The Austin Chronicle

Where's the Other $66 Million?

By Richard Whittaker, July 28, 2009, 9:00am, Newsdesk

With the announcement on Friday that the U.S. Department of Education has accepted the proposal by the State of Texas for how it plans to spend $3.2 billion in education stimulus cash, Austin ISD should be receiving an extra $12 million this year.

Great news, right?

Well, it might be, if AISD wasn't supposed to be getting $78 million.

Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett has calculated that's the real sum that Congress intended. AISD, along with every other school district in Texas, was supposed to get a big stack of stimulus cash on top of their regular budget, not as a component of it. Instead what Gov. Rick Perry and the legislature did, Doggett argues, is "create an artificial cut in funding and then replace that artificial cut with money from the stimulus."

Here's how the big bait'n'switch worked.

As part of the State Stabilization portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (aka the federal stimulus), Texas got $3.2 billion for education. For context, the much-touted Race to the Top fund, intended to provide cash for educator quality, is only getting $4.35 billion nationwide, "So this is a significant chunk of change," said Doggett.

Now some states are in a massive deficit situation, and need to use those federal funds to keep their schools open. Texas, as Perry keeps pointing out, isn't in that situation. So Doggett asked around on Capitol Hill, and was given confirmation that, if a state wasn't insolvent, the stimulus money would go straight to the districts.

So what did Perry et al do? Simple. They took several regular big-budget items and paid for them with stimulus cash. Topping that list are the $1.2 billion for school books (which is supposed to be paid for by the Permanent School Fund) and the state-mandated pay raise for teachers, counselors, speech pathologists and nurses (which comes straight out of the $12 million that AISD is getting, so there's really only $6 million in discretionary funding).

So even though Doggett was told that the funds were not intended to back-fill the budget, the federal government approved Perry's plan anyway. When he asked about that, Doggett said he found "a reticence to get involved in the affairs of a particular state."

What particularly annoyed Doggett is the only reason he can find for Texas pulling this stunt is so that Republicans can keep their precious Rainy Day Fund inviolate. "I didn't vote to stimulate the career of Rick Perry," he added.

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