This article is published in collaboration with TexasTribune.org.
F.or more than a year ago, the federal government pumped billions of dollars into school districts across the country to help them meet the demands of the pandemic. Most states have used this pot with stimulus packages as Congress intended: purchasing personal protective equipment for students and teachers, laptops for children studying from home, improved ventilation systems for school buildings to prevent virus transmission, and other costs .
But in Texas, local schools have not yet received an extra penny from the more than $ 19 billion in government stimulus money given to the state. After Congress passed the first stimulus package last year, officials used the state’s $ 1.3 billion stake in education to fill other gaps in the state budget, leaving public schools little extra to cover costs were available during the pandemic.
Now educators and stakeholders fear the state could do the same with the remaining $ 17.9 billion raised from the other two stimulus packages for public schools in Texas. Due to federal requirements, Texas must invest over $ 1 billion of its own state budget in higher education in order to receive the third round of stimulus funding for K-12 public schools. Experts said the state requested a waiver to avoid sending that extra money to higher education, but the process has resulted in significant delays in local districts receiving much-needed funding.
“Headmasters’ budgets are being eaten up with personal protective equipment, tutoring, and trying to re-engage children while the legislature sits on a ton of money,” said Michelle Smith, vice president of politics and advocacy for Raise your Texas hand. “And that will have an impact on our school districts not only this school year, but also in the coming school years.”
A spokesperson for Governor Greg Abbott told the Texas Tribune that heads of state are waiting for further instructions from the U.S. Department of Education before opening the spigot and pouring billions into school districts.
Given the repeal motion, Texas lawmakers will likely not decide how to distribute the money until they get feedback from Washington, DC or until lawmakers finalize their state budget plans. However, the waiver only applies to the latest stimulus package, so the state can unlock $ 5.5 billion for education from the second aid law at any time.
Libby Cohen, director of advocacy and public relations at Raise Your Hand Texas, said dozens of states are already sending these federal dollars to public schools, and the latest stimulus package also provides guidance on how to use that money. According to Laura Yeager, founder of Just Fund It TX, Texas and New York are the only two states that did not allocate additional funding to public schools during the pandemic.
“We find it confusing that Texas is applying the brakes as much as it is in this particular area,” said Cohen. “The dollars are there … and districts need to know if and when they are coming because they are writing their budgets and making decisions about summer programming.”
Many Texas teachers and administrators say they need money now and want lawmakers to get federal funding to school districts as soon as possible.
However, the state legislature, which has the greatest power over budgeting and education funding, wants lawmakers to decide what to do with this federal stimulus money, rather than local school districts.
“Federal funding will ultimately go to school districts, but the overriding question is how that funding should be spent and who should make that decision.” said rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston Chairman of the House Public Education Committee. “I think the primary responsibility for raising Texan baby vests is under the Texas Constitutional Legislation.”
Legislators’ reluctance to free up funding is making the path difficult for educators across the state. Dr. Mark Henry, superintendent of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, said he was already in the process of creating two separate plans for next year’s budget: one that includes state aid funding earmarked for the school district and an emergency plan for moving onwards without it.
When Cypress-Fairbanks ISD finally receives its expected share of funding for stimulus education, Henry plans to use those dollars to support mental health support students need as they move back to face-to-face study this fall. Many districts across Texas had trouble engaging students this year, and many students simply stopped taking online classes.
“We look at high schoolers who are not engaged and drop out,” said Smith. “And instead of devoting additional resources to the school districts to find these children, these children are now lost.”
A spokesman for the Texas Education Agency said districts could still access funding from the first federal incentive bill by submitting a grant application to the department. However, experts added that such regulations often discourage smaller school districts with fewer resources from receiving the funds.
“Although school buildings were closed two-thirds of the school year due to the pandemic, the Texas school districts are fully funded for the entire 2019-20 school year,” the spokesman said. “Despite the significant downturn in economic activity caused by shutdowns related to COVID-19, it’s important to note that the school district’s funding remains in full here in Texas, which is not the case in many other states in the country. “
On Tuesday morning, Raise Your Hand Texas officials left a six-foot-high stool in the state capitol with the message “Fund TxEd Recovery.” Last week, the House Appropriations Committee passed a minor amendment to the state budget calling for no education funding to be “used to reduce state funding for local education agencies”.
The addition of this language to the budget provided a crucial win for proponents of Texas education, but the Senate declined to include almost all of the nearly $ 18 billion federal funding for Texas public schools in the new version of the budget, which was released on Tuesday afternoon was adopted. In a press release, the Texas State Teachers Association described educators as “angry” with Senate officials over the decision.
“There are many people who make education decisions who have never spent a day teaching a class, running a campus, or running a school district,” said Henry. “As long as you have people making decisions who have never been in those roles, they’re not going to make great decisions.”
Disclosure: Raise Your Hand Texas and the Texas State Teachers Association have sponsored the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, impartial news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full one List of them here.
Duncan Agnew is rapporteur for the Texas Tribune, the only member-supported, digital-first, impartial media organization that educates Texans on public policy, politics, government, and the state.
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