AUSTIN, Texas — Note: This story first appeared in the Texas Tribune
As legislators start a new session with a historic surplus and already pointing to their priorities on public education, a new survey released Tuesday shows Texans support teacher raises, want an increase in public school funding and are split on voucher-like programs.
The Charles Butt Foundation surveyed 1,125 Texan adults for its fourth annual Texas Education Poll, which included about 340 public school parents. Most respondents were supportive of public schools and approved of their performance.
“Texas parents are satisfied with the quality of their school so that is something that gave us a lot of hope,” said Audrey Boklage, vice president of learning and impact at the Charles Butt Foundation. Boklage said her team has been handing out the poll’s results to lawmakers at the Capitol so they can consider the data as conversations over public education policy begin.
With teacher shortages, financial struggles, pandemic-related learning loss and political spats over how race and sex should be taught, schools and the public education system will be among the most prominent topics that lawmakers will discuss this session. Legislation is already being considered that could possibly change the way the state funds schools, give schools more money per student and expand contentious “school choice” programs that give parents state money to school their children outside of the public education system.
In the Butt survey, 89% of respondents supported increasing state funding to boost teacher salaries, which haven’t seen an increase since 2019.
Some lawmakers and public education advocates believe giving teachers pay raises will help tackle the teacher shortage that the pandemic exacerbated. Lawmakers in both the Texas House and Senate have pitched raises for teachers, including allocating additional funding for a program that gives teachers raises based on their performance. The House’s budget proposal also calls for an increase in the amount schools get per student, which has not increased in four years. On Tuesday, state Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, filed House Bill 1548, which would give teachers a $15,000 pay raise.
In the wake of May’s school shooting in Uvalde, survey participants said that school safety is a top priority, with 91% of them saying they support increased funding for safety programs. More than half of the parents who responded to the survey said they thought their child has at least a moderate chance of experiencing cyberbullying, and 48% said the same about physical bullying or fights. Two-thirds of parents surveyed said there is a moderate risk that their child may experience some form of bullying, sexual harassment or discrimination while at school.
Lawmakers have allotted about $600 million to improve school safety under both the House and Senate budget proposals.
“School choice” programs like vouchers — state-sponsored scholarships for private schools that have also become a shorthand when talking about measures that would take taxpayer money from public schools — were more divisive among poll respondents. Of all respondents, 54% said they opposed a voucher program in their communities if it would reduce local public schools’ funding; parents were evenly split on the same question, with 49% saying they were in favor and 49% saying they were against.
Prominent political figures such as Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Texas GOP have listed “school choice” as a legislative priority. Republican lawmakers who support voucher-like programs believe this session may be their best shot to pass something like an education savings account program, which would allow parents to use state funds to pay for their children’s private school, online schooling or private tutors.
When asked about a scenario in which private schools were to get state funds, 88% of survey respondents believe the state should require them to publicly report their finances, and 73% of respondents believe the state should require them to follow state curriculum.
Boklage said the most important finding from the survey is that a majority of Texans think positively about public schools after almost three years of uncertainty.
“Texans, from this poll, seem pretty plugged in,” she said. “They have opinions about their public schools and they are coming from a place of support.”