Editorial: Texas Lege needs to use surplus funds on schools

Texas is rolling in the dough, with an extra $27 billion in state funds expected when the Legislature convenes in January.

That’s a good thing, especially if lawmakers prioritize the monumental needs of our schools. In the aftermath of the pandemic and the murders of 19 elementary students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, adequate public school funding has taken on a heightened level of urgency.

Schools need to hire and retain teachers, better ensure safety and shore up mental health resources. These are each costly efforts for cash-strapped schools, but the state’s coffers are brimming.

While Gov. Greg Abbott and others have promised property tax cuts — something we support — funding these education needs must come first.

In a recent guest commentary, Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside Independent School District and president of the Texas School Alliance, wrote about the dichotomy of a state flush with cash while public schools go wanting.

One of those needs is better school security. As San Antonio Police Chief William McManus pointed out in a July Express-News guest column, school shooters don’t break into campuses. As with the one in Uvalde, he wrote, shooters often “simply walked in.”

Since Uvalde, many a politician has used the phrase “hardening schools.” The wording makes us bristle because we should aspire to live in a world in which schools are not targets for massacres — and commonsense gun safety reforms are embraced. But this aspiration is not reality, and securing schools is expensive. Security includes adding access control, law enforcement officers and metal detectors, and upgrading technology such as surveillance cameras and Wi-Fi.

Consider that a 2019 school safety bill allocated only $10 per student for school safety, according to the Texas Tribune.

After the Uvalde school massacre, Abbott allocated $100 million of Texas Education Agency surplus funds for school safety. About half went to bullet-resistant shields for school police officers and $17.1 million for school districts to buy silent panic alert technology. It’s not enough.

Mental health support for students is another huge, expensive need, one that has surged with the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported children’s mental health-related emergency visits increased 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11 and 31 percent for children 12 to 17 in 2020 compared with 2019. Consider that the American Psychiatric Association has reported half of mental illness begins by age 14.

Texans Care for Children, a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan children’s policy organization, has called for increased funding for children’s mental health needs, including dedicated school mental health funding to stabilize children in crisis and serve them before a crisis occurs.

We also know from the Texas House investigative committee report in response to the Robb Elementary shooting that many mental health red flags were missed.

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