Texas school districts raise hands for shares of $1.29 billion federal infusion

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to destabilize public education, Texas school districts are waiting to learn whether a federal stimulus package could help shore up rocky budgets.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act signed in late March includes money to help schools try to keep vulnerable students from slipping away, with the tanking economy widening divides between wealthy and poorer students. Texas expects to receive $1.29 billion from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, the vast majority earmarked for direct delivery to school districts based on their student poverty rates. Texas will receive the second-largest amount of money, after California.

The Texas Education Agency plans to keep about $129 million — 10% — for its own coronavirus-response projects and is expected to reveal its plans for the money as soon as this week. Gov. Greg Abbott's office is expected to receive an additional $307 million for higher and public education. And Congress is debating another stimulus package that could go to schools.

School districts have not yet seen revenue hits because they're still receiving state funding they were promised. But they are eating unexpected costs and awaiting a crash in both state and local tax revenue in the coming budget cycles.

The TEA has not yet told districts how much they should expect from the federal infusion, and school finance experts have been advising local officials not to count on the money just yet. “We’ve been telling districts ... don’t build this in as part of your budget until you have clarity. What you don’t want is to build something into your budget and then have to take it away,” said Amanda Brownson, a director of governmental relations at the Texas Association of School Business Officials, which consults with districts on school finance.

As COVID-19 fears ramped up in March, Texas schools struggled to get students learning online, often leaving low-income students and students with disabilities without adequate resources for weeks. They began buying Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops to hand out to students who need them. They offered free meals to families on weekends, before the federal government agreed to reimburse them. And they offered limited extra pay to cafeteria workers and bus drivers who put themselves at risk to distribute resources to families during the pandemic.

There are still thousands of students who haven’t been in contact with their schools at all in the last few months and many who don’t have access to the internet. And no one knows when education institutions will return to normal.

Texas has promised to fully fund districts at least until the next legislative session in January, but it’s unclear how the state’s budget will recover from ravaged sales tax and oil revenues. State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said in an op-ed last week that education would be a priority for both parties going into January's legislative session. But against the backdrop of an uncertain economic future, school officials aren’t sure what they should expect from the Legislature down the line or how their needs will change as the pandemic continues.