Drop in the Bucket: Disputed Fed Ed Funding Comes to Texas

Disputed fed ed funding comes to Texas

After a long fight, Texas looks likely to receive a delayed $830 million in school funding under the federal Education Jobs bill. Yet lawmakers still have to solve how, when, and where to spend that cash.

On April 15, Commissioner of Education Robert Scott announced that he had filed the state's application with the U.S. Depart­ment of Education. He wrote that Texas "has been denied access to its share of these funds for nearly nine months because of an amendment added to the Education Jobs bill by Representative Lloyd Doggett." That amendment, authored by the Austin Demo­crat and backed by the entire Texas Demo­crat­ic congressional delegation, required Texas to maintain education spending for the next three years. (See "Perry Poisons Education Funding," Sept. 17, 2010.) Intended to prevent a repeat of the 2009 bait-and-switch, when Gov. Rick Perry used $16 billion in federal stimulus cash to backfill the state budget, the amendment was eventually stripped away as part of the congressional budget deal to avoid a federal government shutdown. Doggett called the move "disappointing, but hardly surprising," and warned that "this is money that can either help avoid school closures and teacher terminations or be diverted like $3.25 billion in federal aid to education in 2009."

If approved by federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the cash will only fill a fraction of the hole in Texas' education funding. The draft House budget drops school funding by $10 billion over the 2012-13 biennium; the Senate proposes a somewhat less devastating $4 billion cut. Both chambers are struggling to pass measures to fill the void. Public education expert Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, is pushing two measures – House Bill 2484 and HB 2485 – that would severely overhaul major aspects of school property taxes, including a revamp of the "Robin Hood" recapture program. However, many school districts considered "property rich" under recapture standards, including Austin, fear that Hochberg's new numbers will only worsen their finances. Similarly, education unions fear that HB 400, giving school district administrators unilateral power to renegotiate teacher contracts and introduce unpaid furloughs, could go too far. In a sign of the desperate times, Senate Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and nine members of the State Board of Education have proposed taking the unprecedented step of pulling $2 billion from the state's $25.5 billion Permanent School Fund as a stopgap funding boost.

When the federal EduJobs bill was first proposed, it was supposed to be an extra boost for cash-strapped schools. Now it looks more like a one-time addition to core funding. Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, director of communications for the Texas Association of School Administrators, said, "In a perfect world, it would have been great if we had equal funding from last biennium, and this would be over and above, but obviously that's not going to happen." The Legislature has until Septem­ber 2012 to spend the cash, meaning it can be added to the current biennium or placed in next year's biennial budget. Senate Edu­ca­tion Com­mittee Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who has her own sweeping reforms pending in Senate Bill 22, suggested adding the federal money to the supplemental budget bill intended to cover the state's current $4 billion deficit; that in turn would free up almost $1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund approved for spending this session for the 2012-13 biennium instead. Others are calling for the EduJobs cash to go straight into the next budget cycle. In a statement, Texas AFT Presi­dent Linda Bridges said that would insure the money is "used as Congress intended – to save educator jobs." For TASA, when the state spends the money is less important than making certain it is spent on schools. As long as that is what happens, LaCoste-Caputo said, "We're not real picky about whether it's this biennium or the next."

But the question is not just when the money is spent; there's also the how and where. Scott has proposed dividing the money among school districts by using the state's funding formula, while Dog­gett has backed using it as Title 1 funding to guarantee the money goes to the poorest districts. House Public Education Committee member Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, has her own plan. In an April 15 letter to the House Appropriations Committee, she highlighted three critical programs that have lost funding: the District Awards for Teacher Excellence incentive program, the Student Success Initiative, and Texas School Ready!'s prekindergarten preparation program. Last session, the Legislature dedicated $902 million to those programs. While the federal cash would still leave major cuts, Howard noted there would be broad support for these measures and that "the Texas Association of Business has advocated the restoration of both the DATE and pre-K funds."

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Legislaure, Rick Perry, Lloyd Doggett, Education Jobs bill, Robert Scott, State Board of Education

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