Advocacy group, school leaders make voices heard over COVID-19 federal school funding

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Updated: Mar. 30, 2021 at 7:19 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - Billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds are earmarked for public schools. But in Texas, educators are fighting to make sure schools get what they’re supposed to.

The first round of funding last spring did go to Texas schools, but lawmakers used most of the money to replace funds that schools were already set to receive. The state has yet to decide how they’ll use money from the second and third rounds. And with that decision yet to be made, advocacy groups and schools leaders are making their positions known.

“This is going to affect every student that we have,” said Dr. James Wilcox, Longview ISD Superintendent.

Wilcox said COVID-19 left schools with a problem that will take years to fix.

“Millions, and that’s not exaggeration, have been without their regular classroom teacher. And a majority of those students are Black and Latino, and those are the students who’ve been affected the most by not being in the classroom with their regular classroom teacher,” he said.

And Wilcox says federal funds earmarked for schools can help those students recover, but not by supplanting what schools were set to get anyway.

“That was money allocated for Texas public schools, and that’s where 100% of it should go,” he said.

Bob Popinski is with Raise Your Hand Texas, a public school advocacy group, pushing for these funds to go toward helping students.

“We don’t want to have to divert it to other parts of the state budget,” he said. “That money intended for public education should stay in public education.”

He said a majority of the first round of funds replaced money that Texas schools were already supposed to get.

“The first round came back in March of 2020,” he said. “They flowed $1.4 billion to Texas public schools. And what they state decided to do with it is use it to flow students that needed it. But they swapped it, that same amount of money, back in state aid. So school districts didn’t receive any of that first round of public education dollars.”

The Texas Education Agency argued that districts were made whole, something other states struggled to do during the pandemic.

“That was something we were extremely concerned about going into March, April, and May of last year of 2020,” said Dr. Marty Crawford, Tyler ISD Superintendent. “And that’s what the state used to go ahead and make school systems whole. We had a lot of folks that were working at home with a school system that was shut down. And so we were very appreciative that those dollars were actually used to plug that hole at the initial start of the pandemic.”

Money earmarked for schools out of the second and third rounds of funding has yet to be received and allocated. The decision of where that money will go is up to lawmakers. Popinski worries they may use it to plug holes in the state budget.

“And so that’s the problem we have now. They’re debating over $17.9 billion and how to flow that to schools, and schools are supposed to use that money for learning loss, issues like social and emotional development, and other great issues for our students related to COVID-19,” Popinski said.

“It is tied to how students are performing academically,” Crawford said. “We understand that there’s going to be some challenges coming out this pandemic, and especially through pockets of students that have high risk loads, predominantly economically disadvantaged students, and how the pandemic affected them. So I hope there’s a balance there, as they consider making us whole as far as the funding goes, but also understanding there are also some options there to support some of the students that need it the most.”

“I would hate to think they would put the future of Texas on hold to try to balance the budget,” Wilcox said.

The House Appropriations Committee will meet Wednesday, and could potentially decide how to use these funds. Three East Texans sit on that committee: State Representatives Matt Schaefer, Jay Dean, and Trent Ashby.

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