If the 86th Texas Legislature ends with new school finance rules in place, it will answer the prayers and requests of leaders and educators across Galveston County.
For years, area educators have called for drastic changes to the way the state funds public education. But those calls mostly went unanswered in the Texas Legislature.
This year, the Texas House and Senate both unveiled plans to reform school finance, each featuring an array of major components.
The House bill, for instance, proposes spending $9 billion to increase funding per student by about $900, fund full-day prekindergarten, create a program to recruit and retain quality teachers and reduce recapture payments.
The Senate bill, meanwhile, also would fund full-day prekindergarten, offer teachers money for merit and increase funding for low-income students.
Funding for prekindergarten, in particular, is something local educators have sought for several years.
Texas City Independent School District, for instance, considers the program a priority and trustees have funded it despite a shortfall in recent years, said Melissa Tortorici, spokeswoman for the district.
The Galveston County Schools Consortium, which is made up of representatives from county school districts, listed funding for full-day prekindergarten programs for all students regardless of eligibility requirements as one of its legislative priorities.
Despite the fact that the state currently offers only half-day funding for prekindergarten programs, many local districts, including Texas City, offer a full-day program, Tortorici said.
That means district officials must turn to a variety of other sources, such as federal grants, to cover the difference, Tortorici said.
“While our district chooses to make early education a priority, we firmly believe that the state of Texas should be funding ours and all pre-K programs in the state,” said Susan Myers, deputy superintendent with Texas City Independent School District.
Texas City receives about $775,000 toward the $1.3 million total cost of the program each year, leaving a $525,000 shortfall, Tortorici said.
Galveston, meanwhile, has partnered with several nonprofit groups and opened the Moody Early Childhood Center in August 2016 to provide early childhood education to islanders.
For some area school districts, the problem is even more complicated than funding alone.
“The biggest dilemma for Dickinson Independent School District, should the state approve funding for full-day prekindergarten, is space,” Dickinson Superintendent Carla Voelkel said. “At this time, our district does not have the space available at our elementary campuses to double the number of prekindergarten classrooms.”
Dickinson’s population is growing between 200 to 400 students each year, or a total of about 3,000 more students in 10 years, Voelkel said.
Data shows that high-quality preschool programs give benefits to disadvantaged students, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made improving prekindergarten education a priority starting in 2015 and, with the passage of House Bill 4 that year, added $118 million in extra grant funds each year for 578 school districts.
But the 2017 legislative budget kept House Bill 4’s extra requirements for the programs, but didn’t renew the grant funding, despite Abbott’s request to increase the amount.
While full-day prekindergarten funding is a key priority, it is only one part of the legislature’s proposal to fix what educators say is a broken school finance system.
More and more school boards across Galveston County are forced to adopt deficit budgets as they struggle with myriad issues. Those include increasingly large payments to the state as part of the so-called Robin Hood funding program, which “recaptures” local property tax revenue and sends it to other districts.
Recapture is part of state legislation created in 1993. Under the law, tax revenue for maintenance and operation from property-wealthy school districts, such as Galveston and Texas City, is taken and distributed to property-poor school districts.
The legislative session runs until May 27.