The Legislature should fully fund public education as determined by educators

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Illustration by M. Scott Byers
If the Legislature has to raise revenue to meet student needs, raise it. Our children’s future is at stake.

This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman. Reprinted with permission.

Let’s look at public education’s tumultuous year of 2020 through the eyes of a child. Imagine yourself as a sixth grader summoned to a Zoom-moderated school assembly where local, state and federal leaders will discuss how you will be taught in the middle of a pandemic.

One leader says, “Open schools now!” Another answers, reasonably, “We need to first make schools safe for teachers, staff and students.” One local superintendent says masks will not be required. State leaders spend federal relief dollars to substitute for budgeted state funds to schools instead of providing additional funds to cover revenue gaps and safety needs.

Remember, you are watching this through the eyes of a sixth grader, perhaps your own daughter or son. You blink your eyes hard and slap your cheek. This must be a bad dream, but it’s not. Looking at the goldfish swimming in the bowl on the desk in your bedroom, you say to the fish, “I wish you had room for me in there, because it’s not safe out here.”

Okay, look again with the eyes of an adult. In 2019, the Texas Legislature put an additional $6 billion into the 2020-2021 public education budget with no idea how to fund those increases in future years. In fact, because of the pandemic and economic downturn, it doesn’t appear the state has the money to fully fund the increases in 2020 or 2021.

School districts could lose even more revenue since their state funding is based on attendance, and in the pandemic attendance is down while expenses are up, as schools grapple with health precautions, broadband access for home learning and poverty that’s left many kids without devices to hook into broadband if they had it.

As state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, and several members of the Democratic House Caucus have pointed out recently, Gov. Greg Abbott is holding on to $2 billion to $3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds. The state is seeking to extend a Dec. 30 deadline that would require Texas to return the money to the federal government if it is not spent.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if Abbott had publicly discussed plans for those funds? The money could be spent on a variety of urgent state needs. Why the mystery?

Will Abbott and the Republican leadership once again try to use the federal relief money to cover losses in state revenue instead of using it to provide for the urgent and unexpected needs of Texans still suffering through the pandemic?

The failure to deliver quality education to Texas children year after year is hard to overcome. Most kids shortchanged in the early grades will struggle in future years.

In 2021, the Legislature should fully fund the needs of public education as identified by educators. If it has to raise revenue to meet those needs, raise it. Our children’s future is at stake.

The Legislature should increase state funding to cover any school district losses due to enrollment confusion in the pandemic. It should close all gaps in the availability of broadband. It should make all its deliberations public, and all data involved accessible to the public.

Viewed through the eyes of a child, nothing short of this will do.