Students draw their self-portrait, including their masks, in Mrs. Hogan's kindergarten class on the first day of in-person classes at Highland Village Elementary. State leaders have said part of the hold up is a requirement that the state has to invest an extra $1 billion in higher education in order to unlock the K-12 funding. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

Congressional Democrats condemn Abbott for not releasing billions in federal stimulus dollars intended for Texas public schools

All 13 Texas Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin, signed a letter last week to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona condemning Gov. Greg Abbott for not releasing federal stimulus funding intended for public education.

The letter comes as Abbott and other state leaders have held up the disbursement of $17.9 billion of additional federal funding intended for Texas school districts. The money was allocated through multiple aid packages passed by Congress over the past year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

State leaders have said part of the hold up is a requirement that the state has to invest an extra $1 billion in higher education in order to unlock the K-12 funding. State officials also used more than $1 billion in federal education funding from the first stimulus package last year to make up existing budget shortfalls, rather than using that money to supplement the public education budget.

“Governor Abbott is one of only two governors in the country to grab 100% of the [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] funds approved in the CARES Act, denying Texas schools direct access to $1.2 billion,” Congressional Democrats wrote in their letter to Cardona. “These resources were desperately needed for pandemic-related expenses incurred during the last school year.”

A representative for Abbott did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment. In recent weeks, the governor’s office and TEA have pointed to the state’s efforts to fully fund virtual learning and guarantee fully funded budgets for school districts regardless of reductions in attendance because of the pandemic. A spokesperson for Abbott also previously said that the proportion of funding going to higher education has decreased because of increases in K-12 investments.

While Abbott and other officials claim that they cannot start flowing the federal dollars to schools until they receive further guidance on the use of these funds from the federal government, education advocates argue that about $1 billion in funding for higher education is a small price to pay to receive the nearly $18 billion in available relief for public schools. State officials are asking for a waiver that would allow them to bypass the higher education funding requirement.

School districts across the state are continuing to put together budgets for the next academic year. Through stimulus funding for education, Congress intended to address student needs during the pandemic like mental health resources, counselors and additional staff members. But as time goes on, schools will run out of time to hire much-needed teachers and staffers if they can’t access more funding.

“These funds were intended to help schools address learning loss, meet mental health challenges with the increase of youth suicide, provide tutoring and remedial assistance, close the digital divide, improve ventilation and a host of other locally determined needs,” the letter from the Democrats stated. “But due to bad faith denial and delay of these funds by Governor Abbott, not a single dollar of the already-approved ESSER funds have reached Texas schools.”

In the past, TEA has disputed the claim that no federal education funding has gone to Texas schools, saying that over $1 billion for education from the CARES Act allowed the state to fund each district according to its pre-pandemic budget. According to a statement that TEA sent to The Texas Tribune on Monday, the state just received clarifying guidance from the Department of Education about how to access and allocate these federal stimulus funds. TEA is currently reviewing that information and will have more updates at a later date.

“We’ve always known that the next step would be to adjust our models based upon the guidance, and to work with the Legislative Budget Board and others to understand what would be required under these federal laws given the interrelationship between K-12 and higher education funding,” TEA told the Tribune in an email. “TEA will continue to support elected decision-makers as they consider what this means for appropriations.”

Laura Yeager, a parent of Texas public school graduates and a founder of education funding initiative Just Fund It TX, thanked Doggett for the letter and said she hopes this action will put enough pressure on Abbott for him to make releasing federal education funds a top priority.

“[The dollars] are urgently needed and there has been an outpouring of support from parents, educators, businesses and communities to get these dollars to schools as intended,” Yeager said. “We hope this will move the Governor to begin releasing funds to schools ASAP.”

Beyond Abbott’s position, a debate has also emerged between state legislators and education advocates over who should have the power to allocate federal stimulus funding for public schools. State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston and the chair of the House Public Education Committee, recently told The Texas Tribune that elected legislators have the final say over budgetary measures and where funds flow. Educators and advocates, on the other hand, have argued that the money should go directly to individual districts as Congress initially intended.

“I agree that the Legislative branch should determine the amount of investment in our schools — in Austin, the Texas Legislature and in Washington, the Congress,” Doggett said. “When the Congress provides federal funds for local schools, a state Governor should not obstruct that legislative purpose. I do think that local school trustees are probably in the best position currently to determine how to utilize these funds given the diverse ways the pandemic has impacted our State.”

Author: DUNCAN AGNEW –  The Texas Tribune

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