Education finance stalemate leaves Fort Worth-area school leaders worried

A lack of movement on a school finance proposal in the Texas Legislature is leaving Fort Worth area school leaders increasingly frustrated.

Since the beginning of the year, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said that boosting school funding and raising teacher pay are critical priorities. But education finance issues have become tied up in the legislative stalemate over school vouchers.

After seeing lawmakers fail to reach a deal last week, school leaders in Tarrant County and across Texas say the lack of a school funding bill places their districts in a precarious financial position.

“I kept hoping that the adults would step up and take care of the kids, and obviously, that didn’t happen,” said John Allison, interim superintendent of the Keller Independent School District.

Voucher proposal is key priority for Gov. Abbott

Education savings accounts, a school voucher-like plan that would give families public money to pay for educational expenses like private school tuition or homeschool costs, have represented a key legislative priority for Gov. Greg Abbott this year. But the proposal faces roadblocks in the state House of Representatives, where Democrats and some Republicans say such a plan would harm public school districts.

Earlier this month, Abbott called lawmakers back to Austin for a fourth special session to take up the voucher proposal, among other issues. Senators approved a voucher plan as a part of a larger education spending package that also included money to boost teacher pay and raise the amount that school districts receive per student. The measure passed out of the House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment, but when it reached the House floor, lawmakers voted to remove the voucher proposal from the bill, leaving the rest of it intact.

Abbott has pledged to veto any school funding package that doesn’t include money for education savings accounts, meaning the bill is all but dead. The bill’s author, Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, sent the bill back to committee after Friday’s vote. Buckley told the Texas Tribune he doesn’t plan to hold another committee hearing on the bill.

Pay raises could keep teachers in the classroom

Steven Poole, executive director of the United Educators Association, said he was frustrated to see lawmakers fail to find a way to boost funding to public schools and provide a pay raise to teachers, especially at a time when the state is sitting on a budget surplus.

Those pay raises would have gone a long way toward keeping teachers on the job, Poole said. Since the pandemic, districts across the state have struggled to recruit enough educators to fill their classrooms. One factor causing teachers to leave the profession is low pay compared to other industries, Poole said — 20 years ago, school districts only needed to stay competitive with other districts in their areas. Now, he said, they have to compete with the private sector, as well.

Even so, Poole said he was pleased to see House members strip the ESA language out of the bill. Teachers organizations have lobbied hard against vouchers, contending that they will drain money from public schools at a time when they’re already underfunded.

“If it was such a good idea, the governor should have a standalone bill,” Poole said. “But he knows it won’t pass, so that’s why he coupled school finance and teacher pay raises to vouchers.”

Patrick blames anti-voucher reps for funding holdup

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blamed House Democrats, as well as the 21 House Republicans who voted to remove the voucher provision from the bill, for holding up teacher pay raises and new money for public schools. In a statement released Tuesday, Patrick said those lawmakers were denying parents the right to choose where to send their kids to school. He also noted that the proposed voucher program amounts to a small fraction of what the state spends on public education overall.

Patrick pointed out that many of the lawmakers who voted against the voucher provision either went to private schools themselves, or sent their children or grandchildren to private schools.

“Now, they are denying that right to their constituents,” he said. “If every House Republican or Democrat who has used private schools voted for school choice, it may have passed.”

Keller ISD faces budget cuts, interim chief says

Allison said the lack of new funding leaves Keller ISD and other school districts across the state “in a real hole.” Even if it had passed, the proposed funding bump was less than half of what districts need to keep up with inflation, he said. Without that new money, he expects the district will need to cut somewhere between $25 million and $30 million from its budget for the 2024-25 school year.

Complicating matters further is the fact that the last round of federal COVID relief money expires in September. For Keller ISD, that total amounts to about $3 million, which the district put toward tutoring, intervention programs and support software designed to close learning gaps created by school shutdowns. District officials knew that was one-time money, so they didn’t use much of it for ongoing expenses like salaries, Allison said. Still, when the money expires, district leaders will need to figure out which of those programs they can continue to pay for. The lack of a state education funding bill will make that process all the more complicated and painful, Allison said.

It’s still possible that lawmakers could come up with more funding for public schools before the end of the year. The current special session began Nov. 7, and can last up to 30 days. It’s unclear whether Abbott would call a fifth special session if lawmakers don’t reach a deal. In any case, Allison isn’t optimistic.

“I’d like to think that something would be possible,” he said. “But when we’re sitting on historical fund balances at a state level, and we went through the regular session and four special sessions and we couldn’t come up with a penny for public schools, that is a sad statement and doesn’t make me very hopeful.”