New Data Show Most Texas Schools Aren’t Getting Mental Health Funding from the Legislature

Over the last decade, rates of students in Texas feeling hopeless, depressed, and anxious, as we described in our recent policy brief on children’s mental health. It’s really hard for a student to be “school ready” while feeling distraught, overwhelmed, or like he doesn’t matter. When a 7th grader is worried about what’s going to happen to her family after her father lost his job, staying focused during algebra can be difficult if not impossible. 

Schools will certainly play a critical role in helping students recover from the cascade of challenges and traumas they’ve encountered in recent years. The Legislature has passed important bills, like HB 18 and SB 11 in 2019, that call on school districts to do more than identify students who may be in crisis and refer their families to mental health services, but to also take steps to support the mental wellness of all students using prevention and intervention practices that are built into the school setting. 

Yet, state lawmakers have yet to provide school districts with any funding dedicated to supporting student mental health. 


The Texas Statewide Behavioral Health Coordinating Council’s behavioral health expenditure report for 2022 shows the Texas Education Agency (TEA) did not receive any portion of the $1.7 billion in general revenue distributed by the Legislature across 24 other state entities for mental health or substance abuse prevention, intervention, and treatment services. The costs of any mental health activity undertaken by TEA or school districts had to be absorbed into their general budgets or funded with outside grants, such as federal ESSER funds that are time-limited and will expire after the current school year.

The Legislature does permit school districts to use their “School Safety Allotment” (SSA) — $9.72 per student — to support student health. But the overwhelming majority of districts do not. In fact, the most recent report from the Texas School Safety Center found that only 12 percent of Texas school districts used ANY of those SSA funds — whether a few dollars per student or even just a few pennies per student — for mental health personnel and support. The data also show that 8 percent of districts spent some SSA funds on “behavioral health services” and 13 percent used a portion of their SSA funding on “suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention.” (The percentages indicate whether districts used any portion of their SSA funding on those particular activities. The percentages do not address the amount spent on each activity.)


We applaud state leaders for increased funding for the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine (TCHATT) project to create partnerships between schools districts and medical schools and health science centers to provide families with access to tele-mental health services for their children, with no direct costs to the families or the districts. Access to mental health treatment for mental disorders is incredibly important. Left untreated, childhood mental illness often leads to chronic mental illness in adulthood.

However, legislative funding for TCHATT does not help districts implement the broader range of school mental health strategies that promotes the mental wellness of all students, shields students from risks of developing a mental disorder, and helps students with mental health concerns be more successful in school. This broader range strategies includes district, campus, and classroom efforts to:

  • Ensure all students, staff, and families feel valued and respected within their schools; 
  • Use trauma-informed policies and practices; 
  • Help students develop skills that help them develop positive relationships with their teachers and peers, manage their emotions and behaviors, and make responsible decisions when faced with challenges
  • Implement schoolwide policies and classroom practices that reduce disruptive and unwanted behaviors — including things like bullying, substance use, and thoughts of suicide — while also helping students affected by trauma or mental health concerns be more successful in school; and 
  • Ensure all school staff have the knowledge and skills to recognize when a student may be struggling with a mental health concern and know their district’s protocols for providing students and families with support; and
  • Have staff available to engage and support families and to coordinate efforts across district departments and with community partners.

Fortunately, the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) enabled districts to launch or enhance campus and classroom-based strategies and practices to support students when they are at school. But what will happen when districts’ ESSER funding lapses next year? Many of the mental health support staff, teacher support, skill-building programming, and services students, teachers, and families currently have access to are at risk of going away, too.


During a recent House Select Committee on Youth Health and Safety hearing, the director of guidance counseling at Alief ISD shared information about the comprehensive range of school mental health services the school district has built up to address the growing needs of their students, supported by a patchwork of funding. The counseling department uses schoolwide strategies to help support the development of all students from pre-k through 12th grade and provides targeted support services to students who have additional needs, such as students in foster care or who are pregnant and parenting. Alief ISD has partnerships with TCHATT, Communities in Schools, and other community organizations to provide additional support to students struggling with mental health concerns and their families. The district has also leveraged time-limited private grants and federal ESSER funds to help launch district-wide social emotional learning efforts, hire additional mental health counselors, and hire a mental health liaison who can help families connect with resources in the community.  

But even with its wide array of school mental health services, Alief ISD reports that it still doesn’t have enough staff and services to meet spiking student and family needs. Given that some of the services currently provided by the districts are supported by grants, students and families in Alief ISD may have fewer school mental health service options in the future without additional support from the state.


Not all districts in Texas have as robust of a system in place to address the mental wellness of students as Alief ISD. Students’ and families’ access to basic school mental health services — like school counselors and school staff who are regularly trained in suicide prevention — shouldn’t be dependent upon on short term and unreliable funding streams that districts must currently contend with. School districts need resources to provide their students with schoolwide, targeted prevention, and individualized intervention strategies that will support the mental wellness of all students and reduce pressures on other systems like the public mental health, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems. 

Just as the Legislature created a School Safety Allotment to help districts provide for the safety needs of students, the Legislature should create a Mental Health Allotment to help districts support the mental wellness of all students. Districts should have the flexibility to use the funds to target the specific needs of their students and school community, however the strategies should align with best practice school mental health guidance issued by TEA to help districts:

  • Promote a positive school climate;
  • Teach and support skills for social, emotional, and behavioral health;
  • Reduce risk of developing mental health concerns and substance use problems;
  • Intervene early to reduce the severity of mental health and substance use concerns, and;
  • Assist families in accessing services and supports from the community.

Another way the Legislature can help is to open up the state’s School Health and Related Services (SHARS) program to allow districts to seek Medicaid reimbursement for health-related services provided to any student who is enrolled in Medicaid. Currently, districts can only bill Medicaid for certain health-related services, but only for students with disabilities who have an individualized special education plan (IEP). Changes to a federal policy in 2014 has allowed for 13 states— such as Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Utah, among others — to broaden the scope of services offered in schools, serve more students, and cover costs through a mix of federal and state Medicaid funds. However, Texas has not used this option. Authorizing districts to seek Medicaid reimbursement for mental health services delivered to a Medicaid-enrolled student would better leverage federal funding, improve access to mental health care for students, and provide districts with a reliable and much needed funding stream to provide on-going and in-person support to students. 

We’re encouraged by the level of interest that legislators have shown in student mental health this year. We look forward to working with legislators and our partners in the 2023 legislative session to make sure school districts have the resources they need to support the mental health of all students.