This article has been updated.
Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dade Phelan announced Wednesday the release of $11.2 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds to public schools, weeks after education advocates started calling for the state to distribute the money.
The announcement did not state what will happen to the roughly $7 billion in remaining federal funds for schools allocated to Texas schools by the federal government. The dollars are intended to help schools address learning gaps and pay for other pandemic-related expenses.
“To ensure this pandemic does not become a generational education crisis, we expect, and students deserve, for this funding to be used to remediate the progress lost due to the pandemic,” Abbott said in a statement.
The Texas Education Agency confirmed in a message to administrators that it will not use the federal dollars to replace state dollars, like Texas did with the $1.3 billion it received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020. The state sent the federal dollars to schools but reduced their share of state funding by similar amounts.
School leaders and education advocates had feared the state would again use federal coronavirus relief funds to plug holes in the state’s budget. Texas qualifies to receive about $17.9 billion from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act signed in December 2020 and the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act adopted in March, according to multiple education policy experts. Bexar County school districts stand to receive about $1.02 billion, although the state reported new allocations Wednesday.
In recent weeks, a growing chorus of educators, school advocates, business leaders, and Democratic lawmakers have called for the state’s highest-ranking Republicans to release the federal aid directly to schools, with no strings attached. They contend local school officials know how to best spend the money to suit their students’ specific needs and that the federal legislation that created these funds already has guardrails in place to limit how schools can spend the funds.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-San Antonio) said the entire $17.9 billion has been available to Texas since March 24 and the only reason schools had not received the money was due to “Greg Abbott’s obstruction.”
“State Republicans are hardly justified in patting themselves on the back for ending a blockade that should never have occurred,” Doggett said in a statement. “After four months, Gov. Abbott is still obstructing distribution of the remaining $5.5 billion, which Congress approved in December. Even today, he has failed to offer any justification for his delay and attempt to divert these funds from our schools.”
The Democratic members of the Texas congressional delegation, led by Doggett, sent a letter on April 16 to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, requesting the federal government step in to expedite the release of the funds.
State Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) said in a statement that he will continue working with local school districts and his fellow legislators to make sure all available federal relief dollars are sent to schools.
“These resources will help students and teachers overcome the significant challenges they have faced during this highly unusual year,“ he said.
Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina also said in a statement that the teachers group will be monitoring the Legislative budget process to ensure lawmakers do not reduce state public education funding to offset “even part of these federal funds.”
“We urge the state to consult with educators and do whatever is necessary to free up the remainder of the stimulus money that the federal government has allocated to Texas schools and release it to school districts,” she said.
School districts with more students considered to be economically disadvantaged will receive greater sums of money. San Antonio Independent School District will receive about $208 million, while Northside ISD will receive roughly $173 million. SAISD had about 46,000 students enrolled this school year, and NISD had about 103,000 students, according to October estimates. Both school districts have begun planning expanded summer school programs to help students fill learning gaps.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez outlined an “ambitious,” three-year plan to get students back on track academically and emotionally. The plan involves additional school days, increased teacher pay, and hiring more licensed therapists and social workers. But it also requires money.
“These funds allow us to confidently plan our budget for next school year, which for us begins July 19 with our Summer Jumpstart program,” Martinez said in a prepared statement. “Because of these funds, we are able to proactively address student learning loss and support children’s mental health as a result of the prolonged pandemic. We continue to be hopeful that all funds are released in a timely fashion.”
Judson ISD, which will receive about $44 million in relief funds, plans to use about $9 million to pay for pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds, Superintendent Jeanette Ball said. The district of about 24,000 students will need an additional 30 classrooms and teachers to accomplish that, and students would not have to pay tuition.
School districts can receive up to two-thirds of their share of the federal funds by submitting an application to the TEA. The remaining one-third will be available once the U.S. Education Department approves the state’s plan on how it will spend the money. Schools have through September 2024 to use the funds.