School Funding in the Texas Legislature: Vouchers, Property Taxes, & Your Paycheck

Education Round Rock President Tammy Conrad speaks Monday at an early-morning press conference on voucher bill SB 8 with Texas AFT and allies. Watch on Facebook Live. 

There is a little over a week left in the 88th Texas Legislature, and once again, our elected officials are on a path to underfund public education. There are a number of moving parts here, though fortunately, there may be fewer with the likely death of the Legislature’s primary voucher bill. 

Here is where things stand in relation to funding our schools. 

Voucher Threats

Let’s start with some good news. Oddly enough, that means talking about vouchers. 

After House Public Education Committee Chairman Brad Buckley’s attempt to vote out a private school voucher bill was rejected by the members of the Texas House last week, the chairman quickly moved to set the voucher bill for a hearing this Monday. While this hearing was open to public view, the public was not allowed to make their voices heard during the hearing; only invited witnesses were allowed to testify. 

Nevertheless, dozens of public education supporters crowded into the committee room, and Texas AFT and public education allies read the testimony they weren’t invited to give to members of the press before the hearing.

The voucher bill Buckley brought up for consideration, Senate Bill 8 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), has evolved several times over the past few weeks. 

While the original version of the bill would have provided an $8,000 voucher to those who leave the public school system or are enrolling in pre-K or kindergarten for the first time, the version debated Monday was significantly slimmed down.

The substitute bill limited eligibility to students who are receiving special education services or who are currently attending an F-rated campus. Siblings of those eligible students would have been eligible under the committee substitute as well. The latest version also would have required those students using the voucher to take state assessments, as they would have in a public school. 

Speaking of testing, the revised bill would have presented a major overhaul of the statewide assessment system. The existing assessment graduation requirements would have been eliminated, but the trade-off would have actually been more required testing, especially in lower grades. Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA)’s analysis of the new SB 8 noted students would be subjected to a whopping 48 standardized tests, instead of the current 20. 

Despite the hurried nature of the bill’s rollout, those facts doomed it, with both voucher advocates and public education allies unified in opposition. Before Monday’s committee hearing, Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to veto the bill if it arrived at his desk. Educators and parents, meanwhile, sent an astounding 76,000 letters to committee members and flooded their phone lines in opposition. 

The committee did not vote on the bill Monday. Committee members did not vote on it Tuesday, during their regularly scheduled meeting. They did not even vote on it at a third meeting called Thursday. Given that — and with a deadline for House committees to pass out Senate bills by this Saturday — SB 8 is effectively dead. 

While the voucher threat isn’t completely extinguished for the session (and the governor has already floated the idea of a special session on the subject), the path to privatizing and defunding our public schools in the 88th Legislature has gotten significantly harder. 

School Finance & Pay Raise Bills

Several bills have circulated between both chambers this session, addressing various aspects of school finance and employee pay raises. 

Though there are some positive aspects to each, none of them go far enough to address the staffing and funding crises in our public schools. 

House Bill 100 is the most comprehensive school finance bill to gain traction this session. As a reminder, HB 100 would raise the basic allotment that funds public schools by $90 per student in FY 24, and another $50 in FY 25. While a basic allotment increase is desperately needed, a $140 increase over the upcoming biennium pales in comparison to the $1,000 increase needed just to keep pace with inflation

That basic allotment increase would come with an automatic raise for teachers and school support staff (after you spoke up and made sure support staff were included). Though, again, because of the minimal increase to the basic allotment, that raise would amount to no more than $80 per month in the upcoming school year — a drop in the bucket of what’s actually needed

That bill was passed by the House several weeks ago, but it has yet to be heard by the Senate Education Committee. 

The Senate’s version of a pay raise, Senate Bill 9 (pertaining to educator rights, certification, and compensation), has no increase to the basic allotment and offers only a one-time bonus, available solely to classroom teachers. However, when this bill was heard in House Public Education, that committee swapped in its version of the teacher bill, HB 11, keeping some of the good parts of SB 9, but not the bonus pay. That said, there was much to like in this bill. Though the committee voted it out in time, the fact that it hasn’t yet appeared on the House floor calendar means the bill is effectively dead. 

With the fate of these bills uncertain, as well as the final deal on property taxes (more on that below), the status of the state’s record-breaking budget also remains unresolved. Many of the items in HB 1, the state budget, are tied to funding different bills, several of which are still being negotiated. The House and Senate have allocated funding in very different ways, so a conference committee of legislators has been assigned to resolve those discrepancies. Funding amounts for major proposals like school finance, property taxes, and a TRS COLA — which collectively take up billions of dollars of funding — are all outstanding. 

While major issues within the state budget are still unresolved, this past week, the HB 1 conference committee revealed a bit more of what the final version of the budget will look like. 

One substantive issue that appears to be resolved in the conference documents published by the committee shows that the final version of the state budget would reduce TRS ActiveCare funding in the House version of the state budget to the lower levels outlined in the Senate version of the budget. At these lower levels, TRS ActiveCare premium increases will be capped at 10%, whereas under the House version of the budget, premium increases would have been capped at 5%. The issue of how much of a basic allotment increase school districts will receive in the final budget is still unresolved. 

Property Tax Proposals

There has been a tremendous amount of discussion (but little agreement) on another state priority for this legislative session: property tax relief. While the Senate declined to even give the House proposal a committee hearing, the House just passed a heavily amended version of the Senate proposal which leadership hopes will serve as a compromise property tax plan, or at least as the starting point for negotiations between the chambers. 

For our purposes, we’re most concerned with fact-checking an erroneous selling point of the Legislature’s proposal: that property tax relief will somehow benefit public schools. 

The Texas House has passed its version of Senate Bill 3 and Senate Joint Resolution 3, which would together use state taxpayer dollars to further compress local school district property tax rates, cap the appraised value of property, and increase homestead exemptions. In the description Speaker Dade Phelan has circulated, he claims the House’s package would “inject billions of new dollars into the state’s public education system.” 

Fact check: false. 

Despite claims that tax compression and a homestead exemption will infuse our public education system with $15.5 billion in new funding, the reality is that this proposal results in no new dollars for public schools. 

Why? As our friends at Every Texan explain, while new state funding may be sent to school districts through this plan, they are merely replacing local property tax funding — not adding to it. It’s a like-for-like switch, not a new investment. 

As we have said before, two things can be true: the state can be paying more for public education than ever before while still adding no additional funding to our classrooms. 

Think of the funding allotted for your school district as a bucket. Local dollars go in first, and then the state fills up the rest if your district isn’t able to fill the bucket on its own with property tax revenue. 

With tax compression and SB 3, there will be fewer local dollars to fill the bucket, so the state has to put in more. The size of the bucket doesn’t change; the only thing that changes is where the money comes from.

Where That Leaves Us

Neither the House nor the Senate budget proposals contain adequate funding for public education, and the major school finance and school employee compensation bills appear as if they could die in the final days of the session altogether. Meanwhile, the long-overdue cost-of-living adjustment for retired educators is inadequate compared to the actual cost of living. 

This session, the Texas Legislature has prioritized spending the historic surplus on property tax relief while setting aside meager amounts for a public education system that is 39th in the nation for per-student funding. 

In short, the Legislature seems content to leave current and retired teachers and school staff with crumbs.

Here are two things to do this weekend to make your voice heard: 

  1. Call your representative: Our state surplus is larger than the entire budget of 24 states. The Legislature should not be content with just a $90 increase to the basic allotment when it would take a $1,000 increase just to keep up with inflation. Your representative should be advocating for your priorities.  
  2. Write the budget negotiators and state leadership: There are 10 legislators finalizing the state budget. They need to hear from us about prioritizing public education, and so do Speaker Phelan, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Gov. Abbott.