Updated May 6, 2024 - News

Why Texas ranks low in per-student funding

Choropleth map of U.S. states showing the amount states spent per public school student in 2022. Overall, states spent $15,633 per student. Utah spent the least, at $9,552, while New York spent the most, at $29,873. States in the Northeast and West Coast spent more than states in the South and Mountain West.
Data: Census Bureau; Map: Axios Visuals

More than 9 in 10 Texas students attend inadequately funded schools, per a report that analyzes public school funding nationwide.

Why it matters: The state Legislature last increased per-student funding in 2019, leaving cash-strapped school districts eyeing deep budget cuts to make ends meet.

  • Texas ranks in the bottom 10 states in the country for education spending by several measures, including the report by the Albert Shanker Institute, the University of Miami and Rutgers University.

Zoom in: The Austin school board is considering asking voters to approve a tax increase in November to pay for teacher raises.

What they're saying: Ken Zarifis, president of teacher union Education Austin, said the district needs to offer at least a slight raise to keep pace with inflation.

  • "There's really no other option when you have a state that refuses to invest in public education; districts will have to do everything they can possibly do before they start cutting in the classroom," Zarifis told KUT, referring to a tax increase election.

How it works: Per-student funding is set by the Legislature using a formula. If the funding went into a glass, the glass would have to hold at least $6,160, called the basic allotment. That allocation can increase based on characteristics of the district, including family income and the number of students who need accessible education.

  • Once the size of the glass is set with the formula, local property taxes pour into the glass, and the state tops off any shortfall.
  • If the local property taxes fill the whole glass, the state provides no money. Any local taxes that overflow the glass go to state coffers to be distributed to districts that can't reach the rim through local revenue.

Between the lines: With that set amount per student, school boards determine a budget and set priorities, including teacher pay level and district needs.

  • The basic allotment would need to increase by at least $1,000 just to keep up with inflation, said Bob Popinski, policy analyst at Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit public education advocacy group.

School district officials also say undercounting students can lead to less money. State officials determine the number of students in a district by taking average attendance from several days during the school year instead of using the number of students enrolled.

  • This system left nearly 300,000 students uncounted in the 2021-22 school year, according to a report by progressive think tank Every Texan.
  • In the first year of the pandemic, nearly 433,000 students went uncounted even after COVID-19 attendance loss adjustments.
  • However, school districts plan and budget based on the number of students enrolled. Since every student needs a campus, classroom and teachers, schools don't save money when a student misses school.

State of play: This year could be the perfect storm of struggle for school districts with compounding financial woes.

  • District spending has increased for maintenance, health care, food services, custodial work and utilities, among other things.
  • Texas schools received $19.2 billion in federal COVID funding, which ends in September and will put school districts in a financial bind.

Flashback: The focus of several legislative sessions last year was a plan to provide public funding for private school tuition, which public school advocates said would further pinch school budgets.

  • Republican leaders say it would give families more choice regarding where to send their kids to school.

What's next: Gov. Greg Abbott said he needs only two more Republican votes in the Texas House to pass a voucher bill next year. Those votes could come later this month if his voucher supporters win runoff elections.

  • The GOP-dominated state Senate is already on board.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to attribute Ken Zarifis' quote to KUT (not the Austin Monitor).

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