School districts across the state have incurred substantially increased costs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s expensive to implement extensive virtual learning systems and enhanced safety protocols. At the same time, many districts have experienced significant declines in student enrollment and attendance this school year as parents, students, and educators grapple with the pandemic. Schools, which are funded based on daily attendance numbers, were saved from funding cuts during the first half of this school year by a “hold harmless” provision. The provision, put in place by the Texas Education Agency at Gov. Greg Abbott’s direction, allowed districts to base their funding on either prior-year or current-year attendance numbers, whichever was greater.
Unfortunately, the hold harmless provision expired at the end of the first semester. ATPE and other educator, administrator, and third-party advocacy groups, as well as more than 80 legislators, have requested the governor extend the hold harmless funding protection through the end of the 2020-21 school year. As of this magazine’s press date, such an extension had not yet been granted.
Extending the hold harmless provision is only the first step needed to provide critical resources to students and educators. However, the hold harmless provision alone would not adequately cover the increased coronavirus-related expenses many districts face, including the costs of maintaining a safe school environment and providing digital devices and content to remote learners. That’s why ATPE is requesting the Legislature provide funding to cover the increased costs districts have incurred and will continue to incur during the previous and current school year.
Looking beyond the current school year, legislators must also maintain the education funding commitments they made in 2019 with the passage of House Bill 3, as well as provide additional funding if they expect schools to realistically address the significant learning gaps that are a byproduct of the pandemic.
Although the current and future challenges educators face to mitigate and repair the damage caused by COVID-19 are daunting, the resources to meet these challenges are available if the Legislature and state leaders choose to dedicate dollars to the task. The current budget shortfall and projected future budget shortfall are, thankfully, minimal (likely in the $1 billion–$5 billion range), whereas the state’s access to emergency funding is substantial.
First, the Economic Stabilization Fund, often referred to as the state’s “rainy day fund,” is projected to contain $11 billion by the end of the next budget cycle if left unused. Second, the state has received, or is due to receive, more than $7 billion in federal relief funding earmarked for public education based on legislation already passed by Congress. This figure does not include any future relief bills or additional dollars not dedicated to public education that Texas has received through existing federal relief legislation.
The need to provide resources for students and educators has never been greater. ATPE has made public education funding our top legislative priority this year in the hope that we can preserve the funding gains and equity enhancements achieved through last session’s House Bill 3 and overcome the ongoing challenges presented by COVID-19.
To keep up with the latest news in Texas public education, visit ATPE’s advocacy website TeachtheVote.org.