Budget surplus is an opportunity for huge investments in Texas public schools

A Corpus Christi classroom
A Corpus Christi classroom

Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Glen Hegar’s recent announcement about the unprecedented $27 billion budget surplus generated a lot of enthusiasm around the Texas Capitol. Almost immediately, state leaders began floating ideas regarding how to best use the funds. Leading public education policy and funding experts agree that several funding options could significantly improve the lives of Texans for years to come – and we think young Texans should be a priority. We need to invest in the 5.4 million students who are the future of our state, and as public school finance experts, we have a few recommendations.

First, given record inflation, we propose an increase to the per-student dollar amount, also known around the Capitol as the basic allotment. This would benefit all students in all Texas public schools. Before the changes instituted by HB 3 in 2019, this basic allotment had remained unchanged for four years. Although HB 3 increased the basic allotment by $1,020, inflation has since reduced the value of this increase, so we recommend that the state base the allotment on the Texas Consumer Price Index (CPI TX) published by the comptroller. This metric tracks the average change in the price of consumer goods; it’s a reflection of inflation and the economy's general health. By permanently tying allotment to this metric, we can fund the true cost of education in the current and future economic climates and provide Texas schools with additional resources to better serve their students, especially those who come from educationally disadvantaged households.

Another challenge Texas public schools face is the growing gap between what they are spending to provide special education services and how much funding the state’s school finance system provides for those services. According to TEA, in 2021, this funding gap was more than $2.3 billion, and it impacts everything from student evaluations to transportation costs. One way to help close that gap is to update the formulas so that funding is based on services provided rather than a student’s instructional setting. After all, each student is unique and requires an individualized education plan to reach their maximum potential. It’s time for the state to increase the investment in special education to reflect the financial realities schools are facing today and to ensure access to an equal opportunity education for all students.

Last, but certainly not least, one of the leading topics of discussion during this upcoming legislative session will be – rightfully – school safety. Because school safety at all school facilities is a top priority for the state, lawmakers should strongly consider significantly increasing the school safety allotment to provide schools with enough funding to make necessary improvements to security measures and expand mental health services. Currently, the annual safety allotment is $9.72 for each student attending school. As a result, smaller districts sometimes must make tough choices, for example, between a school resource officer or a school counselor.

In addition to formula increases, which would not be effective until the 2022–2023 school year, lawmakers could also consider creating a supplemental appropriation that reallocates extra dollars in the Foundation School Program. These could be invested in a grant program that provides reimbursements to schools for security improvements made during the current school year. Since this strategy relies on reallocation, it would not cost the state any additional dollars over what was already budgeted and would reduce delays in making investments needed to respond to safety concerns throughout the year.

While there are several priorities that are deserving of state investment, and most will likely absorb some of the historic budget surplus, we encourage lawmakers to put students at the top of the list. After all, those sitting in Texas classrooms today will become the leaders of tomorrow.

Leo Lopez is chief financial officer at MoakCasey and former associate commissioner and school finance officer for the Texas Education Agency.

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Budget surplus is opportunity for investments in Texas public schools