Business leaders fear years of economic strain if $17B in federal funds don’t get to public schools

Education

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Business leaders across Texas are adding to the political pressure on state leadership to get the approximately $17 billion in stimulus dollars earmarked for public education into the hands of school districts.

27 different Texas Chambers of Commerce, including in Austin, wrote to Gov. Greg Abbott, demanding clarity on how much money local school districts will get and when.

They say the future of the state’s economy rests on public educators preparing students for a demanding workforce in highly competitive markets among a rapidly growing population.

“The educational impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic threaten our ability to maintain the significant
momentum we have built to leverage talent as a strategic asset for Texas,” the letter read. “Without swift and targeted intervention, the college and career readiness of our future workforce will
suffer considerably.”

Chris Wallace, the North Texas Commission President and Former Chief Operating Officer for the Texas Association of Business echoed those sentiments, saying the federal dollars are more than just education recovery.

“If we do not take action to accelerate student learning now, at all levels, we could be looking at a decade or more of a compromised workforce,” Wallace said.

State lawmakers, embedded within the house public education committee, say the state is still searching for guidance from the U.S. Department of Education. Some are concerned districts may not use the money as the federal government intended, which could lead to repercussions years down the line.

“If they are not used appropriately and in a way that the federal government expects, then those dollars could have what’s called a “clawback” on them, where the federal government could take those dollars back and create further issues for our ISDs,” said Republican Representative Brad Buckley. “These additional dollars, they do have strings attached. And the state can’t do anything about that. We just have to have clear guidance on how that is used.”

Republican representative Gary Van Deaver said the state is actively seeking waivers from the federal government. One example he suggested would be a waiver that takes into consideration the amount of money the state has already poured into public education through HB3. He said this would offset any calculations intended to ensure equity among public education and higher education within the stimulus package.

“I don’t think anyone expected us to keep our commitment to HB3, but we have done that this session. So we are still pouring a lot of extra dollars into public education,” Van Deaver said. “No one is suggesting pulling back on HB3, it’s just a matter of getting the feds to allow us to pull that number out of the calculation when we calculate the equity issue between higher education and public education.”

Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who approved the stimulus packages in Washington, said if state leadership doesn’t act soon, he will consider filing a congressional amendment which singles out Texas and forces the hand of Abbott. After the 2008 financial crisis, Doggett successfully offered a similar amendment when Gov. Rick Perry held office. It was repealed, however, after Republicans gained control.

“We may need to consider further legislative remedies. It’s just wrong to leave our schools in no better situation than if we never voted for any relief money at all.” Doggett said. “I just think that the local school trustees are the ones who should be making the decisions on how this federal money should be allocated, not the governor,” Doggett said.

Doggett said he believes additional guidance will be forthcoming from the Department of Education.

Doggett’s office calculated the latest estimates of federal funding being withheld from Central Texas school districts. Austin ISD would be in line to get $275 million. Del Valle ISD would receive $40 million. Hays and San Marcos CISDs would get $26 million a piece.

Reach KXAN’s Education Reporter Alex Caprariello by email at alexc@kxan.com or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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