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 on local districts

Dr. Ken Gregorski, Superintendent of Katy ISD, said inflation is crushing the district’s budget.

“Every dollar of inflation that hits our budget is a dollar taken away from what I can do for teacher or staff raises, or a dollar that takes away from students and student programs,” he said.

Gregorski said he believes the inflation rates schools are seeing aren’t transitory—they’re the new normal and are here to stay. Katy ISD is a large, fast-growth district with 94,000 students and 72 school buildings spanning 181 square miles. Operating costs for the district are increasing across the board, from property and health insurance to paper.

This year, the district’s cost for the same property insurance increased by $1.5 million. Additionally, Katy ISD’s three county appraisal districts are raising their costs to school districts by 5%.

“Everyone is just taking inflation and passing it off to school districts, and we can't pass it off to anyone. We just have to pay it,” he said. “So what do we do? It’s really hurting us, and we haven't even scratched the surface on teacher and staff raises.”

Districts in Texas had two choices regarding when to adopt the upcoming school year’s budget: either July 1 or Sept. 1. Katy ISD adopts its budget Sept. 1, so officials have more time to figure out their plan, he said.

At a July 24 board meeting, the school board approved a 3% raise from the midpoint for all Katy ISD employees. The raise will cause the district to adopt a deficit budget for 2023-2024, he said.

With the potential for the Texas Legislature to call special sessions, Gregorski said he hopes legislators resurrect and pass the original version of House Bill 100.

When it was originally introduced, HB 100 included a basic allotment increase of $90 per student and created an adjustment for inflation every two years. It also included language to use enrollment-based funding for public education, versus attendance-based funding.

“I thought it was a good bill,” he said. “If you go check the voting record on that, you'll find out that when that went to the House floor as written, it had bipartisan support. It was a very popular bill, and it really would have helped school districts with new funding, including the basic allotment.”

It’s time to raise the basic allotment

Out of the $33 billion, legislators spent $18 billion on tax relief, while leaving public education pending for special sessions.

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.

Without a basic allotment increase, districts are left without funding for inflation adjustments that affect school staff, property and casualty insurance, instructional materials, and more.

“They haven’t touched the basic allotment since 2019,” Gregorski said. “I always ask this: Do people agree that it costs more to educate a kid today in 2023 than it did in 2019? And everyone knows it does, because of inflation, but we haven’t done anything about that.”

Gregorski said the future of Texas depends on investing in public education, which he hoped the findings from the Teacher Vacancy Task Force would address.

The task force met from March 2022 to February 2023 to find solutions for teacher recruitment and retention issues in Texas. The number one recommendation in the final report was to fund significant increases in teacher and staff compensation.

“We say we want to take care of public education, we put a task force together to take care of teachers, and the legislature came up short, and they didn't do those things,” he said. “The only thing we can do now is [wait for] a special session.”

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.”

Gregorski said he’s not sure what a voucher would do to Katy ISD, but he is sure of one thing: the A-rated district provides unparalleled learning experiences for its students.

“Would you leave all the good things in Katy ISD and all the wonderful experiences we give our kids every day for a half-covered private education? I don't really know,” he said. “I do know this: we grow by thousands of students. People are coming here because the public education we offer is fantastic.”

Impacting the classroom

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.

Gregorski said he would be satisfied with a substantial increase to the basic allotment, and that it should be indexed to account for inflation so school districts can accurately plan for the future.

In addition, he hopes to see the legislature remove the cap from the Fast Growth Allotment. The cap limits how much funding schools can get from the allotment, despite the amount they qualify for.

“It really hurts Katy ISD to keep that artificial cap on the fast growth allotment. Last year, we lost $5 million due to the cap. This year, we lost $12 million,” he said. “It would be like if I told all our teachers they were getting a 10% raise, but then said I would cap it at 2%. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Overall, Gregorski said he wishes the legislature would resurrect and pass the original version of House Bill 100.

“Let's start with that bill, and let's pass it,” he said. “We don't have to add anything to it. Let's just talk about what's in the bill and what's right for public education. You don't have to add the vouchers to that bill.”

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.