As enrollment declines, Texas school leaders urge state not to cut funding

Desks were placed six feet away from each other at Premont Collegiate High School in Premont. Some desks, marked with yellow Xs, were used as placeholders to maintain a socially safe distance. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune

Texas school superintendents and education advocates are asking the state not to cut funding next semester for districts seeing enrollment declines because of COVID-19.

Texas funds schools based on attendance, whether students are learning in classrooms or virtually from home during the pandemic. Because many districts have seen enrollments drop as schools and families grapple with closures and health concerns, state leaders agreed to fund districts for the first 18 weeks of this academic year based on their projected attendance numbers instead of actual student counts.

But as January approaches, the reprieve is nearing its end, and school administrators say they’re about to fall off a funding cliff. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said at a conference last week that he was still considering what to do next. “At present, we don’t have any plans yet to extend it,” he said.

More than 20 education organizations sent a letter to Morath and Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday urging them to extend the reprieve. “School districts across the state have experienced extreme declines in student enrollment during the first semester, and school leaders anticipate the same during the upcoming spring semester until the virus is slowed and the majority of Texans are vaccinated,” the letter reads. “Budget cuts will be inevitable resulting in the layoff of some teachers and other essential school personnel at the worst possible time.”

Enrollment increases as more students attend school in person, Morath said, referring to data collected between September and October. The next data snapshot comes at the end of January, and Morath said he would watch to see whether that trend continues. Texas recently decided to allow school districts to require remote learners posting F’s to return in person.

About 40% of the enrollment decline is in pre-K and kindergarten, which are optional for Texas students, Morath said.

As COVID-19 cases surge again and economic instability persists for some Texans, administrators and teachers are still having trouble finding some of their students. Many are knocking on doors and calling parent cellphones. They worry some of those students will be lost forever. And they worry about their ability to serve the students who have showed up, as they continue to face unforeseen costs during the pandemic.

“Our fear is, at the worst possible time, districts are going to be in a place where they need to lay off staff or make other budget cuts or things of that nature,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.