This legislative session, Texas lawmakers have some tough discussions ahead of them about how Texas funds its public schools, but some are asking how lawmakers can have those conversations without an updated look at how much it actually costs to educate kids.
So far, two state representatives have filed bills requiring the Texas Education Agency to study how much it costs to educate students, particularly English language learners and economically disadvantaged students.
State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), who filed one of those bills, advocated for a cost study at the City Summit panel hosted by the Austin Monitor and KUT last month, suggesting the study should examine the cost for English language learner (ELL) students and compensatory education students – students who are at risk of dropping out.
“We have no study that tells us, here’s how much it probably would take to educate an [English Language Learner] or a [compensatory education] student to meet accountability," Bernal said. “That study, that amount doesn’t exist. So, we’re flying blind and, at a certain point, it’s okay to open up that can of worms because we’re going to end up in the situation we’re in now.”
State Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville) also filed a bill to study how much it would cost to educate ELL students. The left-leaning think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities is also advocating for a cost study.
“What we really need to do is take a step back to determine what does it cost to meet educational standards we have in place and figure out what kind of school finance system can deliver those costs," said Chandra Villanueva, a school finance expert with the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
But, getting lawmakers to agree to fund this study could be difficult.
Last year, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Texas’ school finance system is constitutional, but justices said the state should make changes to its outdated system. Speaker of the House Joe Straus ordered the house to study the state’s school finance system, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did not include school finance reform on his list of priorities for this session.
Instead, Patrick and the Texas Senate want to create a school voucher system. This ideological divide is happening as the state braces for possible budget cuts. At the City Summit meeting last month, Kingwood State Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Humble) didn’t disagree with the idea of a cost of education study, but suggested to Rep. Bernal that there may be limited legislative action this session.
“I think, going into this session, setting realistic expectations to accomplish goals is where we’re out today," Huberty said. "And knowing what we have, money-wise, what we can do."
Lawmakers find out just how much money they have to spend next week, when Comptroller Glenn Hegar releases a revenue estimate for the next state budget.