When the 87th Texas Legislature convenes at noon on Jan. 12, lawmakers face the tall task of writing the state budget for the next two years while grappling with a deficit resulting from the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Educators and school leaders have expressed concern that state lawmakers will cut public education funding again to make ends meet, as they did in 2011 when they slashed $5 billion from the state school budget. Many also are worried that the school finance reform law passed in 2019, House Bill 3, will take a hit. The law increased per-student funding for public schools and provided money for teacher pay raises, free full-day pre-K for eligible students, and early learning initiatives for economically disadvantaged students and English language learners.

As vice chairman of the House Committee on Public Education, state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) will be a key player in education legislation during the session. The San Antonio Report talked to him about the key issues facing the Legislature at a time when Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar has projected a $4.6 billion budget deficit for the state because of the pandemic and a drop in oil prices. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

San Antonio Report: What are the top education issues you’re looking at for the 2021 legislative session?

Diego Bernal: In some ways, they’re the same as they always are but amplified. One is to do all we can to make sure there aren’t any cuts. This is amplified both by the effect COVID has had on the revenue streams in the state, but also by the progress we’ve made with [House Bill] 3. There’s so much promise in that. The other is recognizing that there’s still a long way to go and trying to do more in the face of a certain absence of money. We knew there was still work to be done, but I think the pandemic has laid bare lots of places where there has to be more work done and done in haste. You have to charge ahead at the same time. That’s the case every year, but everything is amplified this session with a tremendous amount of urgency. You’re pulling in two directions: Don’t cut and keep going.

SA Report: What are some of those areas where there needs to be more work done but now there’s a bit more urgency to address them?

DB: For people who are engaged in education regularly, it’s always been urgent. The rest of the world got a front row seat this year. There’s no question that we’ve not been doing right by our special-needs students, and COVID definitely reminded us but also demonstrated how feeble those efforts have been. Those students have really suffered tremendously. Distance learning exacerbated the absence of real thoughtful, robust educational opportunities for these students.

The second is the role that internet and internet access play in education. In the past, everybody regarded the internet like cable television, as some sort of normalized luxury, when it really is much more like water and electricity. … I’m really talking about this idea that the internet is a private commodity that is held and distributed by private companies, and now we’re regarding it as a necessity for school business in everyday life.

We have to change the way that we talk about it, change the way that we access it, and we have to mainstream that, just like water and electricity. The delivery of the internet and availability of the internet cannot be market-driven in all cases. If it is a necessity, if it is like a utility, then access cannot be driven by market forces. There has to be another element that ensures that it gets to everyone because everybody needs it and depends on it.

SA Report: Let’s talk about House Bill 3. Where do you see it going this session?

DB: My sense is that we’re going to do everything we can to preserve it, but I also think there are elements of school finance in general that have to be shored up in order for us to see or experience the full promise of HB 3. For example, the way that we fund poverty is on a scale, depending on the census block where students live, so it’s not associated with the campus anymore. It’s associated with students, which I think is a much more thoughtful approach, and it’s modeled after the block approach that SAISD employs. You can’t really see that work until you deal with the other parts of school finance.

… I think that you want to keep everything in place, but at the same time you’ve got to help people get through this year and also recognize that this year has had expenses that were unforeseen. …

Let’s remind ourselves that HB 3 really is two bills. One is the money that goes to classrooms, and one is the property tax piece. If you’re going to cut HB 3, I would start with the property tax piece and not the classroom piece. In other words, what HB 3 does rightfully – although it’s not nearly as big a deal as my colleagues like to pretend – is it saves the average Texas homeowner about $143 a year in property taxes, and when I say save it just means the tax bill grows that much slower. But if you had to say, ‘You saved $140 this year. Now you’re going to save $100.’ I think that’s still OK, but what you’ve done is you’ve freed up billions of dollars in doing that. I’m not saying we should eliminate the property tax piece by any means, but I am saying there’s more play in there, even if it’s temporary, because that wouldn’t affect the classroom experience.

Avoiding cuts is a very aggressive posture to be in, especially considering the deficit, but at the same time, it’s not intellectually honest in that doing so you’re not acknowledging the real-time challenges of the moment. And I think we need to do both.

A state budget or any budget is a moral document. It’s a list of priorities, and education is already at the top. All right, it’s close to the top, but there’s a difference between being a very meticulous budget writer and giving people what they need and deserve. I’m really hoping we don’t pat ourselves on the back for pulling off something positive and thoughtful but that is wildly agnostic to the lived experience of the people that we represent. I think we have to try to do more than that. We have to have those tough conversations, and by tough conversations I mean specifically new revenue.

SA Report: Do you have any thoughts on where that new revenue could come from?

DB: I think there’s lots of different places that revenue could come from. I don’t think there’s one. Let me be clear about that. Everyone’s always looking for the knockout punch. It’s not going to work like that, but I think you’ve got options. You’ve got options with unpaid sales tax. You’ve got options with cannabis or medical marijuana. Some people are talking about gambling and gaming. I’m not as keen on that, but I’m also someone who is willing to put all the options on the table. Expanding Medicaid would bring a fair amount of money to the state, and it would help right away. You’ve got the Rainy Day Fund. …We have CARES Act money that hasn’t been spent yet.

I think that you have to assemble a menu of different opportunities and put them together, not only to fill the hole but to give us the funds we need to go forward. If you double down on one thing, you’re going to hurt people, and this is the wrong time to ask people to do any more. But if you spread it around, it’s negligible. It’s not felt in the lived experience of people. They don’t feel a little difference in their pocketbooks or when it’s time to pay their taxes.

SA Report: How likely do you think it is that public education funding will not be cut this session?

DB: The worst-case scenario for public education is it’s held in place or there might be a pause to some programs, but I think cuts are unlikely, unless there are cuts to some things that were experimental or pilots that aren’t part of the core service delivery and don’t service vulnerable students or populations. … What we did that was really smart in HB 3 was a lot of these new features like the spectrum weight and pre-K, they’re a big part of the skeletal system of school finance. They’re not grants that have to be re-upped. They are immediately funded because they’re part of the system now. In some ways, we’ve locked ourselves into it, which of course creates a challenge when it comes to the budget, but it also is a lifeline because you’d have to pass a bill to remove both as opposed to just not allocating the funds.

SA Report: What are some major concerns or priorities your constituents – educators in particular– are talking about?

DB: It’s across the spectrum, but what comes up a lot is not in the realm of education but affects education tremendously, and that’s health care. Texas is the most uninsured state in the country. That’s true for both adults and children. It’s shameful. Here we are in the biggest public health crisis of the last century, and we’re thumbing our noses at an opportunity to change that in a massive way at scale immediately, and that’s to expand Medicaid. San Antonio, being one of the poorest cities in the country, would benefit tremendously from that stroke of a pen, and it hasn’t happened yet. There might be some conversation about that on both sides of the aisle, but that would affect the experience of students and educators tremendously.

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.