation and 77% of teachers considering leaving the profession, we need to focus on the 5.4 million kids and nearly 400,000 teachers and get that right first.”

The damage to local districts

In Leander ISD, Superintendent Bruce Gearing said the district has planned for inflation on material items, but funding cost-of-living increases for teachers and school staff is nearly impossible.

“We're trying as best we can to keep up with meaningful compensation packages that make sense for our employees, but that's very challenging,” he said. “We’re a human capacity organization...the people are the most important thing. Retaining and recruiting the best for our children and our communities is what's most important to us, and that's what's becoming very difficult.”

Gearing said he and the Leander ISD Board of Trustees had to be extremely conservative while building the 2023-2024 budget. They didn’t take any chances on what the legislature might do and only allocated funding they were certain the district would get.

However, they built two caveats into the compensation plan in the event legislators pass additional funding for public schools.

The first is the ability to make a one-time payment for employees, should the funds become available at a later date. The second is a clause that allows the district to make a permanent adjustment to salaries and compensation. If the legislature does something significant regarding funding after Leander ISD’s budget is already approved, the clause will allow the district to give employees an additional percentage raise retroactively.

Why public education priorities didn’t pass

Throughout the session, the caveat for including private school vouchers in public education bills became a way to derail the passage of public school priorities.

Even with clear evidence that many legislators and Texas residents did not support Education Savings Accounts or private school vouchers, legislative leadership continued to push the unpopular policy.

Popinski said Raise Your Hand Texas believes vouchers are bad policy for the state of Texas, and that public education funding should be kept separate from the debate about the merits of a voucher program.

“Vouchers don’t help student achievement, and they take away funding from public schools,” he said. ”If you think you need to use a voucher as a bargaining chip for funding our schools, then you may not have a great public policy for education.”

Gearing said he’s concerned about the long-term effects of Education Savings Accounts and other private school vouchers.

“Having looked at the research from all the other states that have implemented voucher programs, it all starts small,” he said. “But once it starts, it grows rapidly over time and creates issues within both private and public education systems with little to no benefit to the majority of the students. In my opinion, removing public education dollars from public education to private education is a mistake and should be avoided at all costs.”

Impacting the classroom

Out of the $33 billion, legislators spent $18 billion on tax relief, while leaving public education pending for special sessions. Popinski said property tax relief and property taxes are linked to school funding.

“You’re going to see a number out there that says the Texas Legislature is now funding our schools at a record high right over 50%, but that does not mean that per-student funding increased—it just means that they're offsetting property tax reduction through the school funding formulas,” Popinksi said.

What parents need to know is that there has been no inflation adjustment to the revenue schools had in 2019, he said.

In Texas, the basic allotment has not increased since 2019. In addition, the state ranks in the bottom 10 nationwide for per-student funding, coming in at $4,000 under the national average.

Gearing said the district is trying everything in its power to protect the classroom and are putting all of its resources toward funding on-the-ground positions to ensure campuses have what they need. However, this means some curricular support positions, such as instructional coaches, interventionists, and administrative support staff, are suffering.

“The less support there is for our classroom teachers, the more difficult their jobs become, and the more difficult their jobs become, the greater the exit from public education,” he said.

Gearing said supporting school staff has been an ongoing issue since the onset of COVID-19, and is now being exacerbated by the lack of support from the legislative session.

It's time to raise the basic allotment

Popinksi said the easiest way legislators can help the most schools is raising the basic allotment by $1,000. This increase in foundational per-student funding can address rising inflation, fund teacher pay raises, and reduce recapture, in one funding solution.

Gearing said he hopes to see the basic allotment increase, but also believes legislators need to keep up with specialized allotments, such as the Small and Mid-sized District Allotment, and the Fast Growth Allotment.

“Raising the basic allotment is certainly the easiest and fairest way to do it,” he said. “But specialized allotments are extremely important because they deal with very specific issues. If you don't pay attention to them and don't keep up with them, I think you will run into longer term problems down the line that you can't see right now.”

How to stay involved and impact change

State leadership has indicated that a special session will be held to look at vouchers, school funding, assessment and accountability reform, and potentially other education issues.

To learn more about how state policy is affecting local districts, sign up receive information from Raise Your Hand Texas through various avenues:To stay looped in on the education issues impacting local communities, follow Raise Your Hand Texas on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

The above story was produced by Summer El-Shahawy with Community Impact's Storytelling team with information solely provided by the local business as part of their "sponsored content" purchase through our advertising team.