Updated: Feb 8, 2022
Ask any educator this year and they’ll almost certainly confirm one undeniable fact: attendance rates are in the gutter for Texas public schools this year. Primarily as a result of our continued battle with COVID and everything that comes with that, students are simply not walking through the doors of schools this year at a rate anywhere near historical norms.
A survey of districts across the state indicates an average year-to-date attendance rate of 92.9%. The same survey indicated that attendance rates for January 2022 were below 90%. For comparison, below is the average attendance rates from the six school years prior to COVID being a thing:
A decrease of 1.5% to 2.0% might not seem like a significant difference, but when the primary funding mechanism for public schools in Texas is based on attendance, this seemingly small decrease in attendance has huge financial implications for school districts across Texas.
Over the past two years, Governor Abbott, Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency Mike Morath, and Texas legislators have recognized the impact of COVID-related attendance issues and passed a “hold harmless” to adequately fund schools during these difficult times.
When it seemed politically expedient, Governor Abbott and other political leaders were quick to openly demonstrate their support for fully funding our schools.
Here is what Governor Abbott said on this topic:
"As more districts return to in-person instruction, we are ensuring that schools are not financially penalized for declines in attendance due to COVID-19. Providing a hold harmless for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year is a crucial part of our state's commitment to supporting our school systems and teachers.”
And Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick:
"My goal is to get all of our students back in the classroom and this hold harmless funding will ensure our public schools can complete the school year and continue to bring students back to campuses for in-person learning. As always, we are grateful to those teachers across the state who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic to keep our students on track.”
And Speaker Phelan:
"The State of Texas is committed to getting more students back into the classroom for in-person instruction and fully funding our schools – despite challenges that occurred as a result of COVID-19. I fully support the decision to provide necessary funding and maintain our commitment to Texas schools.”
And Senator Larry Taylor:
“The financial stability provided by this hold harmless will further support our schools in their efforts to help our students meet the challenges brought on by COVID-19.”
And Representative Harold Dutton:
“It would be an understatement to say that Texas families have been negatively affected by the COVID environment. And perhaps those most affected have been our public school students who have had to educate remotely or not at all. Texas should do everything possible to get these students back to school but school districts must not be penalized financially for the absence of these students. That is why this hold harmless provision is a financial must for Texas school districts.”
The simple fact is this: legislators have consistently recognized the impact of COVID-19 on attendance over the past two years, and they have responded each time with a hold harmless where schools were funded based on attendance rates from 2018-2019 (i.e. a “normal” year of attendance).
Commissioner Morath has made the claim over and over again this year that he does not have the authority to move forward with a hold harmless, and this is in large part true; however, Governor Abbott and the rest of the Texas Legislature absolutely have the authority to move forward with this decision as their authority to do so is outlined clearly in the 87th Legislature General Appropriations Act (from pgs. 240-241):
“If the appropriations provided by this Act for the Foundation School Program are not sufficient to provide for expenditures for enrollment growth, district tax rate or taxable value of property, after accounting for any other appropriations made to the TEA and available for transfer for this purpose, the Legislative Budget Board and the Governor may provide for and may direct the transfer of sufficient amounts of funds to the TEA from appropriations made elsewhere in this Act.”
Of course, there shouldn't be an issue with the appropriations not being "sufficient" because according to a presentation given last week by Leo Lopez, Associate Commissioner for School Finance at TEA, Texas appropriated enough funds to cover 5.09 million students in average-daily-attendance.
Texas has approximately 5.4-5.5 million students enrolled this year, so the state has an attendance rate somewhere between 92.5% and 94.5% already budgeted. To guarantee anything less to schools is a clear sign that all of the above quotes were pure politics and not a genuine care about teachers and students.
At this point, 2021-2022 has been worse than the spring of 2020 and all of 2020-2021 because schools across the state have done what was asked of us: returned to face-to-face instruction without any fully-funded option for remote learning. Teachers are doing what they were asked to do, students are doing what they were asked to do, and now it’s time for legislators to do what we’re asking them to do: fund schools in the same way they have for the past year-and-a-half by passing a hold harmless. Doing so will allow superintendents and school boards across Texas to move forward without the fear of not making budget this school year.
An additional option...
The Governor and the rest of the legislative body understands that much of the costs related to running schools are fixed. Schools are staffed based on enrollment, not attendance. Bus drivers, custodians, paras, other support staff…all hired based on the enrollment needs, not the day-to-day changes that come with attendance fluctuations.
For example, the vast majority of districts across the state would respond to an incoming class of 130 kindergarteners by more than likely staffing 7 kindergarten teachers (18-19 students in every class). The daily need for 7 teachers doesn’t change because campus and district leaders have to assume that 130 kinder kiddos might walk through the door each day. It doesn’t matter if attendance is at 97% (126 students present, 4 absent), 94% (122 students present, 8 absent), or 90% (117 students present, 13 absent)...you still need the same seven teachers. Even if those students magically came out of a single classroom (which never happens…ever), you’d still have a handful of students remaining in that one classroom that require the attention of their teacher.
No matter how you look at it, funding by attendance is an antiquated method of funding schools. Texas is one of only six states that still utilize attendance as the primary mechanism for counting students when allocating funds to schools (California, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas). The vast majority of states have moved to some form of enrollment-based funding.
At least three of those six states are already in the process of moving to enrollment-based funding. The State Board of Education in Idaho has already approved a temporary measure to move to enrollment-based funding for the current school year, and there are discussions to make this move permanent. Kentucky has a state legislative task force looking at a multitude of K-12 issues, and enrollment-based funding is high on their list. And in California, it seems all but certain that attendance-based funding will become a thing of the past before the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year.
There is hope that this movement has legs in Texas as well. During the TASA Midwinter Conference last week in Austin, multiple Texas legislators indicated that enrollment-based funding needs to happen. These legislators included Senator Sarah Erkhardt, Representative Steve Allison, Representative Mary Gonzalez, and Representative James Talarico.
All of the above legislators listed two primary hurdles that stand in the way of moving to enrollment-based funding: 1) legislators don’t trust educators to push for attendance if it isn’t directly tied to funding; and 2) legislators across the state need to hear that this change is needed from their constituents.
While the first hurdle will be the focus of a separate blog post, you can do your part to help address the second hurdle. It is still very early in a non-legislative session year; however, now is the time to create a buzz about a change that should have happened decades ago. If you’re the emailing type, use the link below to look up the contact information for your representatives and let them know that enrollment-based funding is needed in Texas.
If we wait until after the next session, Texas could very well end up being one of only three states still funded by an antiquated and inequitable funding system.