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At the beginning of the legislative session, advocates had high hopes over a policy idea to create a new mental health allotment for schools, a pot of money specifically earmarked for expenses like counselors, trainings and other resources. Texas lawmakers were budgeting with what the State Comptroller called a "once in a lifetime" surplus of nearly $33 billion.
"We really saw this as an opportunity," said Rebecca Fowler, the Public Policy Director at Mental Health America Greater Houston. "Now more than ever, it was almost an imperative to move forward with that clear, direct ask for a school mental health allotment because there are enough resources this session."
State funding for mental health resources comes from general revenue dollars or the school safety allotment that the Legislature created in 2019.
That often means school districts need to make tough choices, according to Jennifer Blaine, the Superintendent at Spring Branch ISD and member of the Texas School Alliance.
"What happens is when you start looking at: ‘am I going to fund mental health supports or am I gonna harden the facility?,' I’ll be honest, a lot of times the hardening of the facility wins out — the cameras, the locks, the vestibules," Blaine said.
At least five bills putting forth this idea were filed this session. One version, Senate Bill 948 filed by Senator Royce West, would give each school district $100,000 or more for mental health resources.
More than 30 organizations sent a letter to lawmakers earlier this month in support of the mental health allotment and listing potential ways schools districts could choose to use the money.
These bills haven't made it out of the committee, meaning they're effectively dead at this point in the process. The allotment could potentially be tacked on as an amendment to a bill further along in the legislative process.
"The bill didn’t get a hearing and all of this would have been a lot easier if it did," Rebecca Fowler said.
Fowler believes that the flexibility the bill affords is key in addressing the diverse needs of schools across the entire state; however, the lack of specificity made it harder for lawmakers to throw their support behind it.
"I think because (the mental health allotment) is such a broad universal support, it is more difficult to kind of get the direct buy-in because if we’re talking about metrics, what would those be? Because you can’t have clear metrics."
On top of that, lawmakers have questioned the need for an allotment. During a Senate Finance Committee meeting in February, Republican Senator Charles Perry pointed to the hundreds of millions of dollars the state is already spending on school mental health.
"Before we design a whole new special mental health allotment for public schools, I would like to see an allotment calculation," Perry said. "We’re already spending money that’s maybe not specific to a district weighted allotment, but I think you’d be shocked that when you put it in our per capita basis per student, the mental health dollars are already available statewide."
The base budget had a proposal to double spending on resources like the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine (TCHATT) under the Child Mental Health Consortium.
In response, Democrat Royce West said schools need more flexibility. Specific programs don’t address every type of need at every type of school.
"One size does not fit all, we always say that in the state of Texas," West said. "TCHATT is a great program, but it’s not the only program."
Mental health advocates are hopeful that the allotment is at the beginning stages of building momentum and will come back in future sessions.
"I think it really is the slow process of after three, four or five sessions of hearing, a mental health allotment that eventually it will kind of make more sense," Fowler said. "It will just likely be more tricky because we are not going to see the funding levels that we’ve had this past year."
With the way things look now, school administrators are focusing their attention on something more likely to make it through — Senate Bill 11. If it passes, schools would get a big bump in the school safety allotment — a pot of money that could go toward mental health expenses.
"It’s something I’m certainly not going to complain about," said Jennifer Blaine with Spring Branch ISD, "I mean, $100 per student is a far cry from where we are now, which is $9.72."
This funding is all the more important, as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) or one-time federal dollars related to the pandemic run out next year. Blaine said that money has made a big impact in expanding mental health resources at Spring Branch.
"It’s not going to bridge the gap. No, there’s just too many needs out there. A lot of these supports you know, we won’t be able to keep all of them," Blaine said.
She said those supports, whether that is safety or mental health related, are necessary for schools to do their core job — to educate students.
"At the end of the day, if your kids and your teachers don’t feel safe, if they don’t feel like their basic needs are met, then learning becomes a real challenge," Blaine said.