Texas senior leadership optimistic about funding

When the Texas legislature met in January 2021 at the height of the global pandemic, higher education representatives traveled to Austin and prepared for budget cuts as the state struggled with how to make sure it could weather the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

Two years later, the tone of the start of the 2023 session has changed a lot.

This is mainly because Texas’s total revenue is projected to be $188.2 billion to fund the state’s businesses over the next two years – an unprecedented 26% increase over the previous budget cycle.

Despite competing demands from organizations across the state for access to a portion of the surplus dollars, higher education leaders and advocates are optimistic that the state will use some of that money to invest in its public universities and community colleges.

“It looks like we have good momentum for this legislative session,” Texas Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller told The Texas Tribune.

Six of the four-year university systems have already submitted a proposal to lawmakers to freeze undergraduate education for two years in exchange for nearly $1 billion in additional funding to help stave off costs to maintain their campuses in the face of rising inflation.

Meanwhile, two-year community college attorneys are backing legislation that will completely change how they fund their activities. Last fall, a state-appointed committee issued a set of recommendations to update the state’s community college funding model. The proposed changes have attracted the attention of the country in the field of higher education.

“Many are looking to Texas to see if Texas can set the tone, set the pace for the rest of the country in how funding can happen,” said Kenyatta Lovett, managing director of higher education at the nonprofit Educate Texas.

Here are some important topics in higher education that are worth highlighting during this session.

Community College Funding Changes

Texas funds its community colleges with state funding, local property taxes, and student fees. But the state’s contribution has not kept up with the pace, accounting for less than 25% of total funding. Legislators determine how much money goes into that bank before funding is distributed to schools based on factors like enrollment and courses taught—essentially pitting them against each other to get funding.

School budgets also depend on the regional economy, enrollment trends, and property values ​​in their areas. Growth is the driving force behind each of these factors, and the state’s uneven demographic trends mean that funding for each community college can vary greatly by region.

The Texas Community College Funding Commission, tasked with looking into these issues, last fall recommended that the state create a system that determines community college funding based on how many students earn degrees or certificates and how many students transfer to a four-year university to continue their studies. their research. Under such a system, colleges would compete with each other to determine how much funding they receive from the state every two years. The committee also called for more need-based student financial aid and suggested that colleges receive more money if they educate more students who are deemed at risk of failing a degree.

The proposed changes, which have received broad support from community college leaders, are estimated to cost more than $600 million in the next biennium. Legislators will have to decide whether to revamp college funding formulas and what this new funding system will look like.

“We seem to have good traction and excitement around these recommendations, strong support from the community colleges themselves, from the chambers,” Keller said, adding that it would be “historic” if lawmakers approved the proposed funding system.

Donations to the Texas Institute of Technology and the University of Houston

The Texas Constitution gives the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M University System access to an endowment known as the Permanent University Fund, a fund of nearly $32 billion in assets that comes from oil and gas revenues generated on the state’s 2.1 million acres of land in the West. Texas.

For years, some lawmakers and officials from the University of Houston and Texas Institute of Technology—one of the largest non-UT or A&M institutions—have argued that the failure of other universities to connect to PUF has prevented these institutions from improving their academic performance. national rankings and increase your prestige and status.

Calls to find additional sources of funding for these universities resurfaced when UT-Austin announced it was leaving the Big 12 conference. contracts, access to conference championships, and the wider Lubbock community, whose economic well-being is inextricably linked to the university.

In response, two West Texas lawmakers submitted legislation during a second special session in 2021 that would amend the PUF and reallocate some of the funding to new research institutes and other universities. The bill failed, but Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said they would support creating a separate fund for Tech and UH. Abbott has set aside a $1 billion annual fund for each school.

“We want all of our schools to be great,” Patrick said in November when he laid out the idea as one of his legislative priorities. “We have to help everyone,” adding that he thinks UT and Texas A&M can “step in and help us help these other schools,” though he didn’t say how he thought they could.

Texas Tech University president Lawrence Schovanek said any regular fund would allow the university to better educate students, hire faculty and get more money for research, but he didn’t want to limit the conversation to the idea of ​​a new $1 billion donation.

“This is not about promoting one or two institutions; it creates more institutions across the state that are in this preeminent class, so we get our fair share of the federal [research and development funding] obligations,” he said.

The Critical Fight for Race Theory May Reach the Universities

In 2021, Texas lawmakers restricted the ability of public school teachers to discuss current events and the history of racism in America in the classroom. Patrick tweeted last year that he plans to extend this restriction to higher education.

“I won’t stand by and let UT’s crazy Marxist professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory,” Patrick. wrote on Twitter. “We banned it in a publicly funded K-12 school, and we will ban it in a publicly funded high school.”

Critical race theory is an academic discipline that studies how race and racism have shaped America’s legal and social systems, but the term has become a rallying cry among conservatives across the country, who have used it as shorthand to describe conversations about race that they believe are not suitable for schools.

While such bans were more common in K-12 public schools, other states have also introduced restrictions in colleges. These bans basically prohibit the discussion of certain ideas related to race or gender in orientations or seminars, not in classes and training programs, according to a list of such laws from PEN America, a non-profit organization that advocates free speech.

In Florida, Gov. Rick DeSantis signed one of the toughest anti-CRT laws in the nation. This limits the types of conversations that can take place at public universities, including how university professors present the curriculum and discuss race in the college classroom. In November, a federal judge temporarily blocked part of the law relating to higher education.

State Senator Brandon Creighton, an R-Conro member who sponsored a Senate bill last session to ban the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools, said he expects similar bills to be introduced that would focus on limiting these topics in institutions of higher education. . education, but he said it was too early to share details.

Faculty prepare for tenure battle

When Patrick called for an end to critical race theory in higher education early last year, he drew nationwide attention when he also said he wanted to abolish tenure for new hired teachers as a way to crack down on academic teaching in public colleges. . and universities.

The proposal received swift condemnation from national educator groups and raised concerns among educators across the state.

Since then, Patrick has been more reserved about his specific tenure plans, although he included reforming the practice on his list of priorities during a press conference in late November.

According to Pat Heinzelman, president of the Texas Faculty Association, faculty groups are ready to fight any proposal that could affect tenure at the university level.

Heinzelman said she and others have been hard at work educating lawmakers about the intricacies of tenure and how its repeal would raise serious questions about academic freedom, hurt university rankings and make faculty recruitment more difficult.

“Ten time is what provides freedom of research, academic freedom, without the fear of being fired just because you have new ideas or you let ideas be discussed in class,” she said.

Heinzelman also noted that tenured faculty members are typically held accountable through other means, such as annual evaluations, tenure reviews, and research requirements.

UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell has defended his post in the past. In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Texas Tech’s Schowanek said he believes government budget leaders have a vested interest in raising the national reputation of all Texas universities, and faculty recruitment is key to that goal.

“We have all realized that our ability to hire world-class faculty depends on having an attractive environment for them, including length of tenure,” he said.

However, the perception by some conservatives of universities as bastions of liberal indoctrination has prompted legislators to submit other bills aimed at higher education initiatives to promote diversity, fairness, and inclusiveness. State Rep. Carl Tepper, R-Lubbock, has filed a bill that would require public universities to develop policies that “demonstrate a commitment to intellectual freedom and diversity of viewpoints” and prevent them from funding diversity, equity and inclusion offices.

“College tuition has skyrocketed and parents of public university students don’t want their money to be spent on political indoctrination, partisan politics or reverse racism,” Tepper said in a statement to the Austin American-Statesman. “They want their child to graduate with skills for a better future.”

Heads of state faculties criticized the law.

“This bill is apocalyptic in terms of academic freedom and essentially puts an end to lecturing, researching, or writing articles about race, class, gender identity, sexuality, or participation in any critical history or analysis of religious ideas,” Heitzelman said. “It will kill the humanities.”

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