While state leadership fiddles, billions intended for schools face uncertain future

Texas AFT President Zeph Capo

Add your voice to #StopTheSwap

Texas AFT President Zeph Capo spoke on Facebook Live this past Tuesday to lay out the case for the Legislature to get moving and send $17.9 billion in federal pandemic aid to our schools. (You can watch the YouTube version here.) “I’m angry that there is all this money sitting in a vault somewhere in the state of Texas not being used. This isn’t meant to substitute for state funding for public education — it’s meant as extra funds to help our public schools thrive amid the challenges we’ve faced throughout the past year. This funding is how we can afford pay raises. How we keep healthcare costs low, or at least the same…how we keep investing in COVID-19 testing. It’s how we pay for technology needs in the future. It’s the funding we need to make sure our schools are safe for our students, colleagues, and ourselves this coming fall.”

Texas AFT is calling for lawmakers in Austin to #StopTheSwap and not use federal aid to fill budget holes, but instead make sure school districts have access to those funds. You can join the thousands who have spoken up on the issue by sending an online letter to your lawmakers.

Legislators—who have not included the federal money in the House and Senate versions of the budget, so far—have remained fairly tight-lipped about what they intend to do with the funding. However, we did hear comments from Senate budget writers that state officials are trying to define any “strings attached” to the federal dollars before committing to spending them. That didn’t sit well with former House Speaker Joe Straus, H-E-B Chairman Charles Butt, and several county officials who told the Dallas Morning News that what may be difficult is not impossible and that legislators need to figure out the funding mechanisms now.

Last week, when the Senate debated and passed the budget, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) specifically asked Senate Finance Chair, Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), about the billions in federal dollars that schools and municipalities need to address increased costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nelson offered no guarantee the funds would be distributed before the end of the regular legislative session in May.

HB 2021, heard April 8, would establish a board to decide on allocation of federal funds, a process that must happen outside of a regular or special session of the Legislature.  As filed, the board would consist of the lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, and chairs and co-chairs of the Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations Committee. Texas AFT strongly opposes this bill, which would give immense power to a handful of mostly conservative lawmakers to reject or control funds like the billions from the American Rescue Plan.