13 Apr A Ray of Sunlight Slices Through Texas School Funding Darkness (TX)

April 13, 2011

By: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram

Mark this as a win for Texas public schools and teachers, who have been notably absent from the win column lately.

In the not-so-real world of politics, score it as half a win for Republican Gov. Rick Perry and half a win for Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin.

There’s plenty to be happy about. News broke Tuesday that the budget compromise reached last week b etween congressional Republicans, Democrats and the White House freed up $830 million in stalled federal funds to help preserve teacher jobs in Texas.

That won’t be enough to negate the blow of billions of dollars in state education budget cuts expected soon. One by one, local school boards still will be discussing eliminating jobs. But the federal money may save some jobs, at least temporarily, depending on how it’s distributed and how the Legislature reacts.

In the current economy, every bit of good news is reason to celebrate.

The story behind the $830 million is filled with political drama.

In August, Congress set aside $10 billion in federal economic stimulus funding to be used to help save teacher jobs. But Doggett authored a special provision restricting the share for Texas.

Doggett and Perry are about as far apart as you can get on the liberal Democrat/conservative Republican spectrum.

The “Doggett Amendment,” as it came to be called, said Texas could get the funding only if the governor assured that the state would continue to spend the same share of its revenue on education in 2011, 2012 and 2013 as it did in 2010.

Perry said he couldn’t provide that assurance, because only the Legislature can set state spending levels.

The amendment also specified that, if Texas did receive the money, schools with the largest percentage of poor students would be funded first. And it said no money could be sent directly from the federal Treasury to school districts, as could happen in all other states.

The amendment was a slap in the face for Perry, whom Doggett accused of having used $3.25 billion in federal stimulus money in 2009 to replace state education dollars that the governor had shifted to other priorities.

Perry didn’t take that sitting down. He fired up the Texas Republican congressional delegation in an attempt to get the amendment repealed, complained to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and even threatened a lawsuit.

While Perry has now won release of the $830 million, all the screaming drew attention to Doggett and helped him get his point across: Federal dollars are meant to supplement, not supplant, state funding.

The fuss has gone on so long that the Legislature is back in Austin and is writing the 2012-13 state budget. The spotlight shifts to those budget writers, who will have to be able to show that the $830 million is given to school districts as extra money, above what they would have gotten from the state anyway.

And there’s still one more shoe to fall. Once local districts get their share of the federal dollars (last fall, Fort Worth was slated to get $21 million), they’ll have to treat it as the one-time gift that it is. It may help save teacher jobs during the next school year, but those jobs will vanish again unless state and local revenue picks up.

Given the widespread teacher layoffs expected in the next few weeks, even a year’s extension probably looks pretty good to many of those who fear pink slips are headed their way.

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