Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 18, 2020

Texas is set to reopen further next week, just as most schools have started the new school year. For more on recent developments, here is this week’s recap from ATPE Governmental Relations:


Source: Office of the Texas Governor

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Governor Greg Abbott held a press conference Thursday to announce the further reopening of Texas businesses. Starting Monday, many restaurants and businesses will be able to operate at a capacity of 75%, up from 50% previously. Bars will remain closed. By September 24, designated caregivers will be allowed at nursing homes and other residential-type care facilities, with limitations. Hospitals can resume offering elective surgeries.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released official correspondence this week detailing the much-anticipated launch of a COVID-19 case reporting dashboard on the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) website. The data represent a statewide summary of all known, test-confirmed cases among school staff and students who participate in on-campus activities or instruction. Districts were instructed to report all such cases since the beginning of their instructional year and will continue to report every Monday. The website is expected to show district-level data by next week.

Don’t forget about ATPE’s frequently-updated COVID-19 FAQs and Resources, opportunities to earn CPE by by watching COVID-19/legal webcasts through ATPE’s professional learning portal, our interactive pandemic timeline, and Advocacy Central where ATPE members can easily communicate with elected officials about their concerns. Lastly, check out our newly-launched Parent-Teacher Toolkit, featuring a new video on the commitment required of parents who homeschool their children.


FEDERAL UPDATE: Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin), representing the 35th Congressional District of Texas, recently signed on to co-sponsor a Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) repeal bill, H.R. 4540. The WEP unfairly penalizes Texas educators and other government workers by arbitrarily reducing their Social Security benefits. Read ATPE’s press statement from last year in support of the bill and, if you are an ATPE member and a CD 35 constituent (find out here), send Congressman Doggett a big thank you through Advocacy Central here!


The annual Texas Tribune Festival continued this week with discussions focusing on public education and the budget heading into the next legislative session.

On Monday, House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Humble) and Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) spoke about what their committees will be grappling with when the legislature convenes in January. While both committed to maintaining existing funding under House Bill (HB) 3, they suggested the legislature is unlikely to do consider any expansion this time around.

On Tuesday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) and state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso), who sits on the subcommittee that oversees public education funding, gave a lighthearted preview of what budget conversations could look like next session. Again, the upshot is that legislators will be looking to craft a lean budget as the state faces a budget deficit driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and volatility in the oil market. Both Chairman Capriglione and Rep. Gonzalez sit on the powerful Legislative Budget Board. You can read the full rundown in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


What do you do if a census worker comes knocking at your door or asks you questions about your neighbors? With less than two weeks left until the 2020 Census operations end, census workers are trying their best to get as many people counted as possible. In this post, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier details what to expect if you encounter a census worker, where Texas stands in its enumeration, and why the census is so important.


The TRS Board of Directors met virtually this week for their regular fall meeting. Check out this post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, for a breakdown of TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie’s comments to the board, including a preview of the agency’s legislative appropriations request for the upcoming 2021 legislative session.


In light of a constantly evolving school situation, TEA announced extensions to key attendance and enrollment deadlines on its COVID-19 Support and Guidance page. The deadline for districts to submit 22:1 class size waivers for grades K-4 is now extended until December 1. The deadline for marking students as “enrolled” has also been extended by one month to line up with the October 30 “snapshot” date.

TEA also added other resources to its support page, including a new Operation Connectivity document that shares best practices for digital learning. The CARES Act equitable services FAQ has been further updated since last week to include guidance on how to calculate and allocate funds. A FEMA reimbursement update clarifies that the funds will only cover one cleaning that occurred in the spring and will not cover PPE. The Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM) will reimburse districts for 75% of 2019-20 coronavirus expenses, but the deadline to submit the application for reimbursement is September 30. In order to make budgetary predictions, TEA also plans to survey districts that are extending their instructional calendar, as the landscape of start dates is quite varied this year.

A new Project Restore training on understanding student experiences was also posted this week. As a reminder, the Project Restore trainings satisfies the Senate Bill (SB) 11 training requirements.


ELECTION UPDATE: The Texas Supreme Court handed down a pair of decisions this week that could have an impact on the November elections. One allows a handful of Green Party candidates back onto the ballot, while the other blocks a mail-in ballot application initiative in Harris County. The fight over these two issues illustrates the importance of every single vote in the upcoming election, since many races could be decided by a relatively small number of people.

In less somber news, the ABC network aired a special program this week, VOMO: Vote Or Miss Out. The program featured a who’s who list of celebrities offering a fun take on why voting is important. If you need to end your week on a laugh, check it out in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


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TRS board holds its fall meeting

Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas Executive Director, Brian Guthrie, presented his comments to the TRS Board of Trustees virtually today, the final day of the board’s fall meeting.

Since the last board meeting, representatives form Texas’ largest public trust fund have participated in the National Council on Teacher Retirement (NCTR) annual trustee workshop and the National Association of State Retirement Administrators (NASRA) annual conference. Both events were held virtually. Later this fall TRS will attend the NCTR annual meeting.

Conferences are not the only thing at TRS that has transitioned to a virtual format. To ensure the safety of its staff, retirees, and active members nearing retirement (the last two cohorts both falling into higher risk age brackets), TRS has been closed to the public and its employees have been working on a largely remote basis. Guthrie anticipates more employees and contractors physically returning to work in October and the agency opening to the public in January 2021. Guthrie reported that TRS members have been largely complimentary or at least understanding of the service they were receiving in the virtual environment. Additionally, TRS has implemented policies, such as virtual huddles, to counter the sense of disconnection that extended exposure to a remote environment can cause.

After briefing the board on these more internal issues, Guthrie turned to updates on the agency’s recent and upcoming interactions with the legislature.

TRS staff has been submitting a number of interim documents in response to legislative committee requests for information, which has been the primary method used by committees to collect public and agency comments in lieu of holding public interim hearings this year. So far TRS has presented comments to the House Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services Committee, the House Appropriations Committee, and the House Insurance Committee, and TRS will be submitting comments soon to the Select Committee on Statewide Health Care Costs. TRS is going through the sunset review process currently, and the agency will also likely participate in a Sunset Advisory Commission hearing in October. The postponed sunset hearing had originally been scheduled for April of this year.

In addition to requests for information, TRS is preparing to submit its biannual legislative appropriations request (LAR) to the Governor’s office on September 25. In working with key legislative and gubernatorial staff, the agency was instructed to include in its base budget request the planned increase in state contribution rates passed as a part of Senate Bill 12 from 2019. This is very good news as it signals the legislature’s intent to fund the $544 million increase in state contributions into the retiree trust fund.

The LAR also covers the TRS administrative budget. At 7.8%, the increase to the agency’s administrative budget is the smallest requested increase in the past decade. Unlike most other state functions that pay for administrative budgets out of either agency fees or state general revenue (tax dollars), TRS administrative costs are covered by the pension trust fund and make up less than 0.2% of the total pension trust fund balance. TRS will seek one exceptional item, a funding request outside of the base budget. That item is to seek blanket authority to cover costs associated with implementing sunset recommendations and bills related to those recommendations next year. One of the sunset commission recommendations relates to improved customer service, and if approved, this rider could allow TRS to hire more staff to handle increased call volume and decrease its on-hold times.

Video of the full TRS meeting and related board materials can be found here. The final TRS board meeting of 2020 is scheduled for December 9-11, 2020.

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Texas election roundup: More court rulings

A pair of court decisions this week could make a significant impact on the November elections.

On Tuesday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that three Green Party candidates must be restored to the November ballot, despite a lower court’s order to remove them because they had not paid the required filing fees. The conventional wisdom is that Green Party candidates tend to attract some voters who may have otherwise voted for a Democrat, and their presence in a close race could tip the balance toward the Republican candidate. The Texas Democratic Party filed the original complaint to remove the candidates, while the Republican justices on the Texas Supreme Court overturned the decision.

Another Texas Supreme Court decision announced Tuesday blocked Harris County from sending mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters in the county. As previously reported here at Teach the Vote, ballot applications are not the same as ballots themselves. In the Harry County case, voters would still have to make the determination of whether they are eligible to apply to vote by mail, then fill out and return the application in order to receive an actual ballot in the mail. If think you may be eligible and are considering voting by mail, check out this post by Teach the Vote that explains the process in detail.

These decisions underscore the importance of every single vote in this election. These decisions are likely to impact a relatively small number of votes, but the reason they are the subject of litigation in the first place is an acknowledgement of just how close the November elections could be.

Now onto lighter topics!

If you watched ABC this week, you may have caught the network special VOMO: Vote or Miss Out. The comedy special hosted by Kevin Hart featured guest appearances by Tiffany Hadish, Michelle Obama, Tim Allen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other celebrities urging Americans to vote. If you need a little comedic motivation, you can watch the full special here or watch clips on YouTube.

The Texas Tribune reported this week that new voter registrations in Texas have plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The deadline to register to vote in the November 3 election is less than three weeks away. Voters have until October 5 to register to vote if you have not already done so in the county in which you plan to cast your ballot. If you’re unsure whether you are registered, you can use this tool on the Texas Secretary of State’s website. For more information about registering, click here.

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Census workers are knocking

U.S. Census Bureau

Recently, my family has encountered census workers who are trying to make sure our neighbors are counted by the September 30 census deadline. During a pandemic and an era of misinformation and distrust, you may find yourself cautious during such meetings. This feeling is completely understandable. However, armed with information and a commitment to helping others get counted in the 2020 Census, we can all work together to make sure Texas receives its fair share of federal funding for roads, schools, healthcare, representation in Congress, and much more.

A few weeks ago, I was playing in the front yard with my toddler when a census worker (who had been sitting in a running car for quite some time) asked if a “Nicole” lived in our house. I recognized the U.S. Census badge and other materials he had marked with the “2020 Census” logo. I replied, “No,” and he said that maybe they were at our neighbor’s house. I knew, however, that our neighbor had already filled out their census because we talked about it months ago. He talked to my neighbor, got the information he needed, yelled across the yard to me to tell me about how he hadn’t gotten to see his newly-born grandchild yet, and drove off.

The U.S. Census Bureau has detailed information on what to expect from census takers in your neighborhood and what to look for to verify their identity. And, here are some common reasons why those who have already responded to the 2020 Census may be visited by a census worker.

In another instance, my husband opened the door one evening to a woman who held up her badge and informed him she worked for the U.S. Census Bureau. She asked my husband how many people lived in the house across the street, if the house was rented or owned, and whether they were Hispanic. Soon, the neighbor in question pulled in to their driveway. The census worker rushed to their house, but, according to my husband, the neighbors quickly got back into their car and drove off. My husband felt uncomfortable about the encounter with the census worker, but the practice of using “proxy sources” to get basic information about non-responsive households is not uncommon.

According to a U.S. Census Bureau press release on door-to-door non-response follow-ups from the:

Census takers will go to great lengths to ensure that no one is missed in the census. After exhausting their efforts to do an in-person interview with a resident of an occupied housing unit, they will seek out proxy sources — a neighbor, a rental agent, a building manager or some other knowledgeable person familiar with the housing unit — to obtain as much basic information about the occupants as they can.

Some are concerned with the safety of participating in the 2020 Census. How will the information be used? Will it be used against me? This “Fighting Rumors” page provides information useful for educating yourself (and others) on how census data is used and not used. Most importantly, without an accurate count, especially of children, Texas risks adequate funding for essential funding streams that impact public schools, school nutrition programs, child care, special education, and much more.

One-third of households in Texas (roughly 31%) have been counted through the “boots-on-the-ground” efforts of census takers during the non-response follow-up (NRFU) process. Through these efforts, Texas is now just under the national average of enumerated households, at 92.4% compared to 93.0%.

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State legislators preview budget, public education ahead of 2021 session

State legislators offered up a preview this week of what debates over public education policy and the budget could look like in the 87th Texas Legislature. Legislators spoke to the Texas Tribune as part of the Texas Tribune Festival 2020, which is being held virtually throughout the month of September.

On Tuesday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) and state Rep. Mary González (D-Clint), who serves on the subcommittee that oversees public education spending, addressed the budget.

Earlier this summer, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced that the state will end the current two-year budget cycle at a $4.6 billion deficit, marking an $11.5 billion decline from what was estimated before the economic recession driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We definitely know this will be one of the worst budget sessions that we’ve ever experienced,” said Rep. González. “We haven’t really dealt with a deficit this big in a significant amount of time.”

González expressed optimism that Texas has fared better than other states during the economic recession, and suggested the House will look for innovative solutions for addressing the budget crunch, such as looking for areas to cut or raise new revenue.

González said her personal wish list includes drawing down additional federal funding by expanding Medicaid and reducing the amount of additional state money legislators have chosen to spend on border security. Chairman Capriglione said he is hopeful that future relief funds from the federal government will support state and local municipalities as well.

Regarding Texas’s Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF), Capriglione noted that the “rainy day fund” will likely not be the only solution and legislators will want to be able to save some money for future emergencies, such as another hurricane. Rep. González suggested the fund will not be enough to meet all of the state’s needs. The chairman also pointed out that legislation passed during the last legislative session allowed the state to invest some of the ESF, which generated $230 million in interest income last year.

State leaders have asked most agencies to cut their budgets by 5% ahead of the next budget cycle, which Chairman Capriglione said will have to be cleared by legislators. The chairman said cuts made now will serve to ease some of the pressure during the next budget cycle. Rep. González cautioned that cuts must be made in a way that does not harm vulnerable populations. Capriglione added that public health, public safety, and public education should be protected.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Humble) and Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) spoke on Monday about the shape of the public education discussion when legislators meet in January. Chairman Huberty suggested the next legislative session will be about maintaining rather than expanding the changes made by House Bill (HB) 3, the school finance bill legislators passed last session. This includes preserving the funding that went to providing a modest increase to some educators’ salaries.

Both admitted they haven’t looked at new revenue sources for HB 3 other than relying on the economy to improve. Huberty suggested we could find money by pausing some programs under HB 3 right after mentioning the incentive program. On the other hand Taylor talked about continuing the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) because districts are using it.

The chairmen also addressed the concerns of districts that have voiced frustration over federal relief funding Congress appropriated for schools, which the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has used to supplant rather than supplement state funding for schools. Chairman Taylor explained the decision was made in order to keep the state’s commitment to provide funding at the same level districts expected to receive before the recession hit. Yet, both chairmen suggested school districts will need to use some of their fund balances to fill in budget holes.

The 87th Texas Legislature is scheduled to meet January 12, 2021.

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 11, 2020

Here is a look at this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Education Agency (TEA) adapted its guidance on equitable services this week to reflect a recent U.S. District Court ruling vacating the U.S. Department of Education’s interim final rule that directs public school districts to spend an unprecedented amount of taxpayer dollars on private school students. The court ruling issued last Friday makes the department’s rule unenforceable nationwide, but Secretary Betsy DeVos still has time to appeal the decision.

TEA also updated several other sections of its COVID-19 Support and Guidance page, including new intern and emergency certification waiver information that continues the suspensions on face-to-face requirements for candidates completing their internships, clinical experiences, field-based experiences, and practicums. Also, be sure to check out the new Project Restore training on resilience that was posted this week.

ATPE State Treasurer Jayne Serna and ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier participated in an educators’ town hall on COVID-19 and teaching this week. The Wednesday night event was hosted by U.S. Congressional District 10 candidate and former teacher Mike Seigel. Serna was the opening speaker for the event, sharing the difficulties educators are facing this school year and highlighting the importance of voting to elect pro-public education candidates. Chevalier provided an overview of COVID-19-related federal funding issues facing educators and students, federal waivers, and the need for congressional oversight of the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Also this week, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter spoke with The Texas TribuneThe Dallas Morning News, and KBMT’s 12 News Now about the current state of teaching, learning gaps, and how spending cuts prompted by COVID-19 could impact students.

As a reminder, ATPE offers educators a gamut of resources:

  • Find answers from our legal team to frequently asked questions on our COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page.
  • Earn CPE by watching informative webcasts on topics such as educator rights, leave options, disability accommodations, and school safety through ATPE’s professional learning portal.
  • Explore an interactive pandemic timeline.
  • Take our survey on parent-teacher collaboration.
  • ATPE members only: Use Advocacy Central to communicate with elected officials about your concerns.

ELECTION UPDATE: Don’t let the November 3 general election creep up on you. Election Day is less than eight weeks away and early voting starts in one month. This means other deadlines for registering to vote or requesting a ballot-by-mail are even sooner! Remember that if you have moved recently or changed your name, you need to update your voter registration. Here are important dates to add to your calendar:

  • September 19: If your vote-by-mail application is received by this day, you are guaranteed to receive your ballot at least 30 days before Election Day.
  • September 22: National Voter Registration Day
  • October 5: Deadline to register to vote
  • October 13: First day of early voting
  • October 19: Educator Voting Day
  • October 23: Last day that a vote-by-mail application can be received (not postmarked)
  • October 30: Last day of early voting
  • November 3: Election Day! Mail-in ballots also must be received by this date.

If you happen to live in Texas Senate District 30 and are a registered voter, you’ll be eligible to vote early starting Monday, Sept. 14, for the special election to replace Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper). Read more about the race in this previous blog post, and check out profiles of the SD 30 candidates here on Teach the Vote.


FEDERAL UPDATE: In addition to the above-mentioned court ruling against Secretary Betsy DeVos’s effort to send more public money to private schools, there was activity on Capitol Hill this week. U.S. Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully to advance a new coronavirus aid package that included a $10 billion private school voucher provision. ATPE released a press statement opposing the voucher language in the Senate bill, which failed during a preliminary vote held in the Senate yesterday. Read more about the legislation and ATPE’s press statement in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) met this week to take up hefty agenda items including the revision of science, physical education, and health curriculum standards (TEKS). The revisions garnered hours of testimony from the public, as did the discussion of eight new charter applications before the board.

ATPE and other organizations urged the board to reject the new charters due to the increased costs the state would incur by granting the applications. SBOE Member Ruben Cortez asked Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, “Is now the time to be playing Shark Tank?” Read this week’s blog posts from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins to learn more about Morath’s defense of the charter applicants, the board’s Thursday split decisions to preliminarily approve just six of the proposed charters, and the ultimate veto of three charter operators during Friday’s full board meeting.


Per usual, the annual Texas Tribune Festival has an impressive education strand of events. This week, Texas Tribune education reporter Aliyya Swaby moderated a panel of Texas public school teachers, superintendents, and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. The teachers expressed how the pandemic impacted their interactions with students, the superintendents talked about budget and enrollment concerns, and Morath stuck to his usual admiration of data and the need to continue standardized testing. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


The Texas Senate Democratic Caucus incorporated ATPE recommendations regarding COVID-19 and schools into a letter it sent to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath earlier this week. The letter was influenced by a task force of education stakeholders including ATPE. Among other requests, the senators’ letter urges Morath to seek a waiver of federal testing and accountability requirements for 2020-21. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Did you know that high schools are legally required to offer students who will be age 18 by election day the opportunity to register to vote? In Texas, students may register to vote at 17 years 10 months. Students can print, fill out, and mail in an application obtained from VoteTexas.gov or fill out a voter registration application online and have it mailed to them.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals has partnered with dosomething.org to create the “Democracy Powered by (You)th” voter registration competition. By doing things like racking up voter registrations, students can win scholarships, school grants, and trophies. Pace High School in Brownsville, TX is currently in third place!



Today we remember the tragic events of September 11, 2001. On that day, some of our members were in the classroom as teachers, while others were still just students themselves. On this Patriot Day, we honor the lives lost that day and the heroic efforts by first responders, service members, and citizens who risked their lives that day and in the aftermath of the tragedy. We will never forget.

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SBOE vetoes three proposed charter chains

The State Board of Education (SBOE) formally vetoed three applications to operate new charter school chains in Texas on Friday. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) had recommended eight new charter chains for approval at this week’s SBOE meeting.

The board has veto authority over new charter school operators. Members voted to veto Heritage Classical Academy in Houston and Rocketship Public Schools in Fort Worth. The board tentatively approved CLEAR Public Charter School in San Marcos at Thursday’s meeting, but reversed course and voted to formally veto the application Friday morning.

The board narrowly approved five of the eight charter chains recommended by TEA: Brillante Academy in McAllen, Doral Academy of Texas in Buda, Learn4Life Austin, Prelude Preparatory Charter School in San Antonio, and Royal Public Schools in San Antonio.

ATPE joined with numerous public education organizations this week in asking the board to veto all of the proposed new charter chains while Texas faces a $4.6 billion budget shortfall due to the economic recession driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and the volatile oil and gas market. This echoes a request ATPE and public education organizations made earlier this year to the commissioner of education to place a moratorium on charter chain expansions, which do not have to be approved by the SBOE.

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SBOE tentatively approves 6 new charter chains

The State Board of Education (SBOE) narrowly voted to give tentative approval to six of the eight new charter school chains the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has recommended for approval this year.

A sharply divided board advanced Brillante Academy in McAllen, CLEAR Public Charter School in San Marcos, Doral Academy of Texas in Buda, Learn4Life Austin, Prelude Preparatory Charter School in San Antonio, and Royal Public Schools in San Antonio by a preliminary vote Thursday evening.

Members voted to veto Heritage Classical Academy in Houston and Rocketship Public Schools in Fort Worth. The board will take a final vote on the charter applicants in Friday’s formal meeting.

ATPE joined multiple education organizations in asking the board to consider whether spending tax dollars on new charters is the right thing to do at this moment. The board has the authority to veto new charter applicants.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar has warned Texas is facing a $4.58 billion shortfall heading into the next budget cycle due to the economic recession driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and volatile oil market. The eight charter chains up for approval at this week’s meeting are projected to cost the state an additional $12 million per year.

On Wednesday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath downplayed the idea that $12 million a year is a significant sum, but $12 million could cover the salaries of more than 200 educators at risk of being laid off due to the economic recession caused by COVID-19.

Once initially approved, charter chains are able to expand exponentially without need for approval from the SBOE, or any other elected official. More than 90 expansion amendments have been filed this year which could cost the state an additional $90 million annually. TEA has already approved at least 62 expansion amendments so far this year.

Among the eight charter chains up for approval this week are operators based in New York, Florida, and California. These states would be the recipients of Texas taxpayers’ dollars if these charter chains are approved.

ATPE joined with other education organizations earlier this year in calling for a moratorium on charter expansions. The same rationale applies to ATPE’s recommendation that the board deny the eight charter applications at this time.

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ATPE urges Congress to keep private school vouchers out of COVID-19 relief legislation

On Sept. 8, Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate shared their latest proposal for COVID-19 relief legislation, termed the “Delivering Immediate Relief to America’s Families, Schools and Small Businesses Act.” The Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House have been deadlocked since May on negotiations for additional relief from the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) shared details of the new GOP proposal Tuesday and announced his intent for the Senate to pass the bill by the end of this week. However, amid criticism that the bill does not go far enough to help those affected by the pandemic, the legislation was considered highly unlikely to move forward, and a preliminary vote taken today in the Senate fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to proceed.

The latest Senate bill would shield businesses against lawsuits related to COVID-19 and spend $500 billion on initiatives that would include debt forgiveness for the postal service, additional paycheck protection loans for small businesses, partial continuation of enhanced unemployment benefits, and funding for coronavirus vaccine development and testing. Schools would be eligible for additional funds under the bill, too, but the Senate proposal reserves two-thirds of the K-12 money for schools operating in person. Unlike the most recent U.S. House proposal, states would see no additional direct funding that could be used to offset anticipated budget cuts in public education and other areas.

To the dismay of the education community, the Senate GOP bill also calls for funneling $5 billion in tax dollars toward private school voucher programs favored by the Trump administration and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The proposal would offer federal tax credits to bolster state voucher programs and fund private school tuition “scholarships.” Additionally, the bill would expand access to 529 savings accounts, typically reserved for college costs, to pay for private and home schooling. The voucher language in the McConnell bill mirrors similar legislation filed by U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) to subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling costs with tax credits and other federally funded incentives.

Responding to Tuesday’s announcement, ATPE issued a statement criticizing the inclusion of the controversial private school voucher funding in a bill that purports to provide COVID-19 relief. ““Congress should be focusing on helping our nation’s public schools that are dealing with unprecedented challenges,” said ATPE State President Jimmy Lee. “We cannot afford to divert our limited resources from public schools to private entities  during a global crisis,” Lee added. View ATPE’s full press statement here.

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Teachers, superintendents, and commissioner speak at Tribune Festival

The Texas Tribune is holding its annual Texas Tribune Festival this month. Rather than an in-person event jam-packed with speakers over a few days, this year’s festival is taking place virtually throughout the entire month of September. The event still features a prominent strand of panels and interviews related to education. A session held this morning, “Public Education in the Time of COVID,” featured two teachers, two superintendents, and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. Here’s what the panelists had to say.

No more high-fives or cozy reading corners. Texas public school teachers Paige Stanford (Waco ISD) and Ale Checka (Forth Worth ISD) are optimistic about the school year and simultaneously saddened by the lack of physical interaction they anticipate having with their students. Both teachers highlighted how the pandemic has changed their community, from inspiring more empathy to creating traumatic situations. In Stanford’s school district, she said, “the streets went empty,” when Waco ISD principal Phillip Perry passed away from COVID-19, but Stanford added that students are now excited to help others by wiping down their desks after class. A shift in attitudes has impacted teachers, too. Checka said she, “will never forget or forgive the way that state leadership has tried everything possible for us to not be able to follow local public health guidelines.”

Superintendents Dr. LaTonya Goffney (Aldine ISD) and Dr. Michael Hinojosa (Dallas ISD) were each in different stages of reopening their districts for instruction, but both expressed that assessment will be key in determining how to support students and fill in learning gaps from the spring. Since Aldine ISD has already started instruction, Goffney was able to confirm that enrollment in the district has declined by about 3,500 students (out of 67,200), with more than 50% of the decline occurring in pre-Kindergarten. This comment trends with other anecdotes gathered by ATPE, which suggest parents are choosing to keep their children out of optional grades such as pre-K and Kindergarten. Goffney said her district is trying to identify students who are not showing up to school, but many students are impacted by policy changes outside of the school’s purview, such as the rental assistance program in the Houston area.

Both superintendents on today’s panel said their districts spent millions of unanticipated dollars on personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning supplies, sanitizer, plexiglass, face shields, masks, misters, food, and devices to keep students safe and learning. Aldine ISD spent $10 million while Dallas ISD spent $31 million. Many of these costs will be reimbursed at 75% through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, while others will be handled through the state’s Operation Connectivity program. In the long-term, Hinojosa said he is concerned about being able to maintain many of the programs his district offers.

It would have been nice for Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to respond directly to some of the comments made by the teachers and superintendents, as would have been possible in a regular in-person panel. However, the answers he provided to moderator and Texas Tribune education reporter Aliyya Swaby did shed some light on important policy topics, such as accountability.

It is no secret that Morath loves data, as it undergirds all of his discussions. Much like they did in the spring, Texas school districts will use existing data reporting systems to track where students are receiving instruction. The commissioner said we are about two or three weeks away from being able to look at this data, but Morath noted that it seems the majority of students are in remote instructional settings. This is despite the fact that the “overwhelming majority” of districts, according to Morath, are offering in-person instruction.

With regard to standardized testing and accountability, Morath expressed his view that most people want more data during a pandemic, not less. The commissioner said assessing expectations of students is still important for ensuring they are meeting milestones for success later in life. Morath believes the STAAR tests are an accurate gauge for mastery, which then provide educators with information on who needs extra support so that we can help students reach their potential. These comments reflect the commissioner’s views of assessment as a diagnostic tool, which Morath spoke about during an SBOE meeting earlier this year.

The commissioner stressed that the state tests use data on student growth over the course of the year and that parents still deserve to know that information about their school. ATPE and many others have questioned whether any growth measures will be accurate this year, given the loss of learning in the spring during COVID-19 school closures, rapid transitions to remote learning, and the loss of contact with 11% of students. Nevertheless, Morath didn’t indicate any easing up on district and campus accountability ratings using the test scores, saying the data will help to identify best practices of those who do well during the pandemic. Unscientifically identifying some things that work during one year of an exceptional time might satisfy the curiosity of some, but at what expense to schools and districts that experience negative accountability interventions and sanctions due to a pandemic?

Morath closed out his remarks by expressing satisfaction with the amount of money that had been allocated to districts to mitigate COVID-19 costs and pay for closing the digital divide. He also expressed hope that public health data expected to be posted toward the end of September will help the state identify if there is viral spread in schools.

The Texas Tribune Festival continues through Sept. 30, and it includes numerous free events that are available to stream right now. As usual, the festival features specially priced educator and student tickets, which provide full access at a fraction of the cost. Nearly all of the festival events, including this morning’s education panel, are available for replay on demand for ticket holders who may have missed previous events.

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