School districts each have to apply for their own piece of the multi-billion dollar pie. Specific allocations for every school district can be found here.
This third installment of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund comes over a year after Congress sent out the first package: the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of March 2020, which included $16 billion for schools nationwide in emergency funds known as ESSER I. Schools haven’t finished spending it yet. Districts have only made their way through $817.5 million of the $1.2 billion allotted for Texas, according to federal numbers.
The second installment, ESSER II, flowed from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act passed December 2020. As Governor Greg Abbott explained in the joint press letter he released with Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), the money from ESSER II has not been released to school districts yet because of federal regulations.
“More funds for Texas public schools will be coming soon. As part of [CRRSA], Texas was allotted more than $5 billion in funds for public education. However, both CRRSA and other legislation passed by Congress came with significant strings attached. As the Texas Education Agency [TEA] is working through these issues with the Department of Education, the State will continue to support school districts as they have over the past year,” the letter reads.
“That includes holding the districts harmless for decreases in enrollment, funding learning devices through Operation Connectivity, and reimbursing school districts for their COVID-19 related costs during the spring 2020 semester.”
The “hold harmless” policy is an emergency measure that the state took to keep state money flowing steadily to schools even during a record enrollment decline. Since schools get funds from the state based on the number of attending students they teach, fewer students would typically mean less money. Under the extenuating circumstance of COVID-19, the state decided to uncouple attendance from funds for the 2020-2021 school year.
Altogether, ESSER I and ESSER II amount to roughly $6.8 billion in federal funding. The newly released ESSER III dwarfs both previous payments at a whopping $11.2 billion.
While ESSER I was meant to help schools respond to COVID-19, ESSER II and III were meant to cover the costs of reopening and operating with new safeguards.
The TEA wrote a letter of guidance warning schools not to bet on more future funds and explaining that the money is meant to help students catch up to normal learning levels.
“School systems should use these new funds to respond to the pandemic and to address student learning loss as a result of COVID-19… While keeping in mind the purpose and requirements under ESSER related to accelerating student learning, TEA strongly encourages school systems to plan for how to use these one-time federal funds expeditiously over the entire covered period. ESSER III funds must be spent by September 2024,” the letter reads.
“If activity that is allowable under federal law is paid for by federal funds when that activity was previously paid for by local funds, then unspent local funds are freed up for the purpose of extending intervention support for students into future years… As part of the ESSER grant application process, superintendents must brief their boards on the one-time nature of these federal funds. School systems should not anticipate that ongoing, replacement funds will be provided at either the federal or state level.”
Not all the funding will flow at once. For each school’s allocation, two-thirds are available now, with the last third to be released upon federal approval of the state plan.
The average Texas school district will receive a little over $9.5 million from this ESSER III payment alone, on top of the already-released but not fully spent ESSER I and the yet unreleased ESSER II.
Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, will take the biggest slice of the pie. According to TEA numbers, the district stands to receive over $804 million from ESSER III.
Dallas ISD takes second place with an endowment of just under $543 million.
Even amid the school year’s funding glut, a number of school districts around the state have continued to seek approval for building bonds. A spokesman from the Texas Association of School Boards told The Texan he was not aware of any district with heightened concerns about debt payments due to the economic shock caused by COVID-19 and the regulations that ensued.
A TEA overview of ESSER may be found here.
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