As many school districts across the state finalize their budgets and plans for the 2021-22 school year, state leaders are holding on to nearly $18 billion in federal stimulus funds intended for public schools to use in addressing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an April 14 presentation to the State Board of Education, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said the state’s pre-existing achievement gap has been exacerbated during the pandemic. He promised federal funding is on the way to school districts, but he did not clarify how much districts would receive or when they would receive them.

“It will be trillions and trillions of dollars of problems if we don’t remedy this for our kids,” Morath said. “Thankfully, financial resources are not constraining our response at this point. There’s a significant amount of federal resources that will be coming to school districts.”

Statewide public education advocacy nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas ran a campaign at the Capitol earlier this month saying this federal funding is the missing piece in helping schools recover from the pandemic.

Texas public schools were allotted $1.3 billion in the first round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Morath said this was used to fund hold harmless in the 2019-20 school year. The hold harmless provision ensured school districts received state funding based on their projected enrollment despite attendance declines, potentially preventing teacher layoffs and other budget cuts, he said.

The second and third rounds of ESSER funding, amounting respectively to $5.5 billion and $12.4 billion, have not yet been distributed to Texas public school districts. Morath said this is because the Legislature is awaiting guidance from the federal government on certain conditions tied to the funding.

According to the two most recent rounds of ESSER funding, states are required to maintain the same percentage of funding to support education allocated prior to the pandemic through fiscal year 2022-23. Morath said Texas faces a unique challenge here because House Bill 3 passed in 2019 infused a net $4.4 billion of new revenue year over year into school district budgets in FY 2019-20.

Morath said he is optimistic a resolution will be reached soon, and districts will be given clarity regarding this federal funding, he said.

“The legislative leadership is actually very interested in making sure that all districts are made whole in their COVID expenses,” Morath said.

Addressing the achievement gap

Morath said while he knows the achievement gap has grown overall since the start of the pandemic, the Texas Education Agency will not know the true magnitude of learning loss until the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness results come through later this year.

In addition to high-quality tutoring programs and more rigorous instruction materials, changing the approach to remediation will be key to helping students catch up to grade level, Morath said. According to the TEA, 22% of students were below grade level before the pandemic, and Morath said historically, 4% of Texas students who are below grade level are able to catch up to their grade level within two years.

Instead of leading the school year covering content from the previous grade level, he said educators must shift to teaching grade-level content while intermittently revisiting prerequisites throughout the year.

He described this acceleration-first approach as “extraordinarily complicated,” requiring schools to equip their teachers to deliver this level of support.

“The job that a teacher has to do in order to pull this off is mind-numbingly difficult,” he said.