When the coronavirus pandemic abruptly shuttered schools in March, Austin school leaders scrambled to transition learning online but it quickly became clear that thousands of students without access to the internet and a home computer were being left behind.
District leaders dipped into reserves to spend millions of dollars upgrading technology and getting students WiFi access, laptops and other learning devices. Staff prepared and delivered meals to district families to ensure children remained fed while campuses were closed, and the district purchased masks, gloves, face shields and gallons of hand sanitizer for employees.
The scene played out in school systems across Texas.
As the unexpected costs piled up, the boost in public education funding approved by the Legislature last year proved to be a lifeline. But, as lawmakers prepare to write a new two-year budget amid cost-cutting pressures, school district officials in Austin worry that the hard-fought funding gains will be fleeting.
The 2021 legislative session, set to open on Jan. 12, will be focused on issues new and old: policing, health care access, Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic response, abortion, medical marijuana and criminal justice reform, among others.
Austin school officials will be pushing for a continued focus on education, with coronavirus-related challenges expected to last at least through this school year, even with a vaccine on the horizon. Among their priorities:
– Maintain school spending levels set by House Bill 3, which infused an additional $6.5 billion into public education during the current two-year budget.
– Guarantee broadband access to Texas families.
– Pass along to districts the federal funding earmarked for coronavirus pandemic relief.
“COVID was a big part of it,” said Arati Singh, an Austin school board member who served on the district’s legislative committee to create its priority list. “Funding has always been a huge priority for us. It’s pretty much always been our top priority given that we pay so much into recapture. But this year made it more salient for us because our school district has had to pay about $46 million in additional expenses related to COVID. It very well could be more than that.”
Worried about the future of school funding, education advocates point to 2011 cuts as a cautionary tale.
In 2006, the Legislature cut property taxes for homeowners and used new business taxes to boost funding for schools, providing teachers, counselors and nurses with raises and boosting prekindergarten. But after the state’s economy was hit by the Great Recession, the Legislature reduced public education funding by a whooping $5.4 billion. HB 3 restored funding to levels seen before 2011.
“The first and foremost issue right now is going to be what did COVID-19 do to state revenue, what is it going to do to the state budget and does that trickle down to public schools in the form of some sort of reduction similar to what happened in 2011,” said Bob Popinski, policy director with Raise Your Hand Texas, an education policy group.
HB 3 restricted the growth of school property taxes and increased school funding, giving pay bumps for teachers and librarians. As a result of the new law, the Austin district doled out historic pay increases to employees, and a projected $60 million budget hole was reduced to $3 million. But the Legislature did not identify a long-term source of revenue to maintain the property tax relief or the additional money for public schools.
“They need to sustain HB 3, preserve the goals that were set in there and keep that state share of public education, not try to rely on (local) property values again with local districts funding a higher share,” said Jacob Reach, the Austin district’s chief officer of governmental relations and board services.
In previous years, local property tax revenue became an increasing share of school funding as the state reduced the percentage it paid for public education.
But as tax revenue, including from the oil and gas industry, has plunged amid the greater economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, education leaders are bracing for state budget cuts. School leaders fear such reductions could trickle down to their districts.
In addition to the extra costs associated with COVID-19, spotty attendance is expected to soon cut funding to school districts as Texas funds schools based on attendance. Austin district leaders are calling on the state to change that method and to instead fund schools based on enrollment.
The state already has offered aid to school districts, reimbursing for some coronavirus-related expenses, including technology. Gov. Greg Abbott last week said the state will give districts $420 million in federal money to reimburse expenses for WiFi hotspots and laptops to aid students with virtual learning. State officials in May launched Operation Connectivity, which aims to provide learning devices and internet access to thousands of Texas students.
Last week, Education Commissioner Mike Morath told the State Board of Education that the state has spent about $1 billion on devices and WiFi hotspots since the pandemic shuttered schools in the spring and probably made more progress in closing the digital divide in six months than in the last 20 years.
Along with leaders of other big Texas districts, Austin district officials are asking lawmakers to increase access to broadband internet.
“Whatever the state can do to increase that access or encourage that access to make it easier for cities or counties or others to build out their broadband for communities, we think it’s really important, right now especially,” Reach said.
Dovetailing with national protests this summer against police brutality and racism, the Austin district also is supporting legislation addressing disproportionate disciplinary actions against Black and Hispanic students. The Austin district in recent years has made its own reforms, banning expulsions for the youngest students and implementing restorative justice practices, but leaders acknowledge the district still takes disciplinary action against and suspends students of color in greater numbers than their white peers.
“I think it’s really important for our legislative priority to reflect our strategic priority, and this is something we’ve said as a district is important to us,” Singh said. “We have known for a long time in our district that our Black students, our Hispanic students and even our special education students have been overrepresented in suspensions and in other disciplinary actions. It’s not just a problem in AISD, it’s a problem statewide.”
While not listed among its five top priorities, Austin district leaders also joined a chorus of educators calling for changes to state-mandated, high-stakes exams. The Austin district is asking the state to use the tests as a diagnostic tool, and for a second year to not dole out accountability ratings, instead declaring a state of disaster amid the pandemic.
A group of business leaders, education advocates and some superintendents, including Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, Pflugerville Superintendent Doug Killian and Hutto Superintendent Celina Estrada Thomas, asked Morath last week to keep the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness but suspend the academic accountability measures and campus and district ratings.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 68 state lawmakers have asked the Texas Education Agency to call off the exams next spring altogether. Morath earlier this year took such action for the 2020 spring assessments. But he’s been firm about rolling out the exams this school year, saying the state must gather data about how students are faring as learning gaps have been exacerbated by the pandemic. What remains unclear, however, is whether campuses will receive grades under the current A-F system.