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

Dr. Jim Chadwell, superintendent of Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD, said this is the hardest school budget he’s worked on during his tenure, even compared to COVID-19 school years, recessions, and budget cuts in the early 2000s.

“This is the worst. Namely, because the state has the money and just refuses to spend it,” he said. “There's not a political will to serve children – that's what it comes down to. [Gov. Abbott and others] hijacked everything for vouchers. It has been made clear that if vouchers are not approved during a special session, there will be no additional funding for school finance.”

Chadwell said Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD is a fast-growth district, spanning 73 square miles with over 23,000 students and growing. The district’s newest elementary school is opening in fall 2023 and its fourth comprehensive high school is now under construction, set to open in 2024.

The district’s Chief Financial Officer Robb Welch said the growing district initially projected a $17 million deficit budget based off of current operating expenses and maintaining its employee base through a cost-of-living adjustment. To reduce the impact, the district went through an operational reduction process and is still projected to use $6-8 million of its fund balance on recurring costs.

Impacting the classroom

The budget adjustments come at a cost: increasing classroom sizes.

“To try to balance that budget, we're going to go back into our staffing ratios and not hire at the level we typically do, despite the enrollment growth levels we're seeing,” Welch said. “We’re going to have more kids per classroom, which is not necessarily the ideal situation for kids or student achievement, but that's the only way to come up with any level of meaningful balance to the budget without state assistance.”

Welch said the larger issue is these budget cuts are only the first stage. If the district doesn’t see additional funding, it will be forced to make programmatic reductions, which will significantly change what the district’s schools are able to do for students.

However, if the $3.9 billion of unallocated funds in Senate Bill 30 were to be put toward school finance, it could take the district out of emergency mode.

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,” Popinski 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.”

Chadwell said he is concerned about the long-term effects of private school vouchers. In the first year, the effect may be negligible, he said, but once the industry is created, it will take off and funnel billions of dollars away from public schools.

“Public schools are the entity that exists for every single child, no matter what the student is experiencing in life, which will not exist in every private school, because that is not their role” he said. “If you destroy public community schools, you destroy the fabric of our communities.”

Chadwell said he supports private schools, and they exist for a reason. However, he doesn’t believe the state should pay for private education. In addition, private schools that take vouchers will be held to state, and potentially federal, requirements.

“The government never gives money without accountability,” he said. “Once private schools take state money, they’ll no longer be exempt from state-mandated protections and will, in essence, become semi-public. Many parents place their children in private schools so their children can have an educational experience that conforms with their interests and values,” he said. “If private schools take vouchers, there is no doubt in my mind that state testing and accountability will follow the child into the private school.”

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.

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.

Chadwell said funding his growing district only gets more difficult as specialized allotments are combined, reduced, and capped. In addition, House Bill 3, passed in 2023, requires every Texas school to have armed security guards.

“Under House Bill 3, our district received $400,000 for safety and security; however, in order to meet the requirement of having an armed guard on every campus, we had to use fund balance to come up with the additional two million dollars to fund that,” he said. “That funding comes from the same budget as instructional needs such as classroom materials and teacher salaries.”

Chadwell said what he hopes to see come out of special sessions is an increase to the basic allotment as well as a way to index the funds to automatically adjust for inflation each year.

“Basic allotment is the way to go. It affects every district the same, and if it automatically adjusts for inflation, you can predict it,” he said. “The problem right now is that we can’t predict the funding we’ll get. We offer teachers contracts in April, and so you’ve already committed 80% of your budget by then. After that, the only way you can reduce your budget is by attrition.”

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.