The Texas Democratic congressional delegation has asked the U.S. Education Department to block the governor from potentially diverting COVID-19 dollars away from public schools.
Gov. Greg Abbott has requested a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that would allow him to spend the federal funds – formally known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER – as he sees fit, including for other areas of the budget.
Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, joined 12 of his Democratic colleagues in signing a letter asking Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to deny the waiver.
"My main concern is that we voted to give Texas schools about $19 billion, and they haven't gotten a penny of it yet," Doggett told Houston Public Media. "Gov. Abbott is obstructing the federal aid from getting to our schools at a time they desperately need it, and we're trying to see that the aid actually flows to the schools and the school children who require this assistance."
In response, Cardona has issued fresh guidance concerning how ESSER funds may or may not be used.
Doggett said it was a promising move, particularly given that it reinforces the so-called "maintenance of effort" requirements in the COVID relief bills, which require that federal stimulus funds supplement rather than replace state education spending.
"I'm encouraged that it emphasizes the importance of maintenance of effort, and that it will look to see if the state has appropriated these funds for other uses in the past," Doggett said. "That's exactly what Gov. Abbott did when he was one of only two governors in the entire country to take all of the more than $1 billion we appropriated last year for the schools and kept it for the state budget." (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was the other.)
Abbott requested a waiver in February that would effectively allow him to do the same with the $17.9 billion in education funds the state is due to receive from the second round of COVID-19 stimulus relief, passed late last year, and the American Rescue Plan, which became law last month.
Gov. Abbott's office did not reply to a request for comment.
Houston ISD is currently awaiting more than $1.4 billion dollars from the second and third rounds of COVID relief voted by Congress. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD is awaiting $309 million in COVID relief funds, while Katy ISD is awaiting $113 million in COVID relief funds.
In a statement, Houston ISD wrote that it was urging the governor to make the money available to school districts.
"Houston ISD, like many other districts in Texas, is advocating that the state allow school districts to make local decisions on how ESSER funds will be spent and that the state not supplant those federal dollars meant for school districts and their students," the statement read.