3 areas of opportunity: Strategic investments in education

With a budget surplus and high interest by Texas voters, now is the time to double down on strategic investments in public education for K–12. Here’s a breakdown of why.

Strategic Investments: Public Education Funding 

With the incoming Texas Legislature having the largest surplus in its history—an additional $44 billion from the General Revenue, the Economic Stabilization Fund and unused American Rescue Plan Act funds—to write the next biennium’s budget, there is an opportunity to make long-lasting, high-impact investments in public education. Texas schools also have almost $12.3 billion—about 64%—of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds left as of September 2022 to spend. Of this, $2.8 billion must be obligated by September 2023, and $9.5 billion must be obligated by September 2024. 

Strategic Investments: Texas Voter Interests

In our 5th Texas Voter Poll, we recently asked Texas voters how they would prioritize funds from the $27 billion in General Revenue surplus projected by the Texas Comptroller. Education funding received the largest allocation: Texas voters called for 20% of the state’s surplus (about $5.4 billion) to be applied toward public school education.

A graph depicts the answers to Texas 2036's question "The State of Texas has a $27 billion general revenue budget surplus. Please tell me what percentage of these funds you would apply to these until no money remains…" in its 5th Texas Voter Poll. Please email media@texas2036.org for full results.

Strategic Investments: Legislative Appropriations Requests

On Sept. 30, the Legislative Budget Board and Governor’s Office of Budget and Policy held a joint hearing to review the Texas Education Agency’s Legislative Appropriations Request—also known as LARs, these public hearings help determine funding allocations for state agencies prior to legislative sessions. Texas 2036 education Policy Advisor, Madison Yandell provided testimony during this hearing to highlight three areas of opportunity in K-12 policy for strategic investments. Below is a closer look at each area.

  1. Transitioning to high-quality instructional materials 
  2. Strengthening college and career readiness outcomes data, and 
  3. Sustained funding for accelerated learning 
Transitioning to High-Quality Instructional Materials 

There is a gap between the time students spend on classwork and the rigor of that classwork. In a large-scale survey by TNTP—formerly The New Teaching Project—of more than 20,000 student work samples, 5,000 student assignments and nearly 1,000 lesson plans, the organization found a concerning disconnect between the work students are asked to do in class and what would be grade-level appropriate for those students:

  • 71% of students in classrooms met expectations that their teacher had for that assignment;
  • more than 50% received As or Bs; and,
  • 17% were actually on grade level in the classwork that they were completing.

In the TNTP report, they found that when students who started the year behind were given grade-level appropriate assignments they closed the achievement gap by 7 months.

We recommend the Legislature fund TEA efforts to improve school curricula with high-quality instructional materials, giving teachers more time while improving student outcomes. With higher-quality materials, teachers can close learning gaps more quickly than with lower-quality materials and spend less time looking for outside resources and more time on instruction. The purchase of higher-quality curricula on open educational resources is a one-time funding outlay that reaps long-term rewards.

The availability of one-time funds provides fiscally prudent timing for a transition to higher quality materials which has a high return on investment in improving student outcomes. The state could explore ways to encourage districts to utilize remaining federal dollars to complete purchases of instructional materials while also using the state General Revenue to conduct an evaluation of the rigor of curriculum used in districts across the state for grade level appropriateness.

TEA estimates this will cost the state approximately $350 million for reforms to the instructional materials approval and review process along with support for district implementation. The state also could explore ways to encourage districts to utilize their remaining federal dollars to complete the purchase of new instructional materials.

In addition, if the funding were partially spent on creating permanent infrastructure for evaluating instructional materials to get districts better information on what materials work best, districts can direct their future Instructional Materials and Technology Allotment funding toward the purchase of better curricula going forward. 

Improving College and Career Readiness Outcomes Data

The Legislature has taken bold steps to improve the state’s education-to-workforce pipeline. However, Texans must continue to push forward to improve outcomes across the educational pipeline. We must relentlessly pursue our goal of more students graduating college- or career-ready and on track to earn a self-sufficient, family-sustaining wage.

This will require improved workforce data infrastructures. Specific improvements are needed to improve linkages between education programs and their workforce outcomes. Indicators used to designate a student as college- and career-ready have little-to-no data support linking achievement of the indicator to future success either in the workforce or college. This makes it difficult for policymakers to make informed decisions about adding or removing indicators from the accountability and school finance systems.

We recommend the Legislature provide $250,000 for TEA to analyze the postsecondary and workforce outcomes for each college- and career-readiness indicator. This would allow the Legislature to continue aligning the accountability and finance systems toward programs proven to drive student achievement. This would also strengthen the Legislature and Governor Office’s ongoing work around the Tri-Agency partnership, tightening the linkages between data systems and providing students, taxpayers and policymakers with better information on student and workforce outcomes.

This type of data could inform a differentiated approach to College, Career and Military Readiness weights that revolves around the relative poverty of the student (using our current compensatory education tiers as a baseline). If there are indicators in the system that work better for students from low-income households, then the A-F system could reward more points for students from low-income households that receive this indicator. This would further drive long-term success and outcomes improvement, particularly for our most struggling students.

Sustained Funding for Accelerated Learning 

In the 87th Session, the Legislature invested heavily in assisting districts in recovering from pandemic learning losses. This included putting programs in place to accelerate learning in House Bill 1525 and House Bill 4545 and directing the use of federal funds toward these programs through contingency riders. 

Texas has historically struggled to catch-up students who are behind. According to TEA analysis of STAAR data, only 7% of third graders who were below grade level in third grade math met grade level within two years. The need to rapidly and effectively improve student outcomes existed prior to the pandemic but has dramatically increased as a result of it.

We urge the Legislature to establish a sustainable funding strategy for these programs. This could be done through a variety of mechanisms. For example, the state could require districts that receive compensatory education funds to continue to meet the accelerated learning requirements in HB 4545 and HB 1525.  

To continue to support this work, the state could provide increased weights or increase the basic allotment to fund these requirements. In addition, through grant programs like the Strong Foundations Framework Grant Program, the state can provide additional support to districts to accelerate learning further.  

Lastly, it is imperative the state maintain commitments to evidence-based reforms passed in House Bill 3.

The cost of these programs will depend on the structure of the program. The chief cost driver would be changing weights in the school finance system. Grant programs would be determined by the amount that the legislature can and is willing to invest.   

In 2022, on the heels of the first year of HB 4545 implementation, more students are on grade level in reading than ever before, and significant improvement was made in math. It is also worth remembering that the state removed the STAAR passage requirements in fifth and eighth grade within this legislation. Continuation of the evidence-based practices required by HB 4545 will ensure students who are struggling academically receive the necessary learning supports and help schools significantly improve their approach to instruction in the primary grades.