With the beginning of the second semester, it remains unclear whether Texas public schools will be fully funded as they were in the fall of 2020. Several public school advocacy groups, superintendents, business leaders, and Texas legislators have asked the Texas Commissioner of Education, Mike Morath, to hold schools harmless from student attendance losses due to COVID-19 and fund them at 100% attendance for the remaining 18 weeks of the 2020-2021 school year.
According to Rep. Steve Allison, “An extended Hold Harmless would allow school districts the stability and security to ensure that they can fulfill the commitments planned for in their budgets.”
A Hold Harmless for only half of the school year does not preclude the likelihood that both operational and educational cuts will need to be considered before the end of the school year. While the Texas Education Agency (TEA) told Allison and the other legislators that they are working on the issue, no decision has been made at this time.
With the decision still to be made, some are left to wonder whether the state is trying to save money by withholding full funding for our public schools. The costs to school districts may be both direct and indirect. Julia Grizzard, the Executive Director of the Bexar County Education Coalition—a group of 17 school districts in the San Antonio area—says those districts will lose money right away.
“If Hold Harmless provisions were to expire,” Grizzard says, “Bexar County area districts would lose approximately $85,000,000 over the Spring semester alone. Districts in our region, like many across the state, have seen significant student enrollment drops and ongoing attendance issues as families make difficult decisions about the safety of their young one during a global pandemic. Losing millions of dollars in funding while our students, families, and schools have greater needs would be catastrophic.”
Approximately 75% of school districts are reporting attendance losses across Texas. TEA currently estimates statewide student attendance losses at 156,596. According to reporters Ted Oberg and Sarah Rafique, if the state does not hold districts harmless for this reduction in attendance, it would amount to a second semester loss of more than $872 million in funding.
This loss would lead to a two-fold impact on school districts. First, staffing and other decisions would have to be made that would likely result in a shortage of teachers when students do return to school in the Fall of 2021. If and when attendance increases (likely later this year), schools will have to hire a slate of new teachers using diminished state funding in that semester as they are based on the legislative planning estimates for districts that are determined by attendance numbers from the spring.
While most districts would likely receive “settle up” money for the decrease at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, it would require districts to use local funding to make up the gap, possibly causing severe district funding shortages in both the spring and fall semesters in 2021. Determining the exact amount that districts would be short in state funding is difficult because we don’t know how many kids will return in the Fall, but it could be substantial.
With so much hanging in the balance, a variety of groups seem to be united in wanting the Commissioner to decide to provide full funding for Texas public school districts for the second semester of the current school year. A robust public education system is paramount when considering the welfare of the state. The needs of our Texas families are important. To decline to meet these needs of children and their families is a poor decision. Let’s encourage those responsible for this decision to do the right thing and fund our Texas public schools appropriately during this global pandemic.