By APRIL CASTRO / Associated Press
The U.S. Department of Education has rejected Texas' application for $830 million in federal money for schools and asked the state to resubmit its request without conditions.
The rejection was based on a line in the state's application that said Texas' constitution and laws supersede any assurances made by the governor in the application. Republican Gov. Rick Perry and the state's top education official added the language because, in order to get the money, Texas must ensure schools will be funded at a certain level for the next three years — an assurance they believe is unconstitutional.
Texas officials responded with a letter Thursday saying the earliest they could constitutionally guarantee the amount of money Texas spends on schools is next July, after the next state budget becomes law. The letter asks the Education Department for a written commitment to save the funds for Texas until that time.
The federal money, intended to help school districts cope with the recession and avoid layoffs, would help save more than 14,000 jobs in Texas schools, according to estimates from the National Education Association.
In a letter Wednesday to Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott, federal education officials said they could not award the money to Texas because of the "conditional assurances" in its application. They asked Scott when he believed the state could resubmit the application without the conditional language. Thursday was the deadline to submit applications.
An alternate application, with different deadlines, will be available to the state in the coming days, according to a spokeswoman for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. But Sandra Abrevaya would not say how the application was different or what the deadlines would be.
"It is absolutely possible that Texas can get this money," Abrevaya said. "We hope to work with them and make these funds available as soon as possible."
The federal law providing the money was approved in August. A provision added to the bill by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an Austin Democrat, requires Texas to promise Washington that spending on education will remain at a certain level for three years. Other states only had to guarantee funding for the next two years.
"We would take the $830 million tomorrow ... we're working with the U.S. Department of Education to find any ways around this," Perry said Thursday. "It is really frustrating to me that we're even going through this process, that this congressman is playing politics with the teachers of this state, full well knowing that we cannot violate our constitution."
Perry and others point to a provision in the state constitution that says no "appropriation of money be made for a longer term than two years." Perry said that means he can't guarantee state funding in future years.
Doggett called Perry's protests "phony legalistic arguments." The congressman and other Democrats said the provision isn't unconstitutional and Perry should simply agree to the terms so schools can get the money intended to spare them from layoffs.
"In another act of bad faith, the governor knew that his alteration of a federal application for education funds would only delay the immediate federal support that Congress voted to provide our local schools," Doggett said Thursday. "Solely because of his willful alteration of the federal application, schools across Texas will have millions less available now to meet local education needs."
Democrats in Congress said they put forth the provision, which also would bypass state lawmakers and send the federal aid directly to school districts, because of the way the state handled federal stimulus dollars last year.
Texas lawmakers used $3.2 billion in federal stimulus money to replace state money and ended the legislative session with billions in the state's Rainy Day Fund, Doggett said.
Doggett said the Texas provision in the federal jobs bill was intended to ensure state officials didn't divert education dollars to other parts of the budget if they received more federal aid.
The flap comes as schools across Texas are grappling with scaled-back budgets and dipping into reserves to supplement stagnant state funding.
"I guess the good news of the conversation is that U.S. DOE has said they will do everything that they can to try to help us find a way to access this money and I really appreciate their desire to help us," Perry said Thursday as he toured damage caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Hermine.
Perry said he hopes Congress will rescind the Texas amendment and Republican Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison have said they intend to file such legislation next week.