School Choice at Center of Education Spending Blame Game

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott | Image by Greg Abbott/Facebook
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott | Image by Greg Abbott/Facebook

Gov. Greg Abbott and a number of state lawmakers appeared to exchange political barbs over public education funding, with the former reminding the latter that they had the opportunity to increase state funding for schools last year.

Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston) and 38 of his Democratic colleagues in the Texas House wrote a letter on Monday to Abbott demanding the governor call a special session to address public education funding amid the state’s historic $32.7 billion budget surplus.

“Our public schools are the bedrock of our communities, and it’s imperative we provide them with the resources they need to thrive,” Rosenthal wrote. “By calling for a special session, Governor Abbott has the opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to fulfilling our constitutional duty to adequately fund public education in Texas.”

Abbott responded the same day, criticizing the lawmakers for voting against a big education spending bill last year, which would have provided increased school funding and education savings accounts for families to facilitate school choice. The governor noted that Texas public schools need more taxpayer money because federal COVID-19 relief is set to expire in a matter of months, and student enrollments is declining, putting an additional strain on local school district budgets as state funding for education is tied to the individual students being taught.

“Know this, my commitment to improving public schools is just as resolute as yours,” Abbott wrote. “To achieve our shared goal, however, it is incumbent upon you to work with your fellow House members to muster the votes in the Texas House to get it passed — something you were unwilling to do last year.”

While both Abbott and Rosenthal appeared to agree on the need to increase school funding, neither explicitly addressed in their letters the elephant in the room: the issue of school choice. As the governor hinted in his response, House Democrats and a coalition of 21 House Republicans killed the omnibus education spending bill because of their vehement opposition to school choicel.

The disagreement over the education savings account provision led to the bill’s very public failure to pass in the House last year. Since then, Abbott has been doing what he can to support House candidates who will support school choice. School choice and state funding of public education will undoubtedly be top priorities again in the next legislative session if a special session is not called before then.

As previously reported by The Dallas Express, polling suggests that some kind of school choice legislation is popular across many demographics in the state, with black and Hispanic Texans appearing to show the most enthusiasm.

In a previous statement to DX, Texas Public Policy Foundation policy director James Quintero said, “Traditional K-12 schools are hemorrhaging enrollment due to growing concerns over content, quality, and the politicization of the classroom. This steep decline is evidence that parents are ready for something different, something better.”

Dallas ISD underperformed across several metrics during the 2021-2022 school year, according to the district’s latest Texas Education Agency accountability report. Only 41% of students scored at grade level on their STAAR exams despite the hard work of the district’s dedicated teachers, and almost 20% of Dallas ISD’s graduating Class of 2022 did not earn a diploma in four years. The district has been seeing a relatively steady decline in enrollment the last several years.

The loss of students and their corresponding state taxpayer dollars has put a squeeze on local budgets. A recent survey of Texas’ 313 school districts from the Texas Association of School Business Officials found that budgets are a major issue for 80% of the districts, and more than half have a budget deficit.

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