AUSTIN, Texas – Texas officials filed a lawsuit Thursday against the U.S. Department of Education, seeking to overturn the federal agency's rejection of the state's application for more than $830 million in aid that has been tied up in political wrangling.
A state-specific provision inserted into a federal law by a Democratic Texas congressman requires that Republican Gov. Rick Perry promise Texas will maintain certain education spending levels through 2013 in order to get the funds. Perry has called the requirement unconstitutional because the Texas Constitution prohibits him from committing future state spending.
Texas applied for the money anyway, but was rejected because its application included a caveat saying the state would not violate its own constitution. Federal officials urged the state to reapply without the caveat.
President Barack Obama last month signed a $26 billion jobs bill intended to protected 300,000 teachers and other nonfederal government workers from layoffs. Perry said Texas is the only state whose funds application was rejected.
"Texas taxpayers are footing the bill for the education jobs fund, and Texas' hardworking teachers deserve their share of that money," Perry said. "Had the Congressional majority chosen to work for Texas schoolchildren and teachers, instead of playing partisan politics, this money could already be on its way to our school districts."
Attorney General Greg Abbott filed the lawsuit with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus and Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott.
The Texas-specific amendment was added to the legislation by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an Austin Democrat, who said the measure was an effort to prevent the state from using the federal money to divert state education dollars to other parts of the budget.
Doggett and other Democrats say the provision isn't unconstitutional and Perry should simply agree to the terms.
The Texas constitution says no "appropriation of money be made for a longer term than two years."
"With $830 million in funding for Texas schools tied up by congressional discrimination, we are taking legal action to secure Education Jobs Funds for Texas children," Abbott said. "The Doggett amendment singles out Texas for discriminatory treatment and requires Texas to make assurances that were not required of any other state."
The U.S. Department of Education still hopes to get the money to Texas schools, Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for Education Secretary Arne Duncan, said Thursday.
"Filing a lawsuit is not the most productive way to resolve this right now," Abrevaya said. "We are eager to get this money working for school children and stand ready to work with the state to make that happen."
Perry and Scott had sought written confirmation from the U.S. Department of Education that the money still would be available next summer, when the state budget has been signed into law and the governor could make assurances that spending on education met the requirements.
Perry's office said in a statement that federal education officials were "unwilling or unable" to provide such assurances.
Democrats in Congress said they put forth the law provision, which also would bypass state lawmakers and send the federal aid directly to school districts, because of the way Texas 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.
Perry, who has built a re-election campaign around fighting Washington, said Thursday in Dallas that "this isn't a fight that I sought."
"Making promises today about state funding in 2012 and 2013 would violate our state constitution, which I swore to uphold," he said.
Perry's Democratic challenger, Bill White, quickly released a statement criticizing Perry's "political circus."
"We need a governor who's putting Texas students above his own political interests," White said.
At a meeting of the State Board of Education, Scott told board members the lawsuit had been filed to assert "the federal government is outside their legal authority to single out a state and require them to violate their constitution to simply receive our taxpayer money back."
"That's wonderful news," said board member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond. "Thank you."
Associated Press Writers Jamie Stengle in Dallas and Jay Root in Austin contributed to this report.