After months of intense pressure from education groups, public education supporters and Texas legislators at the state and federal level, Gov. Greg Abbott announced on April 28, 2021, that Texas would release $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. 

Under the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, passed by Congress in early March, Texas schools were eligible to receive about $12.4 billion under the ESSER III portion of the act. Under the act, 90% of funds sent to the state, or $11.2 billion, must be given to local districts by TEA based on their share of Title I-A grants in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Of the remaining funds, the state must use at least 5% to address learning loss, 1% for summer enrichment activities and 1% for after-school programs. Each of these reservations requires that the state education agency (TEA) use evidence-based interventions that respond to the academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs of students, particularly groups of students disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

On March 24, the U.S. Department of Education made available two thirds of each state’s ARP ESSER allocation to support ongoing efforts to reopen schools safely for in-person learning, keep schools safely open once students are back, and address the academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs of all students. 

As for the final third of funding, USDE recently published interim final requirements providing a state must submit an ARP ESSER plan to USDE that describes, among other things, the current education needs within the state, the state’s intended uses of ARP ESSER funds, and the plans for supporting school districts in their planning for and use of ARP ESSER funds before the remaining funds will be released.

The fight over whether and when Texas would distribute the ESSER III funds to school districts began early on in the budget process undertaken by the legislature this session. State leaders signaled that, due to the timing of when the federal funds were made available, and because there were too many unanswered questions and potential strings attached to include the federal funds in the state’s budget for the upcoming biennium, decisions about whether and how to spend the $12.4 billion would likely need to be made by a small group of state leaders after the legislative session concluded. This raised alarms for TCTA and many education groups and legislators, who immediately began exerting pressure on state leadership to act now during the legislative session to enable more transparency and public participation into the decision, and to get the funds more quickly to school districts whose needs are immediate

Additionally, TCTA worked with other groups to craft an amendment to the House budget directing that the use of ESSER funding should not supplant state funding for education and adding that the federal dollars for schools may not be restricted by the state in any manner other than what is stated in federal law. The House adopted the amendment with unanimous approval.

However, once USDE provided guidance regarding ARP’s maintenance of effort requirements for states and its interim final requirements, state leaders announced that Texas would release the $11.2 billion in federal funds to Texas public schools.

According to TEA’s announcement of the funding, the funds will be provided to local school districts, supplemental to all other funding sources to school systems, and will not be supplanted at the state level. School districts can receive the funding by completing an application on the TEA Grant Opportunities web page beginning April 29, 2021. Specific allocations by school system can be found here. 

TEA has also published guidance and frequently asked questions regarding how these funds can be used, including local compliance requirements schools must follow given federal rules known at this time. Guidance resources are available here.

Remaining 1/3 of funds

According to USDE’s interim final requirements, states must develop an ARP ESSER plan, after engaging in meaningful consultation with stakeholders, including teachers, principals, and other educators, and provide the public with an opportunity to provide input on the plan. The plan must be submitted to USDE. The Texas plan was approved July 7.

The state must also make information publicly available on its website as soon as possible but no later than June 21, 2021, and regularly provide updated available information on its website, on the numbers of schools in the state providing each mode of instruction (i.e., fully remote or online-only instruction, both remote/online instruction and in-person instruction [hybrid model], and full-time in-person instruction). The state must also make publicly available student enrollment data and, to the extent available, student attendance data for all students and disaggregated by students from low-income families, students from each racial and ethnic group, students from each gender, English learners, children with disabilities, children experiencing homelessness, children in foster care, and migratory students for each mode of instruction.

School district use of ESSER III funds

Under the American Rescue Plan Act, 20% of a local school district’s ESSER III funds must be used to measure and address the academic impact of lost instructional time on all students, through the implementation of evidence-based interventions, such as interventions implemented through summer learning or summer enrichment, extended day, comprehensive afterschool programs, or extended school year programs. The school district must also ensure that such interventions respond to students’ academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs and address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on groups of students disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Remaining funds are flexible and can address a variety of needs, including repairing ventilation systems, reducing class sizes and implementing social distancing guidelines, purchasing personal protective equipment, and hiring support staff to care for students’ health and well-being.

For example, according to USDE’s interim final requirements, a school district can use the funds to address the academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs of its students by hiring additional personnel such as school counselors, psychologists, and nurses; and by implementing strategies to accelerate learning and to make investments in teaching and learning that will result in lasting improvements in the school district. Notably, a school district may also use the funds for activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of services in school district; for example, to stabilize the workforce and avoid layoffs.

School districts will be required to create and share plans publicly for returning to in-person instruction within 30 days.

Remaining issues

Under the ARP and other federal coronavirus relief laws, states are required to maintain spending in K-12 and in higher education at the same proportion of total state spending during fiscal years 2022 and 2023 as total state spending in fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019.

With the passage of HB 3, K-12 spending at the state level rose by roughly $5 billion, which increased overall state spending accordingly. Higher education spending has also increased, though less dramatically. Because of this, Texas would be required to invest over $1 billion of the state’s own budget in higher education, but has sought a waiver from this requirement from USDE. 

According to TEA’s announcement, “Texas appears to be in a unique situation in this regard, with higher education proportionality impacted primarily by a massive increase in K-12 spending. Guidance issued last week by USDE clarified that a waiver of this requirement, if necessary, cannot be obtained in the time required to write the state budget. As a result, significant appropriations questions must be resolved to ensure the state prevents a situation where school systems would be required to return portions of their ESSER II and ESSER III funds to the federal government.”