Finally, COVID Relief Funds Coming to Austin Schools

Outside AISD’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy in October 2020 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

After purchasing millions of dollars worth of laptops, iPads, cleaning equipment, and other supplies to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic on its own dime, Austin ISD will soon receive hundreds of millions in COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government.

The Texas Education Agency announced Tuesday that it would finally be distributing $11.2 billion in federal funding for K-12 education relief to Texas schools, including a $155.8 million boost for Austin ISD. This funding is a part of ESSER III, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief portion of the latest of three federal coronavirus relief acts.

Approximately two-thirds of the ESSER III funding, including $104 million for AISD, will be granted to districts soon. The final third, including around $51 million of money intended for Austin, must be held until the Department of Education approves Texas’ plan for its use, but should be available “later this spring,” according to a state press release.

The announcement follows weeks of activism from school districts and nonprofits across the state, including several based in Austin, to encourage TEA to release the funds. The calls included a formal resolution passed by the Austin ISD Board of Trustees on April 22, noting that although “local education agencies in more than 40 states have already received their allocations,” Texas had delayed their distribution, “erod[ing] the traditional local control of Texas public school districts to the detriment of Texas students.”

In addition, local organizations, including Just Fund It TX, Texas School Coalition, and Education Austin contributed to advocacy and celebrated the victory, while noting that AISD was supposed to receive $74.3 million boost to AISD from the earlier ESSER II funds, which thus far have not been released to local districts. Union president Ken Zarifis said Education Austin reached out to U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, and asked for his help in ensuring ESSER III funds reached schools, and that Doggett was “instrumental” in getting “language into the bill that clearly stated that this was to go to the districts.”

“We are grateful that the governor and the TEA heard our call to distribute the COVID-19 relief funds that congress appropriated specifically for public schools,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde wrote on Twitter. “This is very good news for Austin’s students and will go a long way to helping us fulfill our mission to educate every child, every day.”

Funds can be used for many purposes, but are advised to be focused on learning loss and a district’s least-privileged students. AISD’s press release said funds would “include technology, ventilation systems, professional development, extended instructional time”

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to be able to think [about] how to take this money and really apply it in a way of addressing the inequities inherent in public education. This is an extraordinary opportunity,” Zarifis said. “We know where the inequities are. We know that they lie within the issues of Title I, within ELL, the bilingual programming, in special ed. We’ve seen it for years here in AISD, so it’s time to fix it.”

Funds must be spent by September 30, 2023, and districts are required to engage stakeholders, including teachers, parents, and students, on how to spend the money, according to a state press release.