Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 3, 2020

Educators across the nation have stepped up and are working at light speed on solutions for distance learning, showcasing their creativity, ingenuity, and care for students. As we approach the days we used to call “the weekend,” check out the latest education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes sent a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath this week requesting statewide action regarding educator appraisals. Dr. Holmes stressed that it is important to protect and preserve the validity and fidelity of educator evaluations and that current conditions will not yield fair and valid appraisal results. Read more in this ATPE press release.

Gov. Abbott explains a new coronavirus executive order during a press conference with other state leaders, March 31, 2020.

Mid-March, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order to close Texas schools through today. This week, Abbott extended school facility closure for an additional month through a new executive order, which also asks Texans to stay at home and only go out for essential services and activities. At the earliest, school buildings could reopen on May 4th, but many educators and families are dubious that school facilities will reopen at all this school year. Today, Austin ISD became the first major Texas school district to announce that it will close “indefinitely.” Superintendent Paul Cruz wrote in a message that the district would “compensate all staff through the end of the contract and/or fiscal year.” Dallas County has also extended its local stay-at-home order through May 20, as announced today. Please be aware that educators are considered essential critical infrastructure workers, as they facilitate distance learning and/or perform other essential functions while school buildings are closed. To learn more about expectations for educators in responding to this crisis, refer to ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources.

TEA public health campaign digital poster.

After Gov. Abbott cancelled this year’s STAAR tests, the education community anxiously awaited a federal announcement that states would be off-the-hook for testing and accountability requirements. Last Friday, Texas was approved by the federal government to waive statewide testing and accountability. For the 2019-20 school year, all districts will be “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster.” This information can be found on the Texas Education Agency (TEA) coronavirus resource page, which is updated almost daily. It has several resources on instructional continuity, special education, assessment, graduation, TELPAS/LPAC, accountability, school improvement, educator evaluations, and more. The agency has also launched a “Stay Well, Texas” coordinated public health campaign that they have asked school districts to help implement. Remember, parents can use TEA’s new “meal finder” tool and pick up meals without their children being present in the vehicle.

In Washington, D.C., Congress has passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act. The two aid packages include billions in funding for education and children, student loan interest deferment, paid leave support, school meal service flexibility, and Department of Education waiver authority. The CARES Act also provides for direct cash payments to eligible individuals, which the federal government plans to begin distributing this month. Read more about the CARES Act provisions in our Teach the Vote blog post from last week. Also, check out ATPE’s analysis of the FFCRA to learn about expanded paid leave benefits.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos joined President Donald Trump at his White House press briefing last Friday evening. She announced that the department is requesting funding from Congress for “microgrants” for students, families, and teachers. DeVos’s argument for funding the microgrants matches her recent pitches for a federal tax credit scholarship voucher program. Read more about the microgrant proposal in this blog post by the ATPE lobby team.

For the latest ATPE guidance on dealing with COVID-19, we encourage you to visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page.  Also, follow the ATPE lobbyists here on Teach the Vote and on Twitter for related legislative and regulatory news.


Even in the midst of widespread stay at home orders, Texas agencies continue to move forward with their work. That includes the Texas Sunset Commission, which put out its sunset recommendations for the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) this week. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter provided this overview.

Each state agency must go through a “sunset” review process every few years in which the commission takes a look at the work that agency is doing and determines if the agency should continue to exist and what changes should be made.

Unlike most agencies that are created by statue, TRS exists due to a provision in the Texas Constitution and therefore isn’t subject to being abolished by the sunset process. However, the legislature still uses the sunset review process to identify changes they would like to see in an agency and then incorporate those recommendations into a major piece of legislation in the following legislative session.

The Sunset Commission has identified four issues, with corresponding recommendations for TRS to address them. The commission’s top issues include a need for TRS “to repair Its relationship with Its members by focusing on their needs,” and a need for “more effective contract management and oversight.” Some of these recommendations stem from TRS’s recent controversy over lease space, but the commission’s report delved beyond any single controversy to look at root issues that impact multiple interactions and operational decision points that are affected by these underlying areas the commission feels are in need of improvements.

Tune in to our Teach the Vote blog next week for additional analysis of the TRS sunset report.


ELECTION UPDATE: Late yesterday, the Texas Secretary of State ordered local elections officials to postpone all municipal elections to November 3. While many local officials had already followed Gov. Greg Abbott’s suggestion to postpone their municipal elections regularly scheduled for May 2, some small and mid-sized cities had yet to do so. In ordering local municipalities to comply, the secretary of state referred to the governor’s latest executive order issued this week in which he recommended all Texans stay at home unless performing essential business and services.

Meanwhile, the 2020 Democratic National Convention has been delayed until August. National and state parties are rushing to adjust their schedules and programming in response to the need for social distancing and the unpredictable times in which the nation finds itself.

For more on campaigns and elections, read yesterday’s election roundup blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. Remember that you can research candidates here on Teach the Vote to learn more about their views on public education. The ATPE lobby team will continue to update the site with additional candidate info between now and November.


Response rate as of March 31, 2020 (source).

Great job, Texas! Our 2020 U.S. Census response rate has increased from 24% last week to over 36% this week, but we are still behind the current national rate of 41%. Census counts determine many important streams of funding, Including for public education. Unfortunately, the census collection now faces its own battle against the effects of the coronavirus, including timeline delays that could push any census work involving human interaction deeper into the heat of the summer. In a state like Texas, which has a large hard-to-count population, it is more important than ever that we push online/phone/mail census completion options to reduce the need for hand-delivered packets and in-person counting. For this week’s celebration of Census Day on April 1, 2020, find resources, updates, reminders, and play with an interactive census map in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. Find useful FAQs on the 2020 Census here.


During April, we observe National Child Abuse Prevention Month to increase awareness and curb the incidence of child abuse and maltreatment. In 2018, over 63,000 children in Texas were victims of maltreatment, with over 11,000 of these under one year of age and 75% of all Texas cases due to neglect only. Across the nation, 92% of child abuse perpetrators were parents, and teachers are often on the front lines in observing and reporting troubling situations. As reported by the Texas Tribune, child abuse reporting has drastically slowed due to school closures and the newly created distance between teachers and their students. Additionally, families are enduring heightened stress and many of the protective factors that help to mitigate child abuse, such as social connections, support, and social-emotional learning, are also lacking during this time. TEA has recently updated guidance on reporting abuse to clarify that educators are still obligated to report suspected abuse and neglect. Visit childwelfare.gov for resources, tools, and even profile picture borders and email signature graphics to promote National Child Abuse Prevention Month.


ATPE wants to hear how you are adapting to a new educational environment during the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to email us your personal stories, tips on best practices for distance learning, or strategies you’re using to stay upbeat during the crisis. If anything positive has come out of the pandemic, it is confirmation that teachers love their students! Choir teacher Kelly Moss in Richardson ISD created this YouTube video to reach out to her students with song since they couldn’t be together in person. Get your tissues ready…


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Texas election roundup: More convention and election delays

Like the elections themselves, political party conventions across the country are struggling to make adjustments under the COVID-19 pandemic. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced today it is postponing the presidential convention in Milwaukee to August 17 from July 13. Joe Biden, who will likely be the party’s nominee, had recently called for party officials to delay the convention over coronavirus concerns.

The Texas Democratic Party has already announced it is moving its June 4 state convention onto a digital platform. The party is expected to announce more information in the coming weeks about how the virtual convention will work.

Back in March, the Republican Party of Texas (RPT) postponed its convention until July 13. It was originally scheduled to be held May 11. Currently the RPT convention is still scheduled as in-person event to be held in Houston. The Republican National Convention is scheduled to be held August 24 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Many municipal governments across Texas have followed Gov. Greg Abbott’s request to postpone local elections to November 3 that were originally scheduled for May 2. However, some have yet to do so. According to TXElects.com, the cities of Abilene, Irving, Lufkin, Sugar Land, and Tyler are among those that have not postponed their elections.

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Are “microgrants” a new name for Devos’ same old voucher proposal?

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at a White House briefing, March 27, 2020

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is asking Congress to fund “microgrants” to provide money for online learning during the coronavirus outbreak. Appearing with President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020, during a White House briefing by the national coronavirus task force, DeVos said, “I’ve always believed education funding should be tied to students, not systems, and that necessity has never been more evident.” Microgrants, as envisioned by Devos, would provide funding directly to students in a manner akin to numerous voucher proposals in the past.

Here on our Teach the Vote blog, ATPE has written about efforts by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), with high-profile support from DeVos, to pass legislation that would fund a federal voucher program. Thus far, the federal voucher proposal has gained little traction in Congress. But the recent changes to learning environments compelled by the COVID-19 crisis appear to have given Secretary DeVos a new angle to pursue funding streams for private individuals and families as an alternative to providing federal dollars directly to public schools. As reported by Education Week, DeVos announced her desires for the microgrant program last week using the same talking points she has used to argue in favor of a tax credit scholarship voucher program. The microgrant program would purportedly focus on students eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and those with an individualized education program (IEP). According to a Department of Education spokesperson cited by the article:

“The grants could be used to fund materials needed for home-based learning, like computers or software, internet access, or instructional materials. They could also support educational services like therapies for students with disabilities, tuition and fees for a public or private online learning course or program, and educational services provided by a private or public school, or tutoring, spokesperson Angela Morabito said in an email.”

The federal government is asking schools to continue to educate students while they are at home as a result of school closures or stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has made relief funding for school districts contingent upon their promise to continue instruction and provide distance learning.

Many voucher programs have attempted to provide funding for online learning as an alternative to  classroom settings with the intent of diverting students and funding away from the traditional public education system. The $5 billion voucher program DeVos has been promoting in Congress since long before the coronavirus outbreak overlaps with parts of her new microgrant proposal. According to Chalkbeat:

“The idea — especially the grants for students that could pay tuition — is a glimpse at how DeVos will use the upheaval to advance her ideas about education. A proponent of private-school vouchers and school choice, DeVos has long downplayed the role of the federal government and scoffed at those who see school buildings or school districts as education’s key organizing principle.”

So far, the Democratically controlled U.S. House of Representatives has served as a firewall against DeVos’s and the Trump administration’s voucher proposals. The microgrant program would need funding with the approval of Congress to move forward. With assistance from our Washington-based lobby team, ATPE has been and will continue to be communicating with the Texas congressional delegation about the need to maximize funding for public schools during this crisis without diluting those funds through an opportunistic voucher program with a catchy new name.

As a founding member of the Coalition for Public Schools, ATPE has long opposed vouchers and the privatization of public education. Due to the current crisis, many Americans across the nation are experiencing a renewed understanding of, and appreciation for, the importance of public schools and public school educators. Now is the time to bolster the nation’s system of public schools and the teachers who work in them, rather than finding ways to divert funding and dismantle our community schools.

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No fooling, it’s Census Day!

We all know that April 1 is April Fool’s Day, but did you know that every 10 years it is also Census Day? Today we celebrate the counting of all people living in the United States in order to fulfill a requirement of the U.S. Constitution. Without a proper counting, it would be impossible to uphold the ideals of our representative democracy and all of the benefits, especially to public education, that come with it.

The 2020 Census faces a hurdle this year as the nation progressively shuts down due to the novel coronavirus. The U.S. Census Bureau has delayed the timeline and rollout of communications to individuals in order to keep human-to-human contact to a minimum. Fortunately, for the first time ever, the census questionnaire can be completed online. As of yesterday, the U.S. census response rate is 36.2% and the Texas response rate is 31.3%, with the majority of responses completed online. While Texas ranks quite low across the nation in response rate, we also have vast expanses of land and many households and individuals with limited internet access. Check out the map below to explore current census response rates in Texas and the nation.

See the full map at www.censushardtocountmaps2020.us

Though the timeline has been adjusted due to the pandemic, every household should receive an invitation by today. Likewise, the Census Bureau expects to get population counts to the president and to states on schedule, which are important for U.S. House seats and redistricting purposes. Unfortunately, those living in group quarters (college students, nursing homes, etc.), experiencing homelessness, or living in remote areas or areas without an address will be contacted or counted in person later in the year. This delay in timing to hand-delivery of packets and in-person counts could deal a hard hit to Texas, as a large portion of the state relies on this method of contact to be counted.

Initial contact modes for 2020 Census in Texas. (source)

The census is no joke! As explained in this earlier post on Teach the Vote, the 2020 Census is crucial to public education funding for low-income students and students with special needs, as well as many other federally-funded programs that help to support families and children. Census-statistic derived funding also helps to support entire communities as it drives dollars to public necessities such as roads and emergency services. While participating in online meetings and classes, virtual happy hours, and digital chats with friends and family, make sure to mention the census. By pushing online and completion by phone options, we can stay on track to get an accurate count.

Looking for more resources to use with your colleagues, friends, family, and students? The U.S. Census Bureau website is a great resource for learning about how to respond to the census. Additionally, the website has been updated to address new concerns such as college students who are now home due to school closures (they should be counted as if they were still at their college, FYI). For lesson content, educators can download free lesson materials and activities, created by teachers for teachers, on this site. Find more information and FAQs on responding to the census, check out this post previously featured on Teach the Vote.

Before we go and prank the dog (since there is nobody else around), please be aware of these reminders:

  • You don’t have to receive an invitation to go ahead and complete your census questionnaire online or by phone.
  • There is NO citizenship question.
  • Your response to the census, by law, cannot be shared with law enforcement and is only used for statistical purposes.

Happy Census-ing!

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BREAKING: New executive order by Gov. Abbott extends closure of school facilities

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference today addressing the state’s response to the new coronavirus pandemic. Abbott explained today that he was issuing a new executive order, known as GA-14, that is more restrictive and supersedes some previous orders issued by the governor’s office in recent weeks, in order to “further reduce the spread of COVID-19 and to maximize the number of lives we can save.”

The new statewide order, which takes effect at 12:01 a.m. on April 2, and runs through April 30, 2020, calls for people to minimize in-person contact with individuals outside of their own household except for providing or obtaining essential services. Gov. Abbott is relying on federal guidelines to define “essential services” for purposes of the new order issued today. In its “Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response,” the federal government has previously noted in a March 28, 2020, advisory publication that essential workers would include “Educators supporting public and private K-12 schools, colleges, and universities for purposes of facilitating distance learning or performing other essential functions.”

Under Gov. Abbott’s latest executive order, school buildings across Texas will remain closed to students, and many staff, until at least May 4, 2020. The order does not change the requirement that school districts, and district educators, continue to provide a “continuity of learning” for their students through distance learning efforts. The relevant language of Gov. Abbott’s Executive Order GA-14 on school closure is as follows:

In accordance with the Guidelines from the President and the CDC, schools shall remain temporarily closed to in-person classroom attendance and shall not recommence before May 4, 2020.

For the latest pandemic-related news for educators, we encourage you to visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page. The frequently updated resource offers expert answers and guidance for Texas educators during this unique time. Also, watch for updates from the ATPE lobbyists here on Teach the Vote and via our Twitter accounts as more regulatory developments occur.

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 27, 2020

Educators worked tirelessly this week to prepare distance learning materials for students, collaborate in virtual meetings with colleagues, and even pass out meals. As you press on into “pandemic-mode” learning, check out the latest education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


Gov. Abbott gives a COVID-19 update, March 26, 2020.

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott cancelled this year’s STAAR assessments and issued an executive order to close Texas schools through April 3, 2020, hoping to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Parents and districts await further guidance from the state as to whether school closures will be extended beyond this date. Both Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath have indicated there is a possibility of extended school closure (as some other states have done), but they are waiting to see how the situation unfolds.

Guidance for school districts regarding closure decisions beyond April 3, plus information to assist in the continuation of instruction can be found on the Texas Education Agency (TEA) coronavirus resource page. TEA’s frequently-updated resource page also includes guidance and FAQs on numerous issues such as special education, staffing, grading, and assessment. The agency added to its site this week updated guidelines on SPED and special populations, assessments, Individual Graduation Committees, funding, instructional continuity, sample notifications of infected students or staff, educator evaluations, contract nonrenewals, reading academies, and more. You’ll also find on the TEA resources page a link to the new “meal finder” tool that helps parents find the locations of meals as provided by school districts. In related news, Texas has also secured flexibility this week from the federal government to enable parents to pick up meals without their children being present in the vehicle.

On the federal front, President Donald Trump last week signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which included school meal service flexibility and paid family/sick leave. This week, a third coronavirus relief bill has been passed by the U.S. House and Senate and signed by the president late this afternoon. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act contains $13.5 billion in funding for K-12 education, plus additional amounts for child nutrition, and child care; temporary deferment on payments and interest for federal student loans; and authorization for the U.S. Secretary of Education to waive numerous testing, accountability, and funding mandates. The $2 trillion bill was passed unanimously by the Senate on Wednesday, and the House approved it today by a rare voice vote.

The CARES Act will impact education in terms of finance and support, as well as in terms of workforce and labor as it provides benefits that could directly or indirectly benefit educators. This includes a one-time cash rebate payment of $1,200 to each individual earning below $75,000 per year and $500 per child for families that earn under $150,000 per year. Individuals earning up to $99,000 and families earning up to $198,000 will be eligible for smaller payments. This calculation will be based on your 2019 tax return, if you have already filed it; otherwise it will be based on your 2018 tax return. Individuals earning Social Security benefits and/or government pensions are also eligible. The Washington Post has created a calculator to estimate your rebate amount. Read more about the rebate checks, which federal officials have said they hope to distribute within three weeks, here. The CARES Act also provides approximately $260 billion for enhanced unemployment benefits.

While the CARES Act passed by Congress today addresses education-related waivers, states including Texas have already been applying for waivers of federal testing requirements, which we’ve reported previously on Teach the Vote. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos indicated last week that waivers of federal testing requirements will be granted following a “proper request” from states. DeVos is expected to appear this evening at a White House briefing on the coronavirus response. As always, ATPE’s lobby team will be monitoring the press briefing and sharing pertinent updates via Twitter.

For the latest pandemic-related news and as a complement to TEA’s resources, we encourage you to visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page. The frequently updated resource offers expert answers and guidance for Texas educators during this unique time. Also, watch for updates from the ATPE lobbyists here on Teach the Vote and via our Twitter account as more regulatory developments occur.

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ELECTION UPDATE: Election dates are being pushed later into the year amid fears that the coronavirus risks make voting unsafe. Last week, Gov. Abbott announced local governments, such as city councils and school districts, may postpone their May 2 local elections until November 3, 2020. Multiple school districts are taking advantage of this change, while others are choosing to stick with their May election date for now. These municipal elections are separate from the Texas primary runoff elections, which will now be held on July 14, 2020 instead of May 26, 2020.

Voting in the Texas presidential primaries seems like ages ago, but not everything has come to a stop. Some states are still conducting primaries, which means presidential candidates are still accruing delegates. Other states are delaying primaries into the summer. While campaign tactics may have changed, there are still many candidates at all levels of government who are hanging in the balance as we wait for the pandemic to be behind us.

For more news on campaigns and elections in Texas and the nation, visit yesterday’s election roundup blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. As always, visit TexasEducatorsVote.com for election resources created especially for educators, and use our features here on Teach the Vote to learn more about the candidates.


Restrictions imposed in response to the coronavirus threat unsurprisingly are affecting the outreach efforts related to the 2020 U.S. Census. As of yesterday, the census response rate in Texas was 24%, compared to the national response rate of 28%.

Most responses in Texas have been completed online, which is good and bad. On one hand, the new modality of online completion is perfect for busy lives (and pandemics). On the other hand, Texas has WIDE swaths of areas with limited or no internet access (as indicated by all non-purple areas in the map above). Unfortunately, the novel coronavirus pandemic has pushed the U.S. Census Bureau to delay its timeline by two weeks, which means census workers will have to traverse the Texas heat to hand-deliver census packets in these areas. Texas historically has lower response rates than the rest of the nation because of our vast expanses of (beautiful) land and hard-to-count populations. Census counts determine many important streams of funding, such as for roads, emergency services, and public education.

For FAQs on the 2020 Census, check out this recent blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


SEL Competencies from casel.org

Today is International Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Day. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social and emotional learning is “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Research shows that incorporating these core SEL competencies into schools can lead to significant increases in academic achievement, post-graduation outcomes, and improved behavior and attitude.

Visit selday.org for more information and resources and check out these resources from Inside SEL for parents, educators, and school communities on implementing SEL strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Check out this video from Edutopia for a quick overview of SEL and its benefits!

 


 

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BREAKING: Congress passes third stimulus bill for coronavirus relief

A third Federal stimulus package addressing the COVID-19 pandemic has been passed by both houses of Congress. Known as the CARES Act, the wide-ranging package is the largest stimulus package, in terms of absolute dollars, in US history. President Donald Trump has indicated that he will quickly sign the bill into law.

Members of Congress hope the bill, which impacts nearly every American, will stabilize the U.S. economy in addition to providing support to medical providers and local governments as they attempt to address the coronavirus pandemic. It includes $13.5 billion in aid for K-12 schools, as well as direct relief payments to individuals who earn less than $75,000.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for follow-up posts on the specific provisions of the bill likely to impact public education and educators.

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Texas election roundup: The long delay

Election politics is pretty much in a holding pattern across most of Texas as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Gov. Greg Abbott announced late Friday that the primary runoff elections for state and federal offices originally scheduled for May 26 will be postponed until July 14. This is the same date as the special runoff election for Senate District (SD) 14 to replace state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), who announced his retirement from the Texas Legislature earlier this year.

Speaking of the SD 14 race, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt announced this week she will push back her resignation in order to focus on the coronavirus response. Eckhardt had announced plans to resign her office, as she is legally required to do, in order to run for the SD 14 seat. Eckhardt is permitted to serve in her current office until a successor is sworn in, which in this case will be former Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) has also filed to run for the SD 14 seat.

Earlier this month, Gov. Abbott gave local political subdivisions (i.e. city councils, county governments, local school boards, etc.) the ability to postpone their elections to November 3 from their original May 2 uniform election date. According to TXElects.com, only a handful have formally delayed their local elections as of yet. While Georgetown and Fort Bend ISD are among those that have gone ahead and moved their elections, Waco and Waco ISD are considering sticking with the May 2 elections as scheduled. This has apparently created somewhat of a standoff in McLennan County, where the county elections administrator reportedly warned the city and school districts that the county would refuse to conduct the elections in May regardless of their decision.

The delays, coupled with local stay-at-home orders, have radically altered the campaign landscape in Texas. Many campaigns are suspending fundraising operations and focusing on community services. Most have put aside in-person campaigning in order to focus their resources online in order to reach people stuck in their homes. But while activity has ground down, it has certainly not stopped.

As candidates and officeholders continue to try shape their messaging in light of the current health crisis, they may be wise to consider the results of a national poll by Ragnar Research. First reported by the Quorum Report, the poll shows that 88% of Americans view the coronavirus outbreak as either “very serious” or “somewhat serious.” When sorted by political parties, 53% of Republicans said the coronavirus outbreak is “very serious,” compared to 83% of Democrats and 70% of independents. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control calls the coronavirus outbreak a “serious public health risk.”

Other political pollsters are also continuing to survey the American public more broadly during this time of national crisis. According to an Economist/YouGov poll released Wednesday, 34% believe the country is headed in the right direction, while 54% believe it is on the wrong track. At the same time, 48% of respondents approve of the president’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, while 46% disapprove. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of recent polls puts President Trump at -2.5% approval, or 47% approve to 49.5% disapprove.

It’s also easy to forget there is still a presidential primary underway to choose the Democrat who will face Donald Trump in the November election. Bernie Sanders won this month’s primary in Utah, while 12 other states and Puerto Rico have postponed their presidential primaries. Connecticut, Indiana, Rhode Island, and Delaware have moved their primary elections to June 2. With Joe Biden building an insurmountable delegate lead in the primary contest, the political forecasters at FiveThirtyEight.com have placed Biden at 98% odds to win the nomination. A Monmouth poll released Tuesday has Biden leading Trump by 3% if the election were held now.

 

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 20, 2020

It has been a strange week of social distancing, press conferences, rising coronavirus cases, and adjusting to new schedules and work environments. Feel free to get as close to your device as you’d like while reading the latest in education news updates from the ATPE Governmental Relations team, including a lighthearted reminder about the importance of teachers.


Gov. Abbott issues order to close all Texas schools, March 19, 2020.

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Last Friday, Gov. Abbott declared a state of public disaster due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yesterday, the governor issued an executive order to close all Texas schools through April 3, 2020, including all Texas public and private K-12 and higher education institutions. The order, which is effective at midnight tonight, also requires the closure of gyms, dine-in restaurants, and bars, restricts nursing home visits, and limits gatherings to fewer than 10 people. In a virtual town hall yesterday evening featuring Gov. Abbott and several other state officials, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath indicated that school closures beyond April 3 will be determined in the coming weeks as the coronavirus crisis evolves.

The executive order follows a decision by the governor earlier this week to cancel STAAR assessments for this year. Many other states have taken the same action and have implored the the Department of Education to cancel federal assessment-related accountability requirements for this year. In a press release today, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos indicated that federal testing requirements will be waived, following a “proper request” from states. Read more about the announcement in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath speaks at town hall, March 19, 2020.

The closure of Texas schools and cancellation of STAAR tests have prompted frequent communication from the Texas Education Agency (TEA). In his segment during the governor’s town hall last night, Commissioner Morath reiterated the information related to the STAAR tests and school meals provided on TEA’s coronavirus resource page. Namely, without the STAAR and end-of-course (EOC) exams, school districts will use local measures to determine promotion and graduation decisions. Additionally, the state has just launched a new “meal finder” tool to help parents find the locations of meals as provided by school districts.

For educators and school district leaders looking for guidance on continuing to provide instruction despite the closure of schools, TEA today issued a set of new tools, including planning checklists and resources to help ensure students have Internet access at home. Other recent guidance from TEA has reminded school officials that continued funding during closure is dependent on students receiving instructional support even when they are unable to physically attend school.

As reported earlier this week on the Teach the Vote blog, in Washington, D.C. President Trump signed the second coronavirus bill, named the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Included in the bill is flexibility to allow schools that have closed due to COVID-19 to continue providing food service to qualifying students while they are not on campus. In Texas and across the nation, school leaders and educators await further changes that may be included in a third coronavirus bill, with a proposal introduced today by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The bill is expected to contain a three-month suspension on federal student loan payments and interest, as well as a provision that grants Secretary DeVos authority to waive any part of federal education law for one year (except certain civil rights laws).

For more on state and federal initiatives this week regarding the coronavirus, see this blog post by the ATPE lobby team. Visit ATPE’s frequently-updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for expert answers and resources during this unique time. Also, watch for updates from the ATPE lobbyists here on Teach the Vote and via our Twitter account as more regulatory developments occur.


ELECTION UPDATE: This week, Gov. Abbott announced local political subdivisions — such as city councils, county courts, and school boards — are permitted to postpone their May 2 local elections until November 3, 2020. The May 2 municipal elections are separate from the primary runoff elections, which at this point are still set to be held on May 26, 2020. Amid pressure to postpone the runoffs or expand options for early voting and the use of mail-in ballots, Gov. Abbott stated during his March 19 town hall that party leaders have been discussing options and that the state would be announcing more about the runoffs very soon, potentially as early as today.

In the meantime, with county and senatorial district party conventions originally scheduled to take place this weekend, the state Democratic and Republican parties have offered suggestions to their voters on how to keep up with the latest announcements about schedule changes. The Texas Democratic Party is asking voters not to attend county conventions and instead fill out an online form indicating interest in attending the state convention and presidential voting preferences.

The Texas Republican Party shared an update for its voters following last night’s town hall meeting and noted that county party leaders were making individual decisions about cancellation or postponement of their conventions this weekend. According to the message, Republican voters can email convention@texasgop.org or text the word “CONVENTION” to 72000 to receive contact information for their county and notices about conventions.

Read more about what’s going on regarding Texas elections in yesterday’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. As always, visit TexasEducatorsVote.com for election resources created especially for educators, and use our features here on Teach the Vote to learn more about the candidates.


As of this week, over 11 million people living in America filled out the 2020 Census. Census counts determine many important streams of funding, such as for roads, emergency services, and public education. Your response to the census is as crucial as helping to spread the word to others. For census FAQs and information on how coronavirus is impacting this very important data collection, check out this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


To slow the spread of COVID-19, schools all over the country are experiencing extended closures while many employers have instituted work-from-home policies. As schools try to continue instruction and learning for students from afar, parents and guardians are finding themselves thrown into a new and not-so-easy profession: teaching. Discovering how difficult it is to teach just a few kids (let alone a class of 22+), some parents have taken to social media to affirm that teaching is the work of heroes and that teachers should be paid more. For a little levity this afternoon, check out some of the best tweets we’ve seen lately, including one from award-winning popular tv producer Shonda Rimes:


 

 


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Feds announce availability of student testing waivers

The U.S. Department of Education today signaled its willingness to waive federal testing requirements for the 2019-20 school year for students who are impacted by school closures due to the coronavirus outbreak. According to its March 20 press release, the Education Department will waive the requirements for any state that submits a “proper request.” Texas already announced it was waiving state requirements for STAAR testing for the 2019-20 school year and seeking a federal waiver, and today’s announcement by the federal government supports this decision.

According to additional TEA guidance released this week, STAAR assessments in grades 3 through 8 planned or April, May, and June 2020 are cancelled. Student Success Initiative (SSI) requirements for promotion or retention are also waived for the current school year. Districts will be given discretion in deciding whether to promote students to the next grade, with consideration given to teacher recommendations, student grades, and other academic information.

STAAR End-of-Course (EOC) assessments are also waived for the 2019-20 school year. Districts will be allowed to utilize the individual graduation committee (IGC) process to determine graduation eligibility for all five STAAR EOC courses. On Thursday, the agency issued FAQ related to assessments, which you can find here.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

At the federal level, additional relief is on the way for college and university students and those paying off student loans. The Education Department under direction from Secretary Betsy DeVos has suspended interest on all federally held student loans for the next 60 days. Additionally, students will be able to place their loans into forbearance for at least two months. According to the press release: “Secretary DeVos has directed all federal student loan servicers to grant an administrative forbearance to any borrower with a federally held loan who requests one. The forbearance will be in effect for a period of at least 60 days, beginning on March 13, 2020. To request this forbearance, borrowers should contact their loan servicer online or by phone. The Secretary has also authorized an automatic suspension of payments for any borrower more than 31 days delinquent as of March 13, 2020, or who becomes more than 31 days delinquent, essentially giving borrowers a safety net during the national emergency.”

Bloomberg News is also reporting that under federal stimulus legislation currently being considered in the U.S. Senate in response to the outbreak, students could defer student loan payments up to six months. The proposal would also protect existing federal student aid benefits for students who have to withdraw from classes due to the outbreak. As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, ATPE is closely watching the legislative proposals being considered by Congress and will report on any significant developments of interest to educators.

For additional resources for educators dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, visit ATPE’s FAQ and Resources page here.

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