Texas awards education funding based on how many students show up for class each day, so more students present means more money. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

It’s rare for all of San Antonio’s school districts to be on the same page regarding public education funding, policy priorities, or curriculum decisions. Districts serve students with varied needs and each education system has its own financial outlook – some have wealthier property tax bases while others receive more in State funding.

Despite their differences, local districts are united in their fear of funding cuts that might result in widespread layoffs and slashed budgets.

In a letter sent to Gov. Greg Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday, superintendents from 19 San Antonio-area school districts joined together as the Bexar County Education Coalition (BCEC) and asked the State to protect their funding.

Texas awards education funding based on how many students show up for class each day, so more students present means more money. For those participating in remote learning, students must log in to an online platform at a designated time to be counted as present and for schools to receive money.

Referencing San Antonio’s digital divide and instability in many home environments caused by the coronavirus pandemic, BCEC Executive Director Julia Grizzard acknowledged students have struggled to log in to classes this spring. That won’t improve this fall if students feel unwell or connectivity issues persist, she said.

“We might have potential switches in instructional modality, so there are going to be times when we might not have 100 percent, or 99 or 95 or 90 percent of students signing on,” Grizzard said. “School districts are prepared to find their students and their families, but in the midst of putting forth that kind of effort, they also risk significant funding drops if they don’t have students signing in.”

Limiting Potential Funding Loss

The San Antonio superintendents asked Texas Education Agency (TEA) leaders to set a floor for the attendance figure, limiting how much districts stand to lose and ensuring financial stability should enrollment dip amid the public health crisis.

Without an attendance floor, districts could face staffing reductions and budget cuts “during a time when school support is needed more than ever,” the letter states.

TEA set this kind of a floor in the spring, keeping funding even with historical averages. But new State guidance updates the policy, granting districts a grace period of 12 weeks in which districts could lose at most 1 percent of their average funding because of enrollment declines. After that period, there is no funding guarantee in place.

When this guidance was announced last month, Northside Independent School District Superintendent Brian Woods expressed alarm about a loss of even 1 percent in the first weeks of the year. Losses after the grace period could be devastating, he said.

“Given [the guidance] that is out there today, if it does not change, what will happen in our state is that layoffs will be widespread … in the transition between the [2020-21] school year and the next” – or sooner, Woods said.

Woods posited that it will take pressure from school districts realizing the extent of potential cuts in the first few weeks of the school year to create change at the State level.

At a Tuesday press conference, San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said he was grateful for the 12-week period because it would allow him to get a sense of his community’s feelings toward school reopenings.

However, he still expressed concern that attendance numbers wouldn’t be sufficient to sustain funding at previous levels.

“[In the spring,] we got to about 98 percent of finding our students” who had not been in communication with their schools since the coronavirus closures, “but we still had almost 2 percent that we couldn’t find,” Martinez said.

Enrollment Vs. Average Daily Attendance

Even for East Central Independent School District, a rural education system that enrolls roughly 10,000 students, a dip in enrollment would mean a budget hit of several million dollars.

ECISD is budgeting for a 5 percent enrollment decline, which equates to roughly $3 million in lost revenue, Superintendent Roland Toscano said.

The budgetary concerns have inspired Toscano to research other school funding mechanisms around the country. While Texas awards money based on average daily attendance, some other states use the total enrollment number to fund schools.

That means that even if a student isn’t present for class, the school district would still receive money. This money might equip the school with resources to find the disengaged student, Toscano said.

“When we have kids that don’t come to school and experience chronic absenteeism, we’re not receiving [funding for them],” Toscano said. “And yet the amount of resources that we’re allocating to wrap around that family and to support basic needs and try to engage them through partners like Communities in Schools to get those families what they need for those children – it seems counterintuitive that we don’t receive funding. It costs us two to five times more to serve them.”

Woods agreed that such a funding shift is worth discussing now, noting that the last four months have made funding based on enrollment seem like a much more appropriate way to finance schools.

Under normal circumstances, if a student becomes sick and has to miss school for a few days, that student would stay at home and miss class. But with tools developed in recent months, that student could learn remotely instead of falling behind.

However, that student wouldn’t be physically present in the classroom, so the school wouldn’t get funding for the daily attendance under Texas’ current funding scheme. Basing the model on enrollment instead of attendance would allow districts to collect funds for this student, even when schools return to a more normal education scheme.

“To me that ought to be funded,” Woods said. “She’s still enrolled, she still in attendance, she’s just not physically present.”

Public Education for Private- and Home-School Students

Toscano also raised concern over a provision in TEA guidance that does not allow public school districts to receive funding for students who enrolled in private school or were home-schooled the previous year and want to partake in a public school district’s remote learning program.

When Toscano and ECISD leaders held a Facebook Live event, they received several questions from parents about how their home-schooled students could participate in remote learning.

“With compulsory attendance requirements, meaning you’ve got to be butt-in-the-seat in person, that didn’t work for a lot of home-school families,” Toscano said. “We think there’s probably [400] to 500 kids who live in our community year-over-year who attend a private school or are home-schooled, and let’s say 200 of them decide to enroll [with us] and we don’t get funding. That’s substantial.”

Woods shared this concern. Students previously enrolled in private school or home-school settings constitute large numbers in most districts. Many of their parents might want to take advantage of public schools’ at-home learning systems and schools should be compensated appropriately, the Northside leader said.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.