Under pressure from Texas politicians and education advocates, Gov. Greg Abbott released $11.2 billion in new federal funds to help public schools address student learning loss and costs incurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic Wednesday, funds Rio Grande Valley leaders say will be instrumental in helping local districts ride out the end of the pandemic and put students back on track academically.
According to a release from the governor’s office, two-thirds of the funds are available immediately through Texas Education Agency grants, while a final third will be distributed with the approval of the U.S. Department of Education.
“The State of Texas is ensuring that our public schools have the necessary resources to help Texas students recover from learning loss related to COVID-19,” Abbott wrote, touting the historic school finance legislation the state passed two years ago.
“To ensure this pandemic does not become a generational education crisis, we expect, and students deserve, for this funding to be used to remediate the progress lost due to the pandemic,” he said about the newly released funds. “This will ensure that Texas students will be ready to fill the jobs created in and attracted to this state.”
The governor faced criticism from education advocacy groups, politicians and big names in Texas business — including H-E-B scion Charles Butt — for how long the monies spent languishing in Austin on the way from Washington D.C. to local school districts.
“I’m glad he finally did it,” U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, said Wednesday. “It should have been released to our schools months ago. We saw people complaining across the state that he was hoarding these funds.”
Gonzalez said the tens of millions of federal dollars Valley schools will receive out of those funds will be vital.
“We rank 28th in public schools in the country, which is not anything to be proud of, and I think he should make sure that every school in Texas has all the resources they need and certainly all the resources that have been allocated by congress,” he said.
One of those districts will be Mission Consolidated Independent School District. Superintendent Carol Perez, another who advocated for the release of those funds, said one previous Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund dole for $20 million never materialized and another for $6 million was supplanted by the state, meaning the district saw an equal drop in state funding that effectively negated the federal aid.
Mission CISD received an email Wednesday saying two thirds of ESSER 3 funding would be made available to the district, Perez said. She expects to have about $45 million at her disposal.
“These funds for us are huge because of the fact that we have been dipping into our fund balance to meet the never ending needs of our students and staff, so these funds are really going to help us,” she said.
Those “never ending needs” have particularly included salaries and wages, extra money being paid to people to complete more work caused by the pandemic. They also include millions of dollars’ worth of electronic devices and hotspots, supplies for disinfecting schools at least once a day, and a particularly robust summer school program that will be launched at the end of the school year.
Summer school, Perez said, will be instrumental in fulfilling the funds’ main purpose — closing achievement gaps.
“For us, that is very timely because we have already planned for summer school and also for the beginning of next school year,” she said. “We know that we’re going to have to close achievement gaps, so the funding is really going to help us to be able to purchase instructional resources, provide accelerated instruction for our students — as a matter of fact, we are opening in-person summer school for all students who are wanting to come in.”