Across the Houston region and Texas, school districts that lost enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic are facing a drop in state funds starting in January if the Texas Education Agency or state lawmakers do not act.
Since the virus began sweeping across the state and nation last March, forcing schools to close, the TEA has given districts several grace periods in which it provided them the same funding they would have received in normal times. To date, that has provided a lifeline to districts that otherwise would have seen their state revenues plunge due to lower-than-expected student enrollments.
The current grace period, which the TEA calls a “hold harmless guarantee,” ends Dec. 31.
The Texas Legislature in 2019 allocated enough money to fund schools at their current levels until the end of the school year, but the TEA has remained mum on whether it will extend the hold harmless guarantee until then. Without another extension for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, some local district finance officials worry they will be faced with two bad options: dip into and potentially deplete their reserve funds to keep their districts operating through spring, or lay off teachers and staff to make ends meet.
For Houston-area districts, which began the school year missing more than 20,000 students, the financial ramifications could run into the tens of millions of dollars. For example, Alief ISD could lose nearly $40 million after enrollment fell 3,500 short of initial estimates.
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, which has 2,364 fewer students now than at the end of last year, estimates it could lose $29 million. Aldine ISD could “easily” miss out on $20 million after its enrollment fell 4,000 students shy of projections, and Pasadena ISD would face a shortfall of nearly $14 million due to a 2,261-student enrollment drop.
Houston ISD did not respond to a request for comment, but the district began the year with 13,000 fewer students than expected.
There is no one answer for why students have dropped off schools’ radars. Some may have moved with family in search of work. Parents of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students may wait to enroll them until school operations are more normal. Others may have been kept at home by parents waiting for COVID infection levels to improve before sending their kids back to school.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told the Chronicle’s editorial board in November the agency “already provided unprecedented flexibility to offer remote learning, and with it, full funding.”
“However, we know that certain districts face challenges because of significant enrollment declines, and we are working to ensure that our schools and teachers receive the additional financial support we need,” Morath said.
The lack of a concrete assurance that districts statewide will continue to receive funding at current levels has many on edge, said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.
“Everybody right now is holding their breath, hoping the state will come through with hold harmless,” Brown said. “But they’re also starting to look at what will happen if that doesn’t come through — are they going to have to do layoffs, and if so, how extensively?”
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Cypress, said while enrollments remain lower-than-predicted across the state, the situation is improving as the school year plays out and kids come back. He also said he expects more students to return as COVID-19 vaccines begin to be distributed.
Returning funding to the state’s attendance-based formula creates an incentive for districts to keep looking for students who have not shown up.
“You have to balance all these needs, because we have to keep the public school system making sure they make every effort to find students,” he said. “Otherwise children are left behind.”
I mean, look. Schools and school districts and teachers – and parents and students – are contending with a lot this year. They’re doing the best they can under extreme circumstances. While the state of Texas is also under financial constraints, this is exactly the sort of situation for which the Rainy Day Fund – also known as the Economic Stabilization Fund – was created, to smooth out unexpected downturns in revenue and tide things over till they rebound. And for the millionth time, I will note that our state Republican leadership could be loudly demanding that our two Republican Senators support a COVID relief package that gives financial support to state and local governments, including school boards, that are suffering through the effects of the pandemic. There are many things we could do that do not involve putting all the burden on the school districts. We just have to choose to do them.