U.S. House Dems Add Caveat to Texas Schools Funds

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A special provision tacked on to a supplemental budget bill this week in the U.S. House cuts Texas education officials out of the decision-making process that will determine how more than $800 million in federal aid to schools will be spent in the state.

The Texas caveat also requires Gov. Rick Perry to make assurances to Washington that state funding for education will not fall below a certain level through the 2013 fiscal year. Perry's office says that requirement is unconstitutional and will effectively deny Texas schools the money.

"At the urging of Texas Democrats, the U.S. House has added language to the war supplemental bill that effectively kills about $800 million in federal funding for Texas schools," said Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger. "The House-passed version requires that the governor guarantee the Legislature will provide a certain level of state funding, which is prohibited by the Texas Constitution.

"Texas would not be able to use any of these funds to save teacher jobs — as Congress has intended the money be used — for at least one full school year."

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, the Austin Democrat who drafted the amendment with the special Texas provision, disagrees with Perry's assertion that the measure is unconstitutional.

"The governor has veto power, if he can certify in his application that the state will not hold this federal money against the school districts, the state of Texas gets the money," Doggett said.

Led by Doggett, Democrats in Congress said they gave special treatment to Texas because of the way the state handled federal stimulus dollars last year. The provisions only apply to Texas.

The measure has not yet been approved in the Senate.

Doggett says state lawmakers used $3.2 billion in federal stimulus money last year to save state money, allowing them to end last year's legislative session with billions in the state's Rainy Day Fund.

By supplanting $3.2 billion in state education dollars, Doggett said, state lawmakers perpetrated "a massive abuse of what was intended."

Bypassing the state in this round of federal aid is a safety net of sorts, to ensure state officials don't divert education dollars to other parts of the budget, Doggett said.

"We just sought to go a little extra because of this history of Texas diverting $3.2 billion, to try to do the best that we could to see that this money actually goes to what it's appropriated," Doggett said.

But state officials say Texas used the money just like every other state, and Washington is punishing Texas for refusing to participate in some key Obama Administration education initiatives.

"I think they've certainly painted a target on Texas for our refusal to turn over our schools to the federal government," said Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott.

Scott, who has been a vocal opponent of Obama's Race to the Top education initiative, said an initial review by the Texas Education Agency has found most Texas school districts would have received more money under the state funding formulas than under the federal formulas.

With a projected $18 billion budget shortfall in Texas and similar budget holes in other states, the federal money is intended to help schools across the nation avoid layoffs.

"School districts, because of the budget situation, are considering laying off teachers and making class sizes significantly larger if we'll let them," said state Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat. "If the congressmen want to send additional money for education in the state to make sure that doesn't happen ... then being as clear as possible about the use of that money is not a bad idea."

Hochberg said he doesn't blame congressional Democrats for being upset about the way Texas used last year's stimulus money.

Doggett said he expects the Senate will take up the supplemental budget by mid-July.

"Washington is deft at placing targets on the backs of Texans, and this time the Democrats painted a target on our schoolteachers," said Cesinger, the governor's spokeswoman. "It's appalling to think these elected officials in Congress would forsake the interests of our schoolchildren for partisan politics. The governor urges the Senate to ensure this measure does not ultimately pass.

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