Legislature Gives Abbott Free Reign Over Federal Education Money

Abbott, Phelan, Patrick, Bonnen & Nelson

House and Senate negotiators on the biennial budget came to a consensus and released their compromise version of the bill on Wednesday. Some of the responsible amendments and riders that public education advocates worked hard to get added onto the budget in the House regarding legislative oversight of $16.7 billion in federal education relief dollars and ensuring its quick distribution to school districts without replacing existing state funding have all been stripped. This omission could cost Texas money.

Under the final version of the budget from the conference committee, Gov. Abbott will retain sole discretion on whether to draw down the pending $5.5 billion of federal education relief dollars allocated to Texas from the stimulus package passed by Congress in December.

House Public Education Committee Chair Harold Dutton (D-Houston) told his House colleagues last week that the remaining one-third of the $11.2 billion of ARP money for education – $2.9 billion – will likely be disbursed to school districts this week. Dutton was one of six legislative leaders who worked with Abbott on the decision on drawing down the $11.2 billion last month. If nothing changes for the rest of the regular session, these same six will advise Abbott on making the final decision on drawing down the remaining federal relief funds for public education and whether it will be used to supplant state funding, which they did last year with the CARES Act, again.

Texas legislators have no problem playing politics with federal funding, having already rejected tens of billions of dollars in Medicaid funding because it became available to states under the Affordable Care Act. These legislators talk a moderate game throughout the session, but the priorities of this budget are obvious – control is more important than leveraging generational investment in education. These short-sighted political calculations could leave Texas far behind other states, especially since the education funding is designed to help children recover from the disruption of school closures caused by the pandemic.

This morning, state Rep. Lyle Larson tweeted his displeasure on the budget reconciliation removing the Morrison rider that passed unanimously in the House, “The disrespect shown will put us in a special session.”

It is unclear whether this would jeopardize the passage of the budget in the final two weeks of the session and force a special session.

Senate Debating Additional Restrictions on Federal Aid to Schools

Last month, two-thirds of the $11.2 billion in federal education relief funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) were released directly to school districts by Abbott and top legislative leaders after weeks of pressure by public school advocates. But in the last 3 weeks, there have been discussions in the Capitol about putting restrictions on that money.

This week, the Senate is expected to hear a proposal by Sen. Larry Taylor that was tacked onto a school finance cleanup bill for House Bill 3 from the last session that would restrict school districts to only using 60% of the federal aid for the first 3 years and saving the rest to be used in the following 2 years.

The bill was to be heard yesterday but is still being worked on as many school district leaders have raised concerns with both the Texas Legislature wresting local control away from school districts over how much of the federal aid is spent and when and the potential of any money saved in 2024-2025 being used as an excuse to supplant state funding next session.

In a session where the Texas Legislature was expected to curb the extraordinary executive power the governor used during the pandemic, they are conceding their responsibilities on appropriations and lawmaking.

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