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Texas public schools face a 'budget crisis' under Gov. Greg Abbott, teachers and lawmakers say

Gov. Greg Abbott makes an announcement of the formation of a committee to head efforts in semiconductor expansion in Texas Tuesday, March 19, 2024, at University of Texas in Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
Gov. Greg Abbott makes an announcement of the formation of a committee to head efforts in semiconductor expansion in Texas Tuesday, March 19, 2024, at University of Texas in Dallas.

Texas public schools are struggling with layoffs, closures, and cuts to student services caused by severe underfunding, according to a report released this week by the Texas American Federation of Teachers.

The report cited data showing Texas ranked 41st in the nation for per-pupil education funding, and said more than 91% of kids in Texas public schools attended schools that were inadequately funded.

During a Monday conference call with reporters, Texas AFT President Zeph Capo said it was disheartening that calls to increase state funding weren't gaining traction with Gov. Greg Abbott, who wants to create a school voucher program in Texas.

"That is Governor Abbott's handiwork," Capo said. "It's the failed policy of the legislature that's left our schools without funding or without a funding increase since 2019."

The report came out the same day 39 Democrats in the state House of Representatives called on Abbott to hold a special legislative session for increased public education spending.

In a letter posted Monday by Texas Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, the lawmakers pointed to $5 billion appropriated and unspent for public education, and said it was necessary to stave off a "school budget crisis."

"Texas public schools are facing serious budget challenges from inflation, historic underfunding, and unfunded mandates that will drive drastic budget cuts in ISDs across the state," they said in the letter. "These issues arise from the state's failure to improve school funding since 2019."

Abbott responded later on Monday, criticizing the lawmakers for voting against his failed school voucher plan that tied public school funding to education savings accounts.

"As you surely recall, I worked with Representative Brad Buckley during Special Sessions #3 and #4 last year to design a school choice and public school funding package that would have achieved exactly what you seek," Abbott said in his response.

School districts, including those in North Texas, are wary that a school voucher program could mean diverted funds for schools that are already financially strapped.

In his response, Abbott said there were "several reasons" why some public schools face budget shortfalls and listed an end to COVID funding as one reason.

Abbott also called Rosenthal's request to increase the basic allotment funding per student "simply misleading" and said the average funding exceeded the basic allotment of $6,160.

"My commitment to improving public schools is just as resolute as yours," Abbott said in his letter. "To achieve our shared goal, however, it is incumbent upon you to work with your fellow Texas House members to muster the votes to get it passed—something you were unwilling to do last year."

During this year's primary election, Abbott endorsed Republican candidates who ran against incumbent lawmakers who voted against school vouchers — a strategy that seemed to pay off for the governor.

School vouchers could be back on the table during the next legislative session. Last week House Speaker Dade Phelan directed committee leaders to examine school voucher-like programs in other states as part of a list of policy issue priorities for the next session.

During Monday's call, Capo referenced a social media post from Abbott during "Teacher Appreciation Week," and said the comments section gave better insight into what teachers actually wanted.

"Raises. Respect. An end to the political attacks on their profession," he said. "Instead, what he's giving them is a never ending quest for a private school voucher that would endanger the ability of their neighborhood schools to function."

KUT's Becky Fogel contributed to this report.

Copyright 2024 KERA

Megan Cardona