Texas’ surging school enrollment requires even greater attention to funding needs

The latest public school enrollment figures, released by the Texas Education Agency this week, show an increase in student population of more than 19 percent during the past 10 years.

The numbers forecast even tougher times ahead for legislators, who must find ways to adequately fund public education.

For more than three decades, Texas lawmakers, often under court order, have wrestled with public school financing — particularly, how to “equalize” funding in widely disparate districts. All the while, the funding needs grew greater because of the ever-growing student enrollment.

There are now more than 5 million students in Texas public schools, with an increase of more than 820,000 between the 2002-2003 and 2012-2013 school years, the TEA report shows. Enrollment increased 57.4 percent over the last 25 years, and it doesn’t appear the growth surge will subside anytime soon.

Looking deeper into the numbers, it is clear that the state’s educational system will face more challenges as it confronts the special requirements of an increasingly changing student population.

Hispanics make up a majority (51.3 percent) of public school students, with African-Americans accounting for 12.7 percent and whites, whose percentages decreased last year, making up 30 percent. Students in bilingual or English-as-a-second-language instruction increased 46.9 percent in the past 10 years, and the number of disadvantaged students went from 2.2 million (51.8 percent) in 2002-2003 to 3.6 million (60.3 percent) in 2012-2013.

After the Legislature reduced school funding by $5.4 billion in 2011 — restoring $3.4 billion of that in 2013 — more than 600 school districts sued the state saying its financing of public education was inadequate and/or unequal. A state district judge last year declared Texas’ school funding system unconstitutional but has yet to render a final decision.

As lawmakers await the judge’s ruling on the lawsuit and the beginning of another legislative session in January, school funding will only get harder.

Traditionally, politicians running for a seat in the state house say education is one of their top priorities. It is a priority that is an ever-growing challenge.