30 Mar Texans Duel Over Millions in School Funding (TX)

March 30, 2011

By: Ana Campoy
Source: The Wall Street Journal

DALLAS—As Texas scho ols scrounge for cash to buy supplies and threaten to lay off teachers, $830 million in education funding earmarked for the state is sitting at the federal Department of Education.The money, part of the stimulus package passed last year by Congress to help U.S. schools, is trapped by an increasingly hostile battle between the state’s Republican and Democratic politicians over how to use it—to the dismay of school districts facing an almost $10 billion shortfall in state aid.

Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation included a provision in the federal legislation requiring Texas to use the money to supplement existing spending. In the past, they contend, Republicans have replaced state education dollars with federal money, then used the savings for other purposes.

"Federal aid to education should actually aid education in our local Texas schools, not provide a bailout to the governor for his mismanagement of the state budget," said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat who represents part of Austin.

But Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said Mr. Doggett is essentially asking him to break state law by committing to maintain education’s share of the state budget for two years. During his state-of-the-state address last month, Mr. Perry accused the congressman of punishing the state "in pursuit of his own agenda."

Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for the governor, went further. "It’s outrageous that someone from Washington would attempt to dictate how a state, especially one as economically competitive as Texas, should spend money," she said in an email message.

Mr. Perry has refused to abide by the requirements set by the Democrats, saying that Texas schools are already entitled to the federal money. The ed ucation department says the state has not submitted a valid application for the funds and will lose them if it does not do so by Sept. 30. Republicans in Congress are trying to lift the restrictions.

The debate comes as Texas lawmakers are struggling to address a state-budget deficit estimated at $15 billion to $27 billion over the next two years. One legislative plan proposes spending $9.8 billion less on education than required under a state formula that takes into account factors such as population growth. Overall, funds for public schools would shrink 13.1%.

Other states also are struggling to keep cash flowing into elementary and high schools. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is proposing to reduce spending for public-school operations to $6,327 per student, a 3.3% decline from last year, after a 7.6% cut the previous year. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has recommended a 9% reduction in funds for school districts.

In Texas, spending on elementary schools and high schools already is lean compared to many other states; the state ranked 43 in the nation in per-pupil expenditures in fiscal 2008, according to the latest figures by National Center for Education Statistics, a federal research agency.

Even before the projected cuts, almost half of the school districts in Texas faced budget shortfalls, according to the Texas Association of School Administrators. The group is urging legislators to release the stimulus money. "We feel like it’s not a time that we can turn our backs on any additional revenue," said Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, spokeswoman for the association.

As the state’s school districts prepare their budgets for next year, many are either making plans to cut or already have reduced expenses. Last week, the board of Aus tin Independent School District declared a "financial exigency," a move that will allow it to lay off more than 1,000 teachers. In San Antonio, school district administrators have decided to slash staff travel budgets by 75% and chop in half the budget for buying equipment such as desks and computers.

Michael Hinojosa, superintendent at Dallas Independent School District, said the federal money could offset some of the cuts he is considering. Under his current plan, high school classrooms would swell to 35 students from the current 25, teachers’ allowances for supplies would be reduced and some 4,000 teaching jobs could be eliminated.

Even if Dallas’s share of the Washington money arrives—about $50 million, according to Mr. Hinojosa—it won’t be enough to cover his district’s projected $253 million shortfall for next school year. But, he said, it would help. "We don’t care how they work it out," he said of the state’s politicians. "I don’t think that children should be pawns in a political battle."

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