Fact Check: Is everyone except Gov. Abbott to blame for public schools’ budget crises?

As the 2023-2024 academic year comes to a close, Texas public schools find themselves struggling with severe budget deficits that are jeopardizing their ability to deliver high-quality education to the state’s 5.5 million public school students.

In recent remarks quoted on Twitter/X, Gov. Greg Abbott sought to distance himself from this crisis as he faces an increasing amount of criticism from across the state and on both sides of the aisle, claiming, “You’ll be shocked to hear this, but it’s not me that’s responsible for this.”

However, a deeper analysis reveals that Abbott’s attempt to sidestep responsibility is a deliberate distortion of reality. The truth is the governor was primarily responsible for the failure to pass additional school funding during the 88th Texas Legislature due to his insistence that any funding increase be tied to a universal voucher program that would ultimately siphon resources away from public schools. Abbott threatened to veto any school funding bill that did not include vouchers and even refused to add school funding to the call for a special session until after vouchers were passed, though he caved, out of desperation, in the fourth special session in a failed attempt to sway public education stakeholders trying to save their starving schools.

“Lawmakers are not easily fooled. This is a small increase in school funding. It’s a fraction of a fraction of what we need. Lawmakers know that a voucher scam is going to ultimately take more money out of our schools than it ever puts in. So, no, lawmakers won’t fall for this cheap bribe,” Rep. James Talarico (D-Austin) told the Texas Observer at the time.

This stance effectively held public school funding hostage to the governor’s voucher agenda, which would disproportionately benefit a small number of students already attending private school at the expense of most Texas children who rely on public education. Throughout the 88th legislative session, legislators were afraid to draw the governor’s ire and have a target painted on their backs by the billionaire “voucher vultures” funding the astroturf privatization movement. Even lawmakers who were previously thought to support public education and oppose vouchers urged stakeholders not to question the governor’s resolve on the issue, instead pushing them to get with the program and make a deal.

On May 13, Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston), along with more than 30 Democratic colleagues, sent a letter imploring Abbott to convene a special session to tackle the looming school funding crisis head-on. The letter outlined the perfect storm of challenges facing districts across the state: chronic underfunding, soaring costs, and a slew of unfunded mandates handed down by the state with little to no financial support.

Calls for School Funding Special Session Earn Abbott’s Rebuke

Rosenthal noted that Texas is currently sitting on billions in unspent funds and projected budget surpluses that could provide desperately needed relief to struggling schools. In fact, $5 billion was appropriated for public education funding but unspent in the 88th legislative session: $4.5 billion for additional school funding and educator raises and $500 million for implementing vouchers. The state had a historic $32.7 billion surplus in 2023 and is expected to have a $21.3 billion surplus heading into the 89th legislative session in 2025.

In his response, Abbott argued that Rosenthal and the letter’s signatories were responsible for the demise of House Bill 1 – which offered a modest funding boost, one-time bonuses for teachers (leaving out other school employees), and STAAR testing reform tied to vouchers – during the fourth special session in 2023. Yet in reality, it was House Public Education Chairman Brad Buckley (R-Killeen) who killed his own legislation in anticipation of Abbott’s veto threat after a bipartisan House majority voted to strip out the controversial voucher scheme.

While acknowledging declining enrollment and expiring temporary COVID-19 federal aid as contributing factors to district’ staggering budget deficits, Abbott made the baseless claim that enrollment drops are being driven by many parents’ “growing dissatisfaction with the ideological leanings of education provided by some public schools.” This assertion is not supported by any evidence and is simply a politically motivated talking point.

It is true that many districts are experiencing declining enrollment, which is contributing to their budget deficits due to struggles meeting fixed costs, but districts that are experiencing increasing enrollment, such as Crowley ISD, are facing budget deficits as well. Also, while it is true that many school districts turned to federal aid to help meet their operational costs, they only did so as a means of coping with the state’s historic underfunding of public education.

Abbott further claimed that average per-student funding in Texas exceeds $12,000 and dismissed the economic impact of failing to increase the basic allotment, but as you will read below, that is not true.

What This Means for the 89th Legislature

Perhaps most disturbing is the strong implication in Abbott’s letter that additional school funding will once again be held hostage for universal vouchers in an omnibus bill during the next legislative session in 2025, just as it was with the ill-fated HB 1. This is a troubling indication that the governor intends to continue prioritizing his divisive voucher agenda over the urgent needs of public schools and the students they serve, and that he feels emboldened by the recent electoral defeats of several rural Republicans who joined the bipartisan coalition that defeated vouchers in 2023. Several more anti-voucher Republican lawmakers are facing threats in primary election runoffs; Election Day for those races is this Tuesday, May 28.

In a forceful rebuttal, Rosenthal called Abbott’s assertions “disingenuous” and stressed that the primary cause of the current school funding crisis is the state’s failure to raise the basic allotment for schools since 2019, despite rising costs and growing student needs. He argued that there is no excuse for ransoming the bipartisan goal of increasing funding for public education to the governor’s voucher demands, stating that, “Increasing public school funding should not be held hostage to force unpopular school vouchers,” and pushed back on his claims regarding parents’ “dissatisfaction with the ideological leanings” of some public schools driving decreasing enrollment. Instead, Rosenthal suggested that “not having adequate funding and the constant political attacks undermining Public Education in Texas probably have had more impact on enrollment.” Rosenthal also noted in his response that the state actually spends just $11,803 per pupil, significantly below the national average of $15,633.

“The basic allotment is kind of the first chunk of clay you start with, and the finance formula shapes that pot for different school districts,” Talarico explained to KHOU 11. “By not increasing the basic allotment, by not starting out with a bigger chunk of clay, school districts across the state are not getting the school funding they need to serve the students that we are asking them to serve.”

The real-world consequences of this legislative inaction and political gamesmanship are nothing short of devastating for schools and students across Texas. As Texas AFT President Zeph Capo recently stated in our union’s new report on our vision of a thriving public education system, “Our public schools are already struggling to survive. Every layoff, every school closure, every student service cut – that’s Gov. Abbott’s handiwork. It’s the failed policy of a Legislature that’s left our schools without any funding increase since 2019. What we’re seeing is Abbott’s Elementary.”

Headlines from ‘Abbott’s Elementary’

With inflation rates approaching 20% and unfunded mandates like HB 3‘s requirement for armed guards on every campus piling up, school districts statewide are being forced to contemplate draconian cuts, mass layoffs, and even campus closures. A few stark examples:

Click here to show your support for funding our public schools by sending a letter to Gov. Abbott demanding that he take emergency action and release the $4.5 billion in unspent funds allocated for public education by the Texas Legislature to address public schools’ budget crises.

Abbott’s blame-shifting and the threatening implications of his response to Rosenthal offer little comfort or reassurance to school districts facing these immediate and existential budget threats. The education of Texas children is far too important to be left in limbo or treated as a political bargaining chip.

Rather than dodging blame and responsibility, Abbott and state leaders must act decisively to tap into the state’s existing unspent education funds and its historic surplus to ensure that all public schools have the resources they need to deliver the high-quality education that every Texas student deserves. It’s time for real leadership and real solutions, not more political games and empty promises.