Connect with us

Local News

Texas schools worry they won’t get all the billions in pandemic aid to help students as state debates new legislation



ABILENE, TX – Texas school leaders are worried that they’ll lose pandemic aid or be restricted in how they can help students make up learning losses under a new legislative proposal that would require them to set aside funding.

School districts would be allowed to spend about 60% of their federal aid in the next three years but would essentially have to save the rest.

Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said he included the provision in a school finance bill to extend the life of $11.2 billion in relief money, which is intended to help students rebound from the pandemic. Under federal law, the money must be spent within three years, he said.

But Taylor’s proposal would have districts set aside state dollars — which would be the equivalent of up to 40% of that new federal aid — that they could then tap starting in 2024-25, after federal funding is set to expire.

“It takes that three-year spending time to five years, so [schools] can be much more thoughtful and use that time more wisely to spend that money in ways that will really benefit kids,” Taylor said last week during a hearing on the bill.

The federal money is largely meant to help schools address the learning loss that students suffered from widespread disruptions caused by the pandemic. Experts have said children may be months or more behind in their learning because of COVID-19.

Education officials doubt that a state mandate to lock up federal funding for the next three years will help schools spend money wisely.

“That ought to be a local decision,” said Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside ISD in San Antonio and president of the Texas Association of School Administrators. “I am not at all sure it is in our best interest to drop what we’re able to do in the first three years by 40% to buy you additional years after that.”

District officials could decide on their own to set aside any amount of funding for future spending, Woods said. The superintendent also questioned whether Taylor’s proposed workaround would comply with federal guidelines on the pandemic aid.

Some critics of the proposal raised concerns that Texas lawmakers could cut state aid for the 2024-25 school year by the same amount that was set aside, essentially clawing back the total funding that districts would receive.

That’s not what Taylor is envisioning, the lawmaker said when questioned last week about the possibility.

“We’re not supplanting this,” Taylor told fellow Education Committee members. “This is still their money. We’re just asking them to bank it.”

A late-in-the-session change to the rules governing how districts spend their money is frustrating to schools already in the thick of planning budgets, Woods said.

For Dallas ISD, a 40% cut would mean putting aside about $217 million until 2024-25.

Northside ISD, the state’s fourth-largest school district, can’t reduce summer school or other offerings because students need the additional help, Woods said. So the district would likely have to pay for such programming out of local dollars, causing more financial strain, he said.

“If we’ve got the federal dollars now — and they intended to have them spent — why wouldn’t we spend them now in a really large-scale effort to try to catch kids up over the next three years?” Woods said.

He’s worried that districts will be forced to hold back “when we know the needs are so great that even the full [federal funding] is not going to be able to meet all the needs.”

Texas has grappled with how to spend billions in federal aid for schools. Altogether, Congress has approved close to $19 billion for Texas schools.