Legislative committees explore public education funding, hear financial health of pension and healthcare funds

Education Commissioner Mike Morath testifies before the Senate Finance Committee.

Two key committees for the Texas state budget—the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee—met this week, and while lawmakers continued to express support for investment in public education and the gains made last session, many questions still remain unanswered for how far that support will go in meeting the needs of our students weathering the storm of the pandemic. 

Texas AFT submitted a letter in coalition with other teacher groups to both committees to explain the immediate and long-term investments needed. We asked for:

  • Supplemental appropriations be used immediately to reimburse districts 100% for COVID-19 expenses.
  • A “hold-harmless” so that districts will not lose funding due to unforeseen drops in enrollment because of the pandemic.
  • An increase in the state contribution toward active employee health insurance to address the affordability crisis for school employees.
  • Enhanced formula funding to improve special education services. 
  • Fair compensation for all educators.

On the Senate side, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) brought up the need for increased compensation for educators and referred attention to the letter. “If we don’t have those teachers” West explained, “our whole infrastructure is going to crumble.” 

Committee Chair Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) discussed the Legislature’s investment into HB 3 (the school finance bill from 2019). She also acknowledged that “within a year” educators were “forced to totally transform the way they were doing things and we thank them.” She continued by saying that “we have learned there is no substitute for in-person learning” for both educational needs and their mental health. 

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath testified to the House Committee that he is working on an answer on hold harmless in the coming weeks and knows districts are under pressure to plan their budgets. When questioned by several lawmakers on the need for STAAR this year, Morath continued to insist that the data generated for even a small sample of students will be of benefit to warrant moving forward with testing this year. 

Regarding available state revenue, Comptroller Glen Hagar stressed to the House Committee that more data is still needed to truly know where the state budget stands, although the outlook is much rosier than it was a few short months ago when the state was facing a $4.6 billion shortfall. Now that number is estimated to be under $1 billion. As a result, the current budget recommendations don’t include cuts to the base education budget, and there was general consensus from the committee that the gains made in HB3 last session should be maintained.  

The House committee also heard from the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Executive Director Brian Guthrie, who outlined how funding appropriated during the last session set TRS up to be actuarially sound and ahead of schedule on its path to full funding. And for the first time in a decade, retiree healthcare does not need a supplemental appropriation to stay solvent. Guthrie confirmed that the pension fund now meets the state’s constitutional requirement of giving a cost-of-living increase to retirees, but noted that it would be up to the Legislature to decided if enough revenue is being generated for the increase.