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Austin ISD officials say focus on vouchers has overshadowed needs of Texas public schools

Austin ISD students walk up the stairs of Kealing Middle School.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Officials with the largest school district in Central Texas — Austin ISD — say the focus on school vouchers during this legislative session has come at the expense of other priorities.

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A bill the Texas House overwhelmingly approved last month sought to infuse $4.5 billion into the state's public education system. But when the bill got a hearing in the Senate Education Committee this week, there was a major change: It included school vouchers.

The Senate version of House Bill 100, proposed by Republican Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, would give families $8,000 in taxpayer money to pay for private school and tutoring. Creighton had earlier introduced a voucher bill in the Senate, but it died in the Texas House Public Education Committee.

Creighton and other supporters, including Gov. Greg Abbott, say vouchers give families the opportunity to get the education that is best for their kids. And despite the high price tag, they claim vouchers won’t hurt public school funding.

The director of intergovernmental relations and policy oversight at Austin ISD said she wasn't surprised Senate Republicans added vouchers into the public education funding bill.

"I’m disappointed that the Legislature has not done more for public education in the face of a $33 billion surplus,” Edna Butts said.

Austin ISD estimates it would lose $6.2 million in state funding if 1,000 students left the district to use a school voucher.

"It feels like our schools and the future of our teacher workforce is being held hostage by a very small number of people who support this voucher language," said Daphne Hoffacker, the advocacy chair for the Austin Council of PTAs.

A drop in the bucket

The Senate’s version of HB 100 had another important change: It increased what's known as the basic allotment — the minimum amount the state must spend per student — by only $50. The House bill increased it by $90 in the first year and then by at least $50 in the second year with some adjustment for inflation.

Austin ISD School Board Trustee Lynn Boswell said that's a drop in the bucket when it comes to the district’s budget. The basic allotment has been $6,160 since 2019. School districts have been advocating for a more than $900 increase to keep up with inflation.

"Fifty dollars per student in the basic allotment in Austin ISD is about $3.6 million,” she said. “That doesn’t go very far in a district with 73,000 students. It doesn’t meet the needs that we know we have.”

Any increase to the basic allotment also triggers a raise for teachers. But again, Boswell said the amount included in the Senate version of HB 100 just isn’t enough.

“The idea that $50 per student even begins to be enough to make sure there’s a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, to make sure our students are getting what they need, not just in Austin and across the state, $50 is just simply not going to do it,” she said.

Hoffacker said it no longer feels like HB 100 is an honest attempt to help public schools.

“It feels like we’re being asked to make a deal with the devil to provide minimal funding that is completely not up to the huge need that we have in our public schools,” she said.

Next steps

After the Texas Senate Education Committee advanced the new version of HB 100, the entire Senate voted to approve it 18 to 13, with one Republican joining Democrats in voting against the measure.

The Texas House, which largely opposes school vouchers, refused on Thursday to agree to the Senate's changes to HB 100. State representatives opted instead to form a conference committee where they'll try to work out their differences with senators. All but one of the five House members on the conference committee are Republicans. Among them are King, HB 100's author, and the House Public Education Committee Chair Brad Buckley.

HB 100 is likely the last chance public schools have to see an increase in the basic allotment this session. As The Texas Tribune reports, a deal the House and Senate struck on the state's next two-year budget does not raise the allotment.

“What the state is choosing by choosing not to make up for inflation, by choosing not to increase our basic allotment, is to force districts into increasingly hard choices about what will be cut, what can’t be done for students,” Boswell said.

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