TEXAS VIEW: Abbott is to blame for lack of school funding

THE POINT: Public education in Texas is in a shockingly precarious position.

The Texas public education funding system is complicated, inequitable and inadequate. It was surprising, then, for Gov. Greg Abbott, laser-focused on vouchers, to claim public school funding is strong.

This isn’t so. Texas does less with more. Despite enjoying a $33 billion surplus last year, state lawmakers failed to raise the basic allotment for students. It has not been increased since 2019. Not surprisingly, Texas ranks in the bottom 10 states nationally in per-student funding, according to Raise Your Hand Texas.

If public schools were adequately funded, they would not be facing massive shortfalls.

Northside ISD estimates a $90 million to $100 million deficit. North East ISD expects a $39 million deficit. San Antonio ISD is grappling with an anticipated $36 million shortfall and overwhelming HVAC costs, and will soon close 15 schools. South San ISD estimates a $4.8 million deficit. Edgewood ISD estimates a $3.2 million shortfall.

Many other local and state school districts contend with the same reality, yet Abbott has said, “You’ll be shocked to hear this, but it’s not me that’s responsible for this.”

This is a bit of gaslighting on the governor’s part. He has connected additional public school funding to vouchers, even though vouchers will pull funds from public schools as families already attending private schools will collect them.

The reality is that Abbott is the governor of the state. Texas Republicans have had total power for decades. They are responsible for the public education system and consistently fall short in prioritizing it. The list of failures is familiar: underpaid, burned-out teachers; school districts navigating budget deficits; campus closures; program cuts; and underfunded mandates.

One such example is House Bill 3, which requires school districts to have a commissioned peace officer at every campus. While the Legislature increased the school safety allotment in 2023 by 28 cents per student and sent $15,000 to campuses to help districts comply with the mandate, this still does not meet the cost of increased security.

Christina Martinez, president of the San Antonio ISD board, said districts simply can’t keep up with costs.

“In Texas, where inflation has hit upwards of 22% and public education has not seen an increase in state funding in five years, the school district budgeting process is more arduous than usual this time,” she said.

Add to this reality the prospect of school vouchers, which is very much on the ballot in Republican runoff races, and public education in Texas is in a shockingly precarious position.

So, again, even though Abbott has said, “it’s not me that’s responsible for this,” he clearly is.

In a May 13 letter to state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Cypress, Abbott singled out 39 House Democrats who failed to back a bill that contained $6 billion in public school funding. This would be the funding that was tethered to vouchers.

Rosenthal’s response, a letter signed by more than 30 House Democrats, said Abbott’s assertions about why schools are facing deficits are disingenuous, citing the $11,803 funding per student that is much less than the national average of $15,633 per student.

Abbott also points to declining enrollment in public education because “many parents across the state with whom I have visited complain about their growing dissatisfaction with the ideological leanings of education delivered by some public schools.”

But this too rings hollow as rural Republicans have long opposed public school vouchers.

Bob Popinski, Raise Your Hand Texas’ senior director of policy, said many districts have been grappling with double-digit inflation since 2019, the COVID-19 funding cliff (which Abbott did acknowledge in his May letter), enrollment decline and increased unfunded mandates coming out of Austin.

Given the momentum for vouchers, school district leaders are understandably nervous about the 89th Legislature set to begin in January. Lawmakers likely will have a $20 billion budget surplus. Yet that is no guarantee of adequate school funding.

San Antonio Express-News