State leaders butting heads with feds

Posted on from San Antonio Express News in In the News

AUSTIN — State leaders on Thursday were threatening to sue the federal government over a restriction Congress is placing on $830 million in education funds for Texas.

But Texas educators and Democratic congressional allies said the strings are necessary because of the way Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislature handled federal stimulus money last year.

The issue pits all of the state’s major education groups against state legislative leaders and involves Texas’ share of funding for emergency education jobs in a bill expected to get final congressional approval on Tuesday.

Acting on behalf of Texas educators, Texas congressional Democrats inserted an amendment they said is necessary to ensure the money goes to school children and Texas teachers.

Educators remain unhappy that some $3 billion in federal stimulus money last year for Texas education was used to replace state money instead of increasing the investment in public education.

The bill moving through Congress would require Perry to certify that the emergency education money would not be used to replace state funds and that education funding would not be cut proportionally more than any other program.

If Congress passes the measure, “We will file suit,” said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Thursday.

Litigation could bottle up the funding and deprive starving school districts with funds needed to avert layoffs, said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, author of the amendment.

“This money could begin flowing to these school districts now,” Doggett said. “The only thing stopping it is Gov. Perry’s decision on whether to certify that federal education dollars will get to the school boards for local purposes.”

Dewhurst said the governor cannot commit a future Legislature or make promises on behalf of the legislative branch. He also complained that Texas is the only state singled out by the amendment.

“It is so obvious. I can’t understand why folks seem to be confused on this,” he said.

Doggett, however, noted that Perry “didn’t have any problem ordering every 6th grade girl to be vaccinated for a sexually transmitted disease.” The comment was in reference to Perry’s failed effort to require teenage girls to be vaccinated against a common sexually transmitted disease linked to most cervical cancers.

“This amendment says we have had enough. We have listened to the needs of parents and school leaders across Texas,” Doggett said. “We overcame the opposition of the Obama Administration, and we are writing into federal law a requirement that provides accountability for taxpayer dollars and prevents federal education dollars from being diverted again from local schools.”

Some Texas educators and education groups do not trust state and legislative leaders because of how they treated the federal stimulus money last year.

Because Texas faces a severe budget shortfall next year, some educators are worried that federal funds intended for education will again get diverted to fill budget gaps.

“We urge you to prevent history from repeating itself and ensure that any funds Texas receives go to help Texas schools, teachers and students,” Texas educators said in a letter to congressional leaders.

About 40 Texas school superintendents and seven education groups, including the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators, signed the letter. Northside ISD Superintendant John Folks, North East ISD Superintendant Richard Middleton and San Antonio ISD Superintendant Robert Durón signed the letter.

“We hope that you will ensure that Texas school districts do not fall through the legislative cracks this time around,” they said in the letter.

Dewhurst said he could not criticize the educators.

“They may not be apprised of Texas law. They may not understand,” he said.

The state’s two U.S. senators — Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn — opposed Doggett’s amendment to HR 1586, saying it unfairly targets Texas students.

“Texas Democrats in the House of Representatives must take corrective action on this next week. If they don’t, they are authorizing an un-elected bureaucrat in the Obama administration to spend Texas tax dollars on schools in other states like California and New York,” Cornyn said. “Texas children shouldn’t have their education shortchanged because of petty partisan politics.”

Doggett said he is confident the amendment will survive on the up-or-down vote on the FAA Reauthorization Act.

Hutchison complained the amendment “discriminates against a single state.”

“I voted against this penalizing language in the Senate, and I urge the House to correct the provision that unfairly targets Texas schools and students,” she said.

In a statement from California, Perry said: “It is appalling to think other elected officials in Congress, especially Texas’ Democratic Congressional delegation, would forsake the interests of Texas school children for partisan politics.”

But educators see it differently.

“This funding isn’t about politics in Washington or Austin; it’s about children and getting the resources they need into their classrooms,” said Brock Gregg, a spokesman for the 115,000-member Association of Texas Professional Educators.

“Gov. Perry is merely being asked to pledge not to cut education funding more than any other part of the state budget. Unfortunately, even though the state is predicted to be nearly $18 billion short on revenue, the governor is playing politics with education funding that Texas needs,” Gregg said.

– By Gary Scharrer