Texas to get $5.5 billion more in federal funding for schools but won’t say how it will be spent

Texas students need additional resources to overcome academic setbacks brought on by the pandemic, but school leaders aren’t so sure they’ll have the flexibility to spend new federal dollars to help them.

The federal government gave Texas two big education stimulus packages — totaling around $6.8 billion — to help students recover from the pandemic.

But as the first package of $1.3 billion flowed to districts, local school administrators saw aid cut elsewhere. It was hard to keep up with the new needs driven by the pandemic— such as physical improvements to campuses so students can learn safely in person and expanded online infrastructure for those in remote classes — as Texas used federal dollars to replace state funding.

Now that Texas is poised to receive its second round, educators are waiting to find out if it will flow as additional dollars that they can use to address deep learning losses.

“It’s going to take additional funding and additional services and not just over a three-month period or a six-month period,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators. “This is a serious crisis that our children face, and it is going to take multiple years to address all of the needs.”

But there’s no clear answer on how the new money will be spent. Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in January that “appropriators” will determine that. Texas Education Agency officials did not respond to questions from The Dallas Morning News asking how Morath would spend that money, when it will be distributed or who will have the final say on how it gets spent.

The ultimate authority over the federal dollars and how to use them rests with the education agency and Morath. Even though the agency has the ability to distribute the funds without express approval from the Legislature — and did so with the first round of stimulus money — it doesn’t look like that will happen again.

When Texas received close to $1.3 billion in the first stimulus package through the CARES Act, it distributed the new federal funds to districts and reduced state aid accordingly.

In Denton ISD, for example, this meant the district received about $2.7 million in new federal dollars but lost in state aid. Meanwhile, Denton had to absorb about $4 million in COVID-related expenses, officials noted at a board meeting this month.

Districts across the state dipped into savings as costs mounted. The state pooled other federal funding to help districts purchase devices and personal protective equipment, but it wasn’t enough to offset the new costs.

Educators would have preferred that the money from the CARES Act went directly to local districts as additional aid but recognize that the state needed to stabilize its own funding to prevent future cuts, Brown said.

And the stabilization maneuver may have paid off. Last summer, Comptroller Glenn Hegar forecasted that Texas would face a $4.6 billion shortfall. But when he announced the financial outlook for the coming legislative session in January, Hegar delivered a more optimistic picture, estimating that it will be a less than $1 billion shortfall.

Where the new money goes may be tied up in school districts’ request that the state extend its so-called “hold harmless” grace period.

Texas funds schools largely based on who shows up to class, and the pandemic dramatically disrupted attendance and enrollment. So the state largely used the CARES money to hold districts’ funding steady as enrollment declined.

The state pooled other batches of federal funding for schools. Texas spent close to $600 million on Operation Connectivity, an initiative to put devices in the hands of students and expand internet access. The TEA also used $163 million to support an optional resource bank for educators to use for remote classes.

Late last year, the federal government passed the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, which handed roughly $5.5 billion to Texas for K-12 education.

Morath did not specify which “appropriators” he was waiting on guidance from to distribute that money when he spoke at the State Board of Education meeting last month.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, told The News in January that it was too early to decide how the federal funds would be spent as committees from both legislative chambers hadn’t yet met about budgets.

Texas could again use federal funds to supplant state dollars and prolong the grace period that would keep funding steady despite enrollment drops through the end of the 2020-21 school year.

When asked Thursday during a Texas Tribune event when a decision on the hold harmless period would be made, Morath did not give a specific date. He said the agency hoped that districts would have clarity “as soon as possible.”

The Legislature needs to pass a balanced budget but also must ensure that all students are supported, said Jonathan Feinstein, Texas’ state director for The Education Trust.

Districts could use the funds to directly help students, he said.

For example, schools could add days to their calendar to give students extra time to revisit complex topics they haven’t grasped this past year. Texas could use the money on creative learning efforts, similar to how Tennessee launched a tutoring corps group to work with students.

“If we’re serious about prioritizing our students who have been most harmed by this pandemic, then we can’t simply just move money around so that schools come out where they were before,” he said.

Dallas ISD has already approved such calendar extensions for the coming school year. The district has already budgeted for the extra instruction time, but it would prefer to use federal dollars for the change, officials said.

“This [new] money needs to be going directly to help students because we can’t just do the same amount of money and expect that we’re going to be able to overcome the tremendous challenges this pandemic has presented,” Brown said.

There’s hope that even more federal funding could be on its way to specifically help with efforts like extended calendars. New federal proposals for education relief packages have so far stipulated that some of the aid must be used to address learning loss through such initiatives.

Stay connected to the latest in education by signing up for our weekly newsletter.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, The Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.