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Five public education issues stand out during Texas’ 88th legislative session

Gabriel C. Pérez

Texas lawmakers return to Austin this week for the start of a new legislative session. It will be the first one since the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, and it will be the second regular session since the COVID-19 pandemic caused major disruptions in education.

Public education advocates have a wish list of issues they’d like the Legislature to prioritize. Topping that list is increasing state funding for public schools to help, among other things, raise teacher salaries after tens of thousands of educators have left their jobs.

Democratic lawmakers, including two from Austin, are seeking a major change to the state’s school finance system which would increase funding for public education. Meanwhile, Republican state leaders, like Gov. Greg Abbott, have voiced support for school choice, which would allow families to use taxpayer dollars to send kids to nonpublic schools.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Monday the Legislature is heading into the new session with an estimated budget surplus of $32.7 billion.

Teacher retention and recruitment

The teacher shortage in Texas is top of mind for state lawmakers and public education advocates. A poll released last year by the Charles Butt Foundation found 77% of Texas teachers seriously considered leaving the field. That figure was 58% just a few years ago in 2020.

Teachers are not just thinking about leaving the classroom; they’re actually doing it. After the 2021-2022 school year, 42,839 teachers left their jobs, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. That’s up from the previous school year when 33,949 teachers resigned.

“Different teachers quit for different reasons, but we’re finding from talking to our members, the major reasons are economic and a lack of respect from the state leadership,” said Clay Robison, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association.

When it comes to economic issues, Robison pointed to teacher salaries that lag behind the national average and stagnant pensions from the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. He said that during the last fiscal year, TRS retirees averaged a pension of $2,174 per month and many cannot afford to live on that.

“They have not had a cost of living adjustment in many years,” he said. “So, a cost of living adjustment as well as teacher pay raises and more funding overall for public education will be among our major priorities this year.”

Robison said if lawmakers do not invest in public education or improve salaries as well as retirement benefits, more teachers will continue to leave the field.

A Teacher Vacancy Task Force, which Abbott directed the TEA to launch, is expected to share its recommendations with lawmakers in February. The state agency added more teachers to the task force last spring after facing criticism for only including two.

School finance

Democratic state Rep. Gina Hinojosa has witnessed the impact of teacher vacancies firsthand. She said there was not a teacher for her son's fifth grade class at an Austin ISD school, so instead the students were divided up between two other classes that did have teachers.

Hinojosa, who used to be president of the Austin ISD school board, said families all over Texas are having similar experiences. She said one way to stem the tide of teacher departures is to increase state funding for public schools.

To do that, she wants Texas to fund schools based on enrollment. Currently, Texas is one of just six states in the U.S. that funds schools based on attendance. What this means is that if kids miss school, districts lose money. Hinojosa said the attendance-based system is especially hard on districts that need state resources the most.

“Schools with higher poverty levels often have higher absences because of all sorts of issues associated with poverty. Kids in special education often have higher rates of absences,” she said. “So what it ends up doing is punishing those schools that have a higher percentage of kids in poverty, have a higher percentage of kids in special education.”

Hinojosa has filed House Bill 31 to switch Texas to an enrollment-based funding system. She filed a similar bill during the 2021 legislative session that did not make it out of committee.

“Last session I drafted and filed this bill not thinking it would get very far because it was kind of late in the game, and I’m a Democrat and it’s harder for us to pass bills, and it also has a large price tag on it to fully fund our schools,” she said. “But right away I had Republican members come to me and say my superintendent wants me to support this bill.”

Hinojosa said this time around she expects her bill to have more bipartisan support. Other Democrats have also filed bills this session seeking to fund public schools based on enrollment. But Hinojosa said any effort to significantly increase public education funding could face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature.

“Our state leadership has not weighed in with a plan or any public indication to do something to help our schools that are in crisis right now,” she said. “I believe it’s going to take a real push from the public this legislative session.”

The last time the legislature overhauled the school finance system was before the pandemic in 2019 with House Bill 3. One of the major changes the legislation made was increasing per student funding, known as the basic allotment, from $5,140 to $6,160. Several Democratic lawmakers, including Austin state Rep. Donna Howard, have filed legislation to adjust the basic allotment to reflect inflation.

Dax Gonzalez, with the Texas Association of School Boards, said his group plans to back increases to the basic allotment.

“The basic allotment is really lagging behind where a lot of school leaders think it should be,” he said.

Gov. Abbott signed HB 3 at a Pflugerville ISD elementary school that the district is now considering closing citing insufficient state funding.

School choice

Abbott and fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have expressed support for legislation that would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their kids to private school. Both have argued that giving families options will not hurt public schools.

“We can support school choice and, at the same time, create the best public education system in America. These issues are not in conflict with each other,” Patrick said in a statement last May.

But public education advocates plan to fight this type of legislation tooth and nail. Gonzalez said school board members throughout the state are against it.

“Any mechanism that diverts public tax dollars to private institutions for the sake of education is not really supported — they’re dead set against it,” he said.

Gonzalez said many school board members think school-choice programs, such as vouchers, undermine the state’s public education system.

“They see the move of public funds away from those public institutions as something that strikes at the core of what a public school is and what public education is here in Texas,” he said. “It is really personal for a lot of school board members.”

Gonzalez added that normally school-choice measures face more opposition in the Texas House than in the Texas Senate, which the lieutenant governor presides over.

School safety

When lawmakers reconvene at the Texas Capitol, it will mark the first legislative session since a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. Abbott resisted calls for a special session in the aftermath of the mass shooting to raise the age for purchasing an assault-style rifle in Texas. Robison, with the Texas State Teachers Association, said the group will continue to advocate for that change.

“We’ll never really have as much security as we think we could have if the state refuses to enact reasonable gun reform laws,” he said. “And raising the minimum age for buying an assault rifle from 18 to 21 should be a no-brainer for anyone.”

Abbott has argued raising the age for purchasing an assault rifle would be unconstitutional. He did direct the Texas House and Senate to form special committees to make recommendations on school safety, firearm safety, policing training, social media and mental health during the 88th legislative session.

Robison said he wants to see more mental health resources in schools. Gonzalez also said mental health resources are a big priority for school board members. He said when he talked with trustees across the state, the initial focus was on student mental health.

"And not 20 seconds into the conversation they would start talking about, 'Well, we need to include staff too because they're going through a lot of issues right now also,'" he said.

Library book censorship

State lawmakers have already filed a couple of bills that would restrict which materials students can access in school libraries.

One measure, filed by Republican state Rep. Tom Oliverson, would require publishers to include specific age ratings for books sold to public schools. Oliverson told ABC-affiliate KTRK that he got the idea for the bill from the TV content-rating system.

"We're talking about a system we use for television, we use for film. People are very familiar with it. It works," he said. "This is not piling books in the corner and setting them on fire. This is not banning all books of a particular subject or relating to a particular group or demographic."

But Texas Library Association Executive Director Shirley Robinson said the legislation is concerning and could have unintended consequences.

“We know that librarians are trained to work with educators, specifically in school libraries, to place books for readers in the libraries so that there’s open access for students to be able to read at their particular reading level, which varies widely,” she said.

A measure that state Rep. Harold Dutton has filed would prohibit school districts from removing materials from the school library catalog. But the Houston Democrat’s bill would let the district, parents and school staff come up with a procedure for creating a restricted access list of library materials that students would need parental consent to get a hold of.

A report from PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for free expression, found 22 Texas school districts banned hundreds of books from school libraries during the last school year. Most bans target books with content on race and racism, abortion and LGBTQ+ issues. Robinson said this type of censorship hurts students who need to see themselves reflected in books and prevents librarians from serving their communities.

“When librarians’ ability to do that is taken away it’s a slap against their profession and their training,” she said.

Texans will see whether these or other education issues gain traction at the Capitol over the next five months. The 88th Texas legislative session get underway Tuesday and is set to end May 29.

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Becky Fogel is the editor and producer of statewide newscasts for the Texas Newsroom. She previously worked for the shows Texas Standard and Science Friday. She got her start in radio at KWBU-FM in Waco.