After a year living under the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, Texas schoolchildren are close to the end of the school year and the ensuing summer holiday. While they look forward to a break from the classroom, what they might not realize is that their future learning might also be in jeopardy as schools struggle to help them catch up from missed opportunities during the pandemic and the coming lapse in learning known as the “summer slide.” While the federal government has provided students across the nation with funds to combat these issues, in Texas those funds are in danger of being taken by the state and diverted for other purposes.
Between two bills passed by Congress, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRSSA) Act and the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021, Texas stands to gain nearly $18 billion to help students across the state catch up on their learning. That’s enough money to spend $3,333 on every one of the 5.4 million students in the state. If you stacked it up in one dollar bills it would reach for 1,222 miles, enough to reach from El Paso to Texarkana and still have 410 miles of bills leftover. It’s certainly enough to help our schools remediate their students. As one superintendent put it, “If we can’t help kids with that much money, then we have no excuse.”
But two little discussed bills which are up for a hearing in the Texas House of Representatives may endanger the entire endeavor.
House Bill 2021 by Chairman Greg Bonnen creates a Board on Administration of Federal Funds consisting of the Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, the Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, the Chairman of Senate Finance Jane Nelson, the Vice Chairman of Senate Finance Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee Greg Bonnen, and the Vice Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee Mary Gonzalez. While the bill may not result in federal funds meant for schools being supplanted, it does concentrate enormous power into the hands of the Lt. Governor and the Speaker of the House, who would serve as co-chairs of the committee. The fact that very few people seem to be talking about the bill is also cause for concern.
House Bill 4465 by House Public Education Chair Harold Dutton could be of greater concern. This bill gives authority to the Commissioner of Education Mike Morath over the administration of all federal stimulus funds and does not in any way prevent him from supplanting them by reducing state funding to schools in the same amount. With the money from the first round of stimulus money intended for public schools being used to fill holes in the budget most educators expect the commissioner to funnel the money toward the general budget again.
Many people think that the commissioner has been granted too much power and that this would add to that. The fact that HB 4465 makes the commissioner’s decision unappealable is consistent with this.
Critics also point out that neither the House nor the Senate budget mention federal stimulus money, leading to the belief that the state intends to repurpose the funds for longer term budgetary needs.
Texas has an obligation to provide for the 5.4 million schoolchildren who have experienced learning loss due to the pandemic. These children can catch up if given the opportunity. Nearly $18 billion in federal stimulus money is intended to be used to help them but we continue to have to fight the adults to keep them from stealing the funds for their own purposes.
Like a parent that uses their paycheck for their own desires rather than providing for their kids, the state continues to try to find ways to supplant federal funds intended to help children. To take a phrase from a recent politician, “Let’s stop the steal.”