House Interim Charges Finally Released as School Funding Crisis Looms, Gaining Lawmakers’ Attention 

As students, educators, and school employees across Texas wrap up the 2023-2024 school year, a high-stakes debate is brewing over the pressing challenges facing our public education system and the implications for our schools in the upcoming school year. 

On May 8, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) released interim charges directing House committees to study a range of issues before the 2025 legislative session. For the House Public Education Committee, the charges include examining “educational opportunity” through education savings accounts (i.e. private school vouchers), the increase in uncertified teachers and parental notification thereof, and strategies to improve early literacy and math outcomes. The House Public Education Committee will also monitor the implementation of several bills passed in 2023, including HB 1605 (instructional materials and technology – the “Amplify bill”), HB 2209 (Rural Pathway Excellence Partnership program), and SB 2124 (advanced mathematics program for middle school students). 

The Youth Health and Safety Select Committee is tasked with monitoring the implementation of House Bill 3, the expansive school safety legislation which requires at least one armed security guard on every campus across the state despite only increasing the school safety allotment by $0.28 per student and $15,000 per campus. Many school districts have referred to HB 3 as yet another unfunded mandate imposed on our public schools. The committee will also monitor HB 18, which deals with protecting minors from harmful, deceptive, or unfair trade practices in connection with the use of certain digital services and electronic devices, including the use and transfer of electronic devices to students by public schools. 

Additionally, the Youth Health and Safety Select Committee will evaluate programs and services available to children and families at high risk for involvement with the foster care and juvenile justice systems, focusing on barriers to accessing community-based behavioral health services for children with intense needs. 

The Higher Education Committee is charged with monitoring the implementation of several bills, including SB 17, vague legislation which prohibits diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at public institutions of higher education and has resulted in harmful overcompliance. The committee will also evaluate the alignment of postsecondary success incentives across PK-12 and higher education systems and the collaboration between PK-12, postsecondary education, and the workforce to advance the ‘Building a Talent Strong Texas’ goals outlined by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. 

Glaringly absent, however, were any charges related to resolving the looming school finance crisis many districts are facing due to inadequate funding and unfunded mandates from the state. The charges also fail to address the need for increased compensation for teachers and school employees, who are leaving the profession in droves due to stagnant pay. In fact, teacher turnover has been steadily increasing in recent years, reaching a historic high of 21.4% in the 2022-2023 school year — nearly double the 11.8% teacher turnover rate in 2009-2010 and significantly higher than the 17.7% rate in 2021-2022. 

Equally concerning, the House charges omit several other crucial topics affecting our schools and educators. These include expanding access to affordable childcare for teachers and reining in the lack of transparency and accountability enabled by Districts of Innovation (DOI) – 981 of Texas’s 1,027 public school districts are now DOIs. Our latest report, “Thrive Together: A Vision for Texas Schools, from Pre-K to Post-Doc,” offers research-backed policy solutions on these issues and others that deserve the Texas Legislature’s attention. 

These glaring omissions, as well as the inclusion of private school vouchers that would further drain funds from public schools, show legislators’ misplaced priorities that will leave schools and educators behind. The basic allotment, which is the primary mechanism for funding public education in Texas, has not been increased since 2019 despite rising costs (up to 19% on everything including supplies, utilities, and other school operational expenses) and new unfunded mandates. This has forced a growing number of districts to contemplate drastic budget cuts, layoffs, and school closures in the face of massive budget deficits. 

It is telling that vouchers are completely absent from the Senate’s interim charges. We believe this is a deliberate attempt to shut down public debate on an issue that Senate leadership knows is deeply unpopular with Texans. They are poised to ignore public opinion and ram through a harmful voucher scheme with little regard for the consequences to our public schools. 

The sense of urgency around school funding prompted a group of Democratic state representatives, led by Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston), to send a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott on May 13 regarding the budget crisis facing Texas public schools. The letter states that schools are confronting serious challenges stemming from inflation, historic underfunding, and unfunded mandates from the state, which are poised to drive drastic budget cuts in school districts across Texas. 

Rosenthal’s letter asked Abbott to immediately call a special session to pass an education funding package that effectively addresses these issues, emphasizing that the Texas Constitution calls for the Texas Legislature to provide suitable funding for neighborhood public schools. 

The letter points out that the state currently has $5 billion appropriated and unspent for public education in the budget, which includes $500 million to implement vouchers and $4.5 billion for additional school funding and raises which was held hostage for universal voucher legislation, plus a projected surplus of $18 billion that is expected to grow to $21.3 billion by the next legislative session. Given these available resources, the representatives urge bringing the Texas Legislature back to Austin to fulfill their constitutional duty and adequately fund our public schools before students return in the fall. 

Abbott argued in response that Rep. Rosenthal and the other Democratic signatories were responsible for killing HB 1 during the 2023 special sessions, a bill that would have provided additional school funding along with a private school voucher program. In reality, it was House Public Education Chairman Brad Buckley (R-Killeen), at Gov. Abbott’s behest, who killed his bill after a bipartisan House majority voted to strip out the unpopular voucher scheme. 

The governor asserted that several factors are contributing to public school budget shortfalls, including the expiration of one-time federal COVID recovery funds and declining enrollment, which he baselessly attributed to parent “dissatisfaction with the ideological leanings” of some public schools. While acknowledging the current $6,160 basic allotment, Abbott falsely claimed that average per-student funding “exceeds $12,000.” He suggested there will be an “opportunity to reconsider this legislation in the next regular session” in 2025, but did not make any specific commitments to address the current funding crisis and implied that public education advocates should expect for school funding to continue being held hostage for universal voucher legislation in an omnibus bill like HB 1. 

Rosenthal countered that the governor’s assertions regarding the causes of school budget shortfalls were “disingenuous.” He argued that the “actual root cause” is the lack of an increase to the basic allotment since 2019, despite inflation and unfunded mandates. Rosenthal pointed out that the governor misleadingly claimed average per-student funding “exceeds $12,000,” but the actual funding per student in Texas is $11,803, which is woefully inadequate compared to the current national average of $15,633. 

Furthermore, Rosenthal noted that the governor’s admission of not having the votes to pass vouchers shows the bipartisan objective of increasing public school funding should not be held hostage to force unpopular school vouchers. He asserted that the governor’s suggestion that declining enrollment is due to parental dissatisfaction with the ‘ideological leanings’ of some schools is unfounded. Instead, he suggested that not having adequate funding and the constant political attacks undermining public education in Texas have probably had more impact on enrollment. 

As the debate continues, Texas students, parents and educators will be closely watching to see if state leaders take meaningful action to ensure public schools have the resources and staff to provide a high-quality education to every child. Waiting until 2025 to address these critical needs is unacceptable when there are billions of dollars appropriated for additional school funding and raises in the budget for the current biennium. The future of Texas depends on getting this right.