Lawmakers report to the state Capitol on Jan. 12 for the start of the 2021 Texas legislative session. They have a difficult road ahead of them to determine the state’s biannual budget amid revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic. And a major part of that budget is public education.
During the 2019 session, lawmakers passed House Bill 3 – a major overhaul of the state’s education finance system that allowed for teacher raises and more money per student. This year, a Democratic state representative from San Antonio, Diego Bernal, says lawmakers will have to figure out how to continue that work despite the difficult financial circumstances. He told Texas Standard that lawmakers have to do more this year than just maintain the status quo.
“You’ve got this tremendous deficit we’re going to be dealing with. And so you’re pulled in two directions: one is you want to avoid cuts,” Bernal said. “And two, even if you just kept things the way they are, it’s, that sort of ignores or is agnostic to the new sort of current COVID-19-caused expenses.”
Why the Texas Education Agency should continue its “hold harmless” policy:
The policy ensured normal state funding to Texas schools for the first 18 weeks of this school year. But after that, schools are funded based on attendance, which has dropped for many because of the pandemic and remote learning. Bernal says losing that funding would be “financially devastating,” and that the TEA can extend the policy but just hasn’t yet.
“Especially right after right after Christmas break, and New Year’s, you’re going to see a tremendous drop and even fluctuation in attendance. And that’s going to affect their funding tremendously. … This is a much more expensive and sort of unknown way of doing schooling right now because some are virtual, some are in person. I think parents are going to be going back and forth. And so continuing hold harmless makes the most sense.”
Why educators should appeal to state leaders to get the policy extended:
“It’s important that principals, teachers [and] superintendents reach out both to the representatives and their state senators, but also directly, saying, ‘You need to understand what this looks like to us if we don’t get it.’ … It’s not just sort of [a] random, amorphous policy; it has real consequences for people, with real consequences for children.”
What to expect for education funding during the 2021 session:
The Legislature passed an overhaul of the school finance system in 2019. But this year, because of all of the financial challenges related to the pandemic, Bernal says lawmakers will have to make tough decisions if they want to continue bolstering public education.
“I think we have to just buckle down and say we’re not going to cut public ed. We have to figure out how to shore them up, figure out how to give them more of what they need and really address what they deserve. And that might mean having tough conversations about revenue. But those conversations are ones we needed to have, whether there was a pandemic or not.“
Why the education system needs a plan for recovery:
Bernal’s own preschool-aged daughter is learning remotely. Despite considering her teacher a “superhero,” he says the arrangement isn’t ideal, for his daughter or anyone. He’s worried about remote learning’s long-term effects on students, and says Texas needs a plan to help them bounce back.
“Give districts the flexibility to do more to catch up. But that also means that they need the resources. … I think that we need a plan for recovery on top of maintaining the status quo. And that’s why just saying ‘no cuts’ isn’t enough.”
He’s somewhat wary about returning to the Capitol:
Besides having to follow COVID-19 precautions, which Bernal says the Texas Capitol could have more of, the recent storming of the U.S. Capitol has also left him feeling “uneasy.” He says any member of the public who is a licensed firearm carrier can bring their weapon into the building.
“I don’t want to be alarmist, but I have to admit that given the environment, it makes me sort of uneasy that … people with agendas, people who view what happened very differently than I did, that they could just walk into the capitol as we’re about to get started.”