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Texas Legislature did not prioritize schools, families this session, Children at Risk says

 Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Children head into Benbrook Elementary for the first day of school on Aug. 23, 2021. HISD is requiring masks for all students and staff, and limited virtual learning, but some parents are still worried.
Lucio Vasquez
Houston Public Media
Children head into Benbrook Elementary for the first day of school on Aug. 23, 2021. HISD is requiring masks for all students and staff, and limited virtual learning, but some parents are still worried.

Despite increased costs due to inflation, the Texas Legislature did not use a portion of its historic surplus of $33 billion to increase funding to public education this session. Public school advocates from around the state are calling it a "failure."

House Bill 100, which would increase the basic funding allotment per student in the state, was amended during the legislative session to include a provision for education savings accounts, which would allow parents to use taxpayer funds for private school tuition as well as other education-related expenses. It was seen by many as a last-ditch attempt to pass a school voucher-like program in the state this session, which Gov. Greg Abbott indicated was a priority of his.

After legislators failed to reach a compromise, the bill ultimately died without being passed, leaving many public education advocates ambivalent. While no taxpayer dollars would be diverted from the public school system, funding to the system itself would not increase.

“This is really a failure, you know, to do what our state, our students and our families need, which is fund our public education systems," said Paige Duggins-Clay, the chief legal analyst for the Intercultural Development Research Association, a non-profit focused on public education advocacy.

“It’s not just that we are facing a historic teacher workforce shortage and that the needs of our students are greater than ever. The cost of running a school is greater now, almost than any other time before, because of inflation," said Duggins-Clay.

The Texas Legislature has not raised the basic allotment, the minimum amount the state must spend per student, since 2019, when it was raised from $5,140 per student to $6,160. Since then, inflation has increased by 17 percent, while the basic allotment has remained the same.

With the state's unprecedented surplus coming into the 88th legislative session, advocates hoped the allotment might finally be increased.

"There are so many possibilities for children when you look at that," said Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of Children at Risk, an education advocacy nonprofit. "And what a missed opportunity when we don't pay attention to our kids in regard to that surplus that could have really changed lives."

Instead, the legislature cut the Foundation School Program, the main source of funding for Texas school districts, by $3 billion.

Advocates also said the legislature missed an opportunity by not investing in mental health resources for students.

Texas ranked last of all 50 states in terms of children's access to mental health services in 2022, according to nonprofit Mental Health America. Currently, 98 percent of Texas counties are considered "mental health professional shortage areas" by the federal government.

"One of the things that was very clear after Uvalde was that we need more mental health funding in our state," said Sanborn. "We did not see any new money coming in for mental health for our children [this session]."

Advocates did applaud several bills passed this session with bipartisan support.

For example, several expressed support for the passage of the Texas CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hair type and style.

"We know that hair discrimination has been an unnecessary burden that polices the identity of people of color," said Sharon Watkins Jones, chief equity officer for Children at Risk. "Black women and girls are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from school or work because of their hairstyle, so the passage of the CROWN Act is a win for us."

They also applauded legislation that will expand access to school safety training to other community organizations.

In general, however, the sentiment among public education advocates from around the state is that this legislative session was a missed opportunity to expand funding for Texas schools.

"As we look at the legislative session as a whole, we saw a lot of our state legislators not paying attention to the needs of many of our kids," said Sanborn. "If I were grading our state legislature based on their performance and what they did for children and families, even with grade inflation, I would give them a D plus, maybe a D minus."