Gov. Rick Perry's diversion last year of federal stimulus cash aimed for schools has prompted Congress to pass a measure that would prevent him from raiding education funds again. Perry says this means the federal government is trying to deprive Texas students of more cash, but his complaint is getting short shrift from educators.
The controversy surrounds rules relating to the new federal job protection measure, which will send $26 billion to the states to allow them to keep paying their workers. On July 2, Austin's U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and the rest of the Texas Democratic congressional delegation added language to the Supplemental Appropriations Bill ordering Texas to ensure that this money is "used to supplement and not supplant State formula funding." The language is meant to ensure that the $830 million intended for Texas schools will go to protect the estimated 15,400 jobs it is intended to fund. On Aug. 5, the Senate passed the language as part of the Federal Aviation Administration Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recalled Congress from its summer recess to pass the measure on Aug. 10. President Barack Obama signed it into law later that day. In a joint statement, the Democratic delegation wrote, "This prevents any further shell games with federal education dollars at the expense of local schools districts."
In 2009, the federal government allocated $3.2 billion of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act cash to Texas to invest in education. The sum was intended to allow school districts to inject extra cash into the local economy, over and above their normal operating budgets. Instead, Perry and the Republican legislative leadership crafted a budget that replaced regular state funding with federal cash. This shuffle included using federal cash to cover a teacher pay raise that the state's own Legislative Budget Board had recommended come out of the state budget. The maneuver negated any stimulative effect the cash could have had, while leaving state reserves untouched and depriving school districts of extra cash in the middle of an economic meltdown. At the time, Doggett's office calculated that Perry's fiscal sleight of hand cost Austin Independent School District alone $78 million, equal to roughly 9% of its 2009-10 General Fund expenditures.
The measure's passage brought howls of outrage from Texas Republicans. Predictably, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has threatened to sue the federal government, while Perry has said rules in the Texas Constitution that prohibit setting future spending prevent him from fulfilling this requirement. In a statement, he said, "That means Texas – the only state singled out with this mandate – might not be able to use any of these funds provided to states."
But Doggett fired back that the measure does nothing except prevent Perry from signing a budget that makes deeper cuts to education spending than any other section of the budget. Condemning Republican opposition as election-year posturing, he said, "They are so eager to be victims of a big Washington government lording over them, that's why they've tried to make this a battle with Obama." In reality, the White House initially opposed the measure, so, Doggett added, "This is entirely a Texas answer to a Texas problem."
Perry has "been rebuked by the United States Congress and by Congressman Lloyd Doggett," said Education Austin President Louis Malfaro. "Good for him and good for them, and good for the kids in Texas." While Perry, Dewhurst, and Education Commissioner Robert Scott have savaged the Texas Democratic delegation for supporting this measure in the House, Malfaro said that what should be criticized is the decision of the state's two Republican senators to vote against it. "It should have been [John] Cornyn and [Kay Bailey] Hutchison doing this, and not the two senators from Maine, because Texas is going to benefit hugely from this."
This is far from Perry's only example of attempting to use federal education cash as a political kickball. Earlier this year he turned his back on up to $700 million when he decided not to submit an application for Race to the Top cash (see "Fed School Funding: Texas Out of the Race," Jan. 22). At the time, Perry claimed that the application would require the state to sign on to the federal Common Core State Standards Initiative, which he painted as the first step to a national curriculum. However, Texas Classroom Teachers Association President Brad Willingham and Texas American Federation of Teachers President Linda Bridges, who sided with Perry in rejecting those funds, have both backed the Doggett amendment. They joined with the heads of five other Texas teachers' organizations, as well as AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and 32 other superintendents, to sign a letter on June 22 backing the congressional measure. In a statement, Association of Texas Professional Educators governmental relations director Brock Gregg said, "The reality is that the pledge the governor has been asked to make is no different in effect than the pledge he made when taking $16 billion in federal stimulus dollars during the last session."
Doggett echoed that stance: "Compliance is very easy," he said, "unless there remains a hidden Republican agenda to avoid accountability and to engage in more of the shenanigans of last year."
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