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Central Texas school districts call on state lawmakers to increase funding for public education

A group of people stand behind a podium.
Becky Fogel
/
KUT
Thrall ISD Superintendent Tommy Hooker speaks during a news conference Monday during which school district officials called on state lawmakers to increase per student funding.

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School districts across Central Texas — from Austin and Del Valle to Dripping Springs and Thrall — are unifying around one message: State lawmakers need to invest a lot more money in public education before the legislative session ends. At a news conference Monday, district officials, school board members, parents and educators from nearly a dozen districts said the proposed increases are falling short.

Thrall ISD Superintendent Tommy Hooker said it is time for the governor and other elected officials to step up and show their commitment to the state’s more than five million public school students.

“You can do this by raising the basic allotment by $1,000 per student, is my recommendation, across the state,” he said.

The basic allotment is the minimum amount the state must spend per student in Texas. The last time lawmakers increased the basic allotment was 2019, when they raised it from $5,140 to $6,160. District officials point out that, since then, inflation has risen about 17% while per student funding has remained stagnant.

“As a result, many districts in our very own Central Texas region are being forced to cut back on essential programs, services, consider school closures, and adopt deficit budgets just to provide students with the education that they deserve,” Hutto ISD Trustee James Matlock said.

Austin ISD administrators announced last week they were recommending a compensation package for the 2023-2024 school year that is expected to lead to a budget deficit. The proposed raises, including 7% salary increases for teachers and counselors, could result in a $54 million budget deficit.

Austin ISD Chief Financial Officer Ed Ramos said increasing the basic allotment by $900 or $1,000 would cost the state about $14.5 billion.

“They are looking at a $32 billion [budget] surplus, so we are really hoping that they invest a big portion of that surplus in education,” he said.

Proposed increases fall short

The Texas House and Senate are proposing state budgets that include $7.4 billion for public eduction, but school district officials say that's not enough.

House members also passed legislation last week that would, among other things, make modest increases to the basic allotment. State Rep. Ken King, R-Hemphill, is the author of House Bill 100, which will infuse $4.5 billion into public education.

King’s measure increases the basic allotment by $90 in the first year and at least $50 in the next year, with some adjustment for inflation going forward. Any step to take inflation into account when determining how much to increase the basic allotment is a step in the right direction, according to Chandra Villanueva, director of policy and advocacy at Every Texan, a left-leaning think tank.

“It's something that we need built into our school finance formulas and something that can be built on in the future,” she said. “But with the basic allotment increases being so low at the beginning, it's still going to take us a long time to catch up from where we are today and where we should be today.”

Villanueva said raising the basic allotment is the single most important thing that state lawmakers can do to increase funding for public schools.

“Putting money through the basic allotment is just sort of the cleanest and easiest and most impactful way to actually impact a school's budget and give them the flexibility to invest in teacher salaries and also for support staff and other personnel,” she said.

Villanueva said that failing to increase the basic allotment to keep up with inflation essentially amounts to a funding cut for public schools because per student funding is not worth what it was four years ago. She also said lawmakers, who are working with a nearly $33 billion budget surplus, have the money to significantly increase the basic allotment but they’re spending that on other things, such as property tax cuts. The Texas House and Senate have each proposed about $17 billion in property tax relief.

“This is no longer an issue of do we have the money, but where do we want to spend the money?" she said. "And nobody in leadership is willing to reduce those $17 billion tax cuts to fund our kids."

It ain’t over till it’s over

School districts and public education advocates hope they can convince the Republican-controlled Legislature to go big on the basic allotment.

Austin ISD teacher Kari Johnston has seen the impact of the rising cost of living firsthand, and she said it is driving people away from the profession. She was named AISD’s 2022 Elementary Teacher of the Year and has received other accolades for her work.

“When teachers leave it is heartbreaking. I’m a lifelong educator. This is who I am, and I do not want to quit my job,” she said. “But, I would be lying if I told you that I had not considered other paths. I would be lying if I said that I am not overburdened and underpaid.”

She said, right now, the Texas Legislature is choosing not to make major investments in public education, despite having the resources to do so.

“They are making the wrong choice, but great news: There’s still time for the Legislature to make a better choice, to make the right choice, to increase the basic allotment substantially,” she said.

The 88th Texas legislative session is set to end on May 29. And, while the Texas House passed HB 100, state senators would still need to pass the bill in order for it to advance to the governor.

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Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at rfogel@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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