EducationTaxes & SpendingTexas Parents, Teachers, and Students Show Differing Priorities on Federal Education Relief Spending

Social services, new technology, and staff expenses are all vying for top spots in the state's biggest local school budgets.
July 13, 2021
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With over $17 billion in COVID-19 relief funds available for Texas local schools, some broad spending priorities have emerged from districts’ budget plans.

The law requires districts to devote at least 20 percent of their relief funds to help students catch up on the learning loss that marked the stumbling progress of the 2020-2021 school year. Though parents, students, and school staff disagree on how to spend the money, a few broad priorities are vying for the top budget spots in the state’s biggest districts: technology, social services, more money for staff, and more learning time.

Compared to the rest of the state, schools in the Houston area will collect the most federal coronavirus relief according to data from the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

Four of the top 10 districts with the biggest allotments are in the Houston area. Altogether, Harris County schools stand to receive more than a tenth of the federal relief set aside for Texas education.

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Houston ISD takes the top spot among districts statewide with a $1.24 billion allotment — the only lone district in the state to crack the billion-dollar barrier.

The money comes from the ESSER fund, a three-part federal relief package meant to help soften the pandemic’s blow on public schools. Local Texas districts have been granted over $17 billion overall. Allocations for each district can be found here for the first, second, and third ESSER grants.

Houston ISD’s surveys show certain top priorities for the money, though they vary between staff, parents, and students: equipment for online learning, make-up time for lost learning, and student services.

School staff voted overwhelmingly to spend the funds on technology for online education. Notably, when interpreting this school year’s historically poor STAAR results, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said that students who learned remotely scored the worst.

Parents at Houston ISD made student services a top priority with 69 percent evaluating “evidence-based activities to meet the comprehensive needs of students” as a “critical or high need.” Ironically, while this exact option was not given in the survey for students, they seemed to rank student wellbeing lower than their parents. Mental health support for students was 6th on the list of the parent survey but 13th on the list from the responses of students themselves.

Surveys at Fort Worth ISD show a similar gap between the priorities of teachers, kids, and parents, though results do not quite mirror Houston ISD’s. Parents and students both prioritized facility improvements and new technology more highly than Fort Worth teachers, whose top priority was “add instructional support staff.” The top priority for parents was instructional materials. As a result of the surveys, Fort Worth ISD plans to spend $82 million on support staff, $45 million on creating more learning time, and $22 million on “rigorous instructional materials.”

On the other end of the Metroplex, Dallas ISD will spend about half of their final package on learning acceleration, 33 percent for “equitable” technology, and 14 percent for new facilities and mental health support.

San Antonio ISD plans to spend $20.7 million on augmenting its school calendar to give students additional learning time. The district has also set aside a little over $9 million for social work, therapy, and counseling, $17 million on new staff and “recovery support,” and $9 million on pay raises.

Naturally, the state’s most populous regions tended to get the most money. Five regions received allotments over a billion: the Houston area, the Rio Grande Valley, the San Antonio area, and the two regions headquartered in Richardson and Fort Worth that include the Metroplex.

At $104 million, the Wichita Falls area got the smallest allotment, followed by the region headquartered in Victoria that stretches across the Gulf Coast between Harris County and the Corpus Christi area.

Only one charter network came close to cracking the top ten: IDEA Public Schools, the state’s largest charter school network. With an allocation of over $240 million, it landed twelfth in line, just under Austin ISD.

Texas districts have a ways to go before the ESSER funds run dry. Schools haven’t finished spending the first installment that Congress disbursed in 2020 according to the U.S. Department of Education, though federal numbers may not reflect the most recent accounting. Furthermore, the three ESSER packages are buoyed by a supplemental grant program in which the state pays for additional COVID-19 costs.

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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.