Educators across Texas have faced a year like no other. Yet, each day they continue to step up for children under challenging, unprecedented circumstances. Many do so while also caring for their own children, parents, loved ones and communities. Educators have seen first-hand how a lack of technology and, in some cases, preparation, threatens our ability to address the educational needs of children and the challenges associated with a public health crisis.
Educators have bravely responded to a “call to action” this year, and have stepped up for Texas children. Now, we’re asking state lawmakers to do the same.
Article 7 of the Texas Constitution spells out a clear directive for the Texas Legislature regarding education. “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” Similarly, Sam Houston once stated boldly, “The benefits of education and of useful knowledge, generally diffused through a community, are essential to the preservation of a free government.”
These sentiments are now more important than ever before. Our state lawmakers have convened in Austin for the 87th legislative session, and funding our children’s future must remain their top priority.
As lawmakers enter the first month of session, looming on many minds around 1100 Congress Avenue is how they will make up a projected budget shortfall. Typically, state revenue cuts to education, while shifting the burden of funding education to local property taxes, has been the strategy used to balance the state budget. It would be easy for lawmakers to look at education, the state’s largest budget line item, as an area to cut. Doing so would have detrimental consequence for Texas’ children and families, and they deserve better. A concerted effort to support education and not lose ground on the progress made to date must be in the forefront of every legislators’ mind as they walk into the statehouse this session.
There is some good news. In the summer of 2020, State Comptroller Glenn Hegar estimated a $4.6 billion shortfall. His current estimate suggests the state is less than $1 billion short of its necessary expenses. This estimate does not include the cost-cutting measures taken by state agencies this summer at the direction of Governor Abbott. It also excludes $5 billion in federal relief funds earmarked for education in Texas that was signed in December. We hope lawmakers use this federal support to supplement, not supplant existing educational priorities. Across the past 9 years, as a result of rising property values, the share of local revenues (your property taxes) supporting education has grown considerably from $19.4 billion in 2012 to $31.4 billion in 2019 (as projected by the Legislative Budget Board, Fiscal Size Up, p. 210). The burden of educating our students has increasingly shifted to local governments and citizens in the form of property taxes; 5% to 6% increases in some cases since 2012. Lawmakers took bold steps to curb what some called “runaway taxes” with House Bill 3. Now, lawmakers have the opportunity to shore up the state’s portion of funding for education. The momentum gained from HB 3 should not be derailed by COVID-19. Like many districts, Montgomery ISD is poised to do great things. Collectively, our School Board has adopted a legislative platform for the first time in the history of the district. Our Board supports – at a minimum – maintaining current levels of school funding established in HB 3, providing for the long term stability of the Foundation School Program funding formulas, and refining Texas’ system of recapture (a.k.a. “Robin Hood”). We also support developing an innovative, research-based approach to understanding the real costs of educating today’s young Texans. And, we offer our guidance and support to lawmakers as they grapple with how to assess student learning and learning loss during the pandemic and how to support mental health needs of our students.
As a “District of Innovation”, Montgomery ISD supports local control and enhancements to our students’ experiences that empower them to thrive under any conditions, in any year. We see our work as a partnership between parents, educators, our Board, and elected officials. We’re asking anyone that shares these concerns to join us in the conversation and to share your opinions with us and with other elected officials. Our children deserve our greatest collaboration in this regard.
Our state elected officials have considerable work to do this session. But if they get this right, they will set the futures of many on a higher trajectory. Please join me in praying for wisdom, courage, and safety for them, their families, and the staff members in the weeks to come.
In the latter years of his life, Sam Houston’s wish for his son was one we all share for our children. "It is a matter of great satisfaction to me to hope that my children will be in circumstances to receive a good education. Mine was defective and I feel the inconvenience, if not the misfortune of not receiving a classical education. Knowledge is the food of genius, and my son, let no opportunity escape you to treasure up knowledge.” Lawmakers have a tremendous opportunity to support educators and our youth. Their actions in the 87th Legislative session will have ramifications for years to come. Will Texas face a future of opportunity and treasure or inconvenience and misfortune?
Matthew Fuller, Ph.D. serves as the President of the Montgomery ISD Board of Trustees. Fuller is an Associate Professor of educational leadership at Sam Houston State University.