Skirting subtlety, education advocates installed a 6-foot tall, three-legged stool in the basement of the Texas Capitol on Tuesday as a message to legislators to fully fund schools by releasing billions in federal stimulus dollars to districts.

Two San Antonians, H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt and former House Speaker Joe Straus, are among the advocates urging Gov. Greg Abbott and state legislators to send almost $18 billion from the second and third rounds of federal stimulus funds to Texas school districts. At least 38 states have initiated the process to distribute the federal funds to schools, according to public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas (RYHT).

The three-legged stool RYHT installed at the Capitol represents three key funding streams the group says schools need to withstand and recover from the pandemic: the increased school funding created by the 2019 school finance reform law, all funds normally designated for school districts without penalties for pandemic-related enrollment declines, and the $17.9 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds intended to reimburse schools for pandemic-related expenses and learning loss initiatives. RYHT also delivered miniature three-legged stools with one missing leg to all legislators.

In letters to Abbott and Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), Butt wrote that the federal dollars are “badly needed” by students to address learning loss resulting from the pandemic and that using the money to plug other budget shortfalls would be “extremely disappointing and a real disservice to our students.”

“Now is the time to provide financial assistance to our districts so they may begin making plans for this summer and the next school year,” Butt wrote. “The reengagement of our students is vital. We cannot afford for this current health crisis to become a generational education crisis that impacts the Texas economy for years to come.”

Bexar County school districts stand to receive about $1.02 billion of the federal stimulus funds. Several members of San Antonio’s state legislative delegation have said they want schools to receive all the funds to which they are entitled to under federal law, but preliminary state budget drafts do not currently include the $17.9 billion in federal funds.

Public health leaders are calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to consider restricting indoor gatherings, including at public schools.
Classrooms inside Eloise Japhet Elementary have protective measures in place such as restricted desks that allow students to be socially distant. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The state received $5.5 billion from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act enacted in December and $12.4 billion from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, adopted last month. CRRSA requires states to keep school spending at pre-pandemic levels, while the ARP mandates that states not make major cuts that would disproportionately affect high-needs students. Lawmakers are focused on these mandates, trying to work out whether Texas has met those guidelines, said Bob Popinski, RYHT policy director.

Abbott’s request to the U.S. Education Department to waive the pre-pandemic spending level requirements for non-public school students could further complicate matters. In February, he submitted the request, stating that he cannot ensure that Texas will meet that mandate because the Legislature is currently drafting the state budget and he “cannot presume to know the outcome of that process.”

Working with the federal government comes with challenges, Straus said during a virtual press conference, but figuring out what strings are attached is not “an impossible exercise.”

“While it’s difficult, it shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to get relief to our schools immediately,” he said.

Congress and two presidents have made a “very substantial investment in Texas students as they strive to overcome” challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, and now is the time for state legislators to take that investment and pass it along to schools, Straus said.

“If legislators will let these dollars flow to schools, as the federal government has intended, and if they will give locally elected school leaders discretion over how to put the dollars to use, then our school districts can do the difficult work of getting these students back on track,” he said. “These are education dollars, and they need to be spent on education. There’s no cause more important.”

Libby Cohen, RYHT advocacy and outreach director, said the frequent responses she hears from lawmakers and state officials are that there is a lot of complexity surrounding the federal funds, such as U.S. Education Department spending requirements, and that legislators want to tie some type of accountability system to these dollars.

“If so many other states can figure this out, we believe that Texas lawmakers can do the same,” she said. “We also know that there are already guardrails in the federal legislation in terms of what districts can and can’t spend these dollars on. …If lawmakers truly have the political will to get these dollars to our schools, then they can get it done.”

The Charles Butt Foundation is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business and nonprofit members, click here.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.