3 Things You Need to Know About the 2021 Legislative Session

3 Things You Need to Know About the 2021 Legislative Session

They’re back. State lawmakers have descended on Austin once again to set the budget and pass new laws. The 87th Texas Legislature kicked off on January 12. And because of the coronavirus pandemic and recession, the stakes for education couldn’t be higher.

Dax Gonzalez, division director for TASB Governmental Relations, recently spoke on the TASB Talks podcast about what educators should know going into this historic session.

1. The state budget is short by almost $1 billion because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers will face a $950 million budget shortfall this session. That sounds like a lot, but it’s actually a much better outlook than expected after the COVID-19 economic recession.

That said, public education funding could take a hit.

House Bill 3 (HB 3), passed in the 2019 legislative session, added $6.5 billion to public schools and slowed the growth of property taxes. Lawmakers will be under pressure this session to maintain the funding promised under HB 3.

What about the Rainy Day Fund?

Estimates show Texas’ Rainy Day Fund will be up to $8-9 billion by the end of this biennium, meaning legislators could have some cushion to fall back on. In the past, however, they’ve been reluctant to lean too heavily on this money.

How has COVID-19 affected school funding?

Funding for schools is tied to average daily attendance (ADA), which is much lower right now than it was before the coronavirus hit. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has funded schools at pre-pandemic ADA levels through December 2020. However, that additional funding has not been extended for the full school year.

TASB, along with 22 other education organizations, asked Gov. Abbott to fund schools based on ADA from last year so that districts will have more stability and predictability going forward.

Current ADA numbers are off as many districts struggle to stay in touch with all their students. Students switching from in-person to virtual learning could confuse the count. If there’s a dip in current enrollment, districts could be forced to cut teachers and programs.

“Really we’re just looking for help making it through this extraordinary year until things can get back to normal,” Gonzalez said.

2. Charter school expansion should be halted, and these schools must be more transparent.

With the state facing a budget shortfall, every dollar that goes into education should be well spent. Rapidly expanding charter schools take much-needed funds away from local districts. A new charter school opening right down the road from an existing school doesn’t make sense. It’s a waste of taxpayer money, especially since evidence shows that charters don’t outperform independent school districts (ISD) at any significant level.

Each ISD is governed by a locally elected school board that ensures local taxpayer dollars are being used appropriately. Board members are accountable to the community and those who elect them. Charter school boards are appointed, not democratically elected by their communities.

Locally elected trustees in Texas want the charter school process to be more transparent. Charters must be more open about how they operate, enroll students, and expel students.

3. Cries of “taxpayer-funded lobbying” are an attempt at community censorship.

You may have heard talk from state lawmakers recently about eliminating “taxpayer-funded lobbying,” which would prohibit school districts from hiring a lobbyist or joining associations that employ lobbyists. Proponents say their goal is to stop local governments from advocating positions that are counter to their taxpayers, but the position doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

School board members are elected by local taxpayers and advocate for what’s best for their schools and communities. And TASB’s advocacy process is a democratic, grassroots-driven process.

“The goal of this bill, and I believe this wholeheartedly, is to silence public schools,” Gonzalez said. “I can tell you right now, from speaking to hundreds of trustees and listening to testimony from other locally elected officials, these folks are advocating on behalf of their taxpayers. Everything they do is generally meant to help the people that elect them, who are the same people who elect our state legislators,” he said.

This community censorship would limit the ability of school board members and districts to provide input and feedback to the Legislature, and advocate at the capitol on behalf of their communities, taxpayers, and students — one of the main pillars of TEA’s Framework for School Board Development.

Listen to learn more.

Listen to TASB Talks: Preview of the 87th Texas Legislature to learn more about what public schools can expect this session, including:

  • How the November elections shaped the 87th Legislature.
  • A-F Accountability ratings during the pandemic.
  • This year’s STAAR testing.

We’ll release Lege Update podcast episodes regularly, so be sure to subscribe to TASB Talks wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss an episode.

Be a public education advocate.

Texas public schools need your help! Here’s what you can do:

School Board Advocacy Network

The TASB School Board Advocacy Network (SBAN) helps you organize, get tips and resources, and effectively advocate public schools at local, state, and national levels.