With billions of federal dollars on the line, education advocates demand it to be distributed as intended

Texas

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Senate Finance Committee met on Wednesday to discuss a plan for federal funds provided to the state through three different stimulus packages.

Since the pandemic began, Washington, D.C. has allocated billions of dollars to Texas. That includes major funds earmarked for public education: $1.3 billion from the CARES Act, $5.5 billion from the CRSSA Act and an estimated $12.4 billion from the ARP Act; all stimulus packages signed by President Trump and President Biden.

However, the money hasn’t necessarily been allocated statewide as the federal government had originally intended.

Last year, during the legislative hiatus, Gov. Greg Abbott made the executive decision to use the $1.3 billion in federal funds to supplant the existing funding formula for public schools outlined by the state. This provided key funding to schools at a time when they were shut down for in-person learning and looking toward a fall semester where kids would be welcomed back. However, the state provided only a fraction of what the federal government intended.

Public education advocates have likened this to “swapping” the state dollars for federal dollars, and are now calling on state lawmakers to #stoptheswap.

“We understand that the state has a large budget and that there are many places that need to be funded, but this money was earmarked for education. And if it was put in any other places, you are stealing from the children of Texas,” said Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina.

Now state budgeters are tasked with deciding how the second stimulus package of more than $5 billion and the third stimulus, estimated at around $12 billion, will be distributed and delivered.

Representative Donna Howard, who is on the House Appropriations Committee, said that the second tranche of money has not been appropriated at this time, meaning it hasn’t gone to schools for COVID-related expenses nor has it supplanted the state budget, either.

As for the third tranche, which is by far the largest sum, Rep. Howard says the state has not received an official report nor a final number from Washington. Howard, in fact, said the state is still trying to establish firm guidelines on how that money can be used.

“This is a new situation that we find ourselves in where we have not had an opportunity to weigh in on these funds,” Rep. Howard said. “We are crafting the budget right now for the next two years and we are being told that we cannot consider the federal funds in drafting these budgets because we haven’t seen them yet. And that is really tying our hands.”

Rep. Howard said she understood the struggles that public schools faced when they didn’t receive the CARES Act funding outlined for them by the federal government. She explained that money came at a time when legislators were not in session, and COVID-19 protocols, plus standard operating procedures, denied state budgeters the opportunity to meet virtually.

She said she hopes that with life returning to normal, both the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee will get the opportunity to establish a fair plan for everyone.

“We need to ensure that the bulk of the funds go to the entities to which they were intended and they should be used to defray the cost that have been incurred as a result of COVID,” Rep. Howard said. “I want to make sure the legislature, whether it’s during the session or as some mechanism after the session, has an ability to make decisions on how these appropriations are to be distributed.”

If state budgeters don’t come up with a firm plan by the end of May when the session ends, the decision on how to spend these funds falls back on the Governor. Rep. Howard said the deadline to spend the second and third tranches of money falls at the end of 2022 and 2023, respectively.

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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