Tag Archives: education

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 12, 2018

Happy Friday! Here’s a look at this week’s education news higlights:


The Texas education community was rocked this week by federal officials announcing that Texas violated laws by failing to provide adequate evaluation of and services to students with disabilities. The findings concluded a lengthy investigation in which federal officials visited Texas schools, interviewed parents and educators, and reviewed documentation about how students with special needs were identified and treated.

One of the issues at the center of the investigation was evidence that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) had either explicitly or tacitly compelled districts to keep the percentage of their students receiving special education services below a cap of 8.5 percent. ATPE supported legislation, Senate Bill 160 by Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), that was passed last year to end the practice.

Gov. Greg Abbott responded to this week’s announcement by directing Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to craft a plan within seven days to reform the system and make recommendations for any needed legislative changes. Abbott also angered many educators by stating in a press release that school districts had been at fault. The governor accused school district administrators of a “dereliction of duty,” prompting rebuttals from the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education and other groups who noted that school district officials had merely been following the instructions and requirements given to them by TEA.

Read more about federal investigation findings in this republished post from The Texas Tribune.

 


ATPE has issued a response to one state senator’s complaints about efforts to improve voter turnout in school communities. As we reported before the holidays, Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has asked Attorney General Ken Paxton for guidance on whether it is legal for groups like ATPE and the Texas Educators Vote coalition to work with school districts on programs to encourage and make it easier for educators and eligible students to vote. Bettencourt has complained about school boards adopting a coalition-drafted resolution supporting a culture of voting in Texas public schools; school administrators encouraging teachers to vote; and school districts providing transportation to the polls.

Today, ATPE joined other education-related groups who have written to the attorney general in response to Sen. Bettencourt’s misleading claims about our nonpartisan Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts. Read the letter from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday to Attorney General Paxton here.

 


In response to changes sought by the federal government, Texas Education Agency (TEA) officials earlier this week submitted a revised plan for state compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Learn more about the adjustments proposed by state officials, many of which relate to the state’s accountability system and implementation of state law changes made last legislative session, in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.

 


The 2018 Texas primary elections are now less than six weeks away, with early voting scheduled to begin on Feb. 20. Have you checked out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote? Our profiles of candidates running for the Texas Legislature, State Board of Education, Governor, and Lieutenant Governor include links to campaign websites, notes on significant endorsements made by other groups, legislative incumbents’ voting records, and responses to our candidate survey. If your area candidates have not yet responded to our survey, ask them to participate! For additional information, contact the ATPE Governmental Relations team at government@atpe.org.

 


A commission created by lawmakers of the 85th Texas Legislature to study the issue of school finance is scheduled to hold its first meeting January 23 in Austin. Tacked onto House Bill (HB) 21 during the August special session, the 13-member commission is tasked with making recommendations for the improvement of the public school finance system, including:

  1. The purpose of the public school finance system and the relationship between state and local funding in that system
  2. The appropriate levels of local maintenance and operations and interest and sinking fund tax effort necessary to implement a public school finance system that complies with the requirements under the Texas Constitution
  3. Policy changes to the public school finance system necessary to adjust for student demographics and the geographic diversity in the state

The commission is composed of members appointed by the governor, speaker of the Texas House, lieutenant governor, and chair of the State Board of Education (SBOE). Board Chair Donna Bahorich (R-Houston) appointed SBOE Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) to serve on the commission. Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) appointed former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister to chair the commission. The governor also appointed Todd Williams, who serves as education policy advisor to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, former state Rep. Elvira Reyna, and Galena Park ISD teacher and ATPE member Melissa Martin.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Texas) named Senate Education Chair Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), and Pflugerville ISD superintendent Doug Killian. House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) appointed House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston), Vice-Chair Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), Educator Quality Subcommittee Chair Ken King (R-Canadian), and Austin ISD CFO Nicole Conley Johnson.

The commission must report its recommendations by December 31, 2018.

 


 

From The Texas Tribune: Feds say Texas illegally failed to educate students with disabilities

  • by Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
  • Jan. 11, 2018

Vanessa Tijerina addresses the panel about her 13-year-old special needs child who has been denied special education for 4 years on December 13, 2016. U.S. Department of Education officials held a meeting in Edinburg on their tour of Texas to hear community members’ experiences with special education, continuing an investigation of whether Texas is capping services for students with disabilities. Photo by Eddie Seal/The Texas Tribune.

A U.S. Department of Education investigation concluded Thursday that Texas violated federal law by failing to ensure students with disabilities were properly evaluated and provided with an adequate public education.

After interviews and monitoring visits with parents, school administrators and state officials, the federal investigation found that the Texas Education Agency effectively capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized some school districts to deny services to eligible students.

It also told TEA that it needs to take several corrective actions, including producing documentation that the state is properly monitoring school districts’ evaluations for special education, developing a plan and timeline for TEA to ensure that each school district will evaluate students previously denied needed services and creating a plan and timeline for TEA to provide guidance to educators on how to identify and educate students with disabilities.

“Far too many students in Texas had been precluded from receiving supports and services under [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act],” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in a statement Thursday. “I’ve worked directly with TEA Commissioner [Mike] Morath on resolving these issues, and I appreciate the Texas Education Agency’s efforts to ensure all children with disabilities are appropriately identified, evaluated and served under IDEA.

“While there is still more work to be done, leaders in the state have assured me they are committed to ensuring all students with disabilities can achieve their full potential.”

In response to the report, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to Morath demanding that TEA prepare an initial plan to reform special education within the next seven days, with the input of parents, advocates and educators. He also demanded TEA develop legislative recommendations to help ensure districts comply with federal and state special education laws.

Legislators passed a law in May prohibiting Texas from capping special education services. Special education advocates and parents had lobbied for a number of smaller reform bills during the session, few of which passed.

“Federal officials have provided no definitive timeline for action by TEA, but parents and students across our state cannot continue waiting for change,” Abbott wrote. “I am directing you to take immediate steps to prepare an initial corrective action plan draft within the next seven days.”

In a statement Thursday, Morath said he will continue to increase training and support for educators on educating students with disabilities.

“We have added significant resources focused on increasing technical assistance and training for our school systems, including 39 statewide special education support staff in the last year,” he said. “I am committing today that there will be more.”

The federal investigation was prompted by a series of reports from the Houston Chronicle alleging TEA had denied needed special education services to thousands of students with disabilities across the state. Texas provides special education to a small percentage of students compared to other states. That number has gone up from 8.5 percent in 2015-16 to 8.8 percent last school year, according to TEA’s statewide academic performance report.

TEA has denied all allegations that it capped services for students.

The report comes more than a year after federal officials traveled to five Texas cities in December 2016 and heard parents tell numerous stories about educators who had not been properly trained on what services they were legally required to provide students with disabilities. The agency also collected more than 400 public written comments from those who could not attend a meeting in person.

Federal officials returned to Texas last February to tour selected school districts for a firsthand look at local special education data and policies.

The report Thursday confirmed the complaints of many the parents who spoke out at those meetings. It said:

  • TEA was more likely to monitor and intervene in school districts with higher rates of students in special education, creating a statewide system that incentivized denying services to eligible students. School district officials said they expected they would receive less monitoring if they served 8.5 percent of students or fewer.
  • According to internal reports reviewed by federal officials, administrators at multiple districts worked to decrease the percentage of students identified for special education services — even though there was no evidence to indicate those actions were necessary.
  • School administrators provided some students suspected of having disabilities with intensive academic support as a way of delaying or refusing to evaluate them for necessary federally funded special education services. Teachers and staff did not understand how to deploy this support in a way that complied with federal law.
  • Texas has a policy to only provide federally funded services to students with dyslexia if those students also have another disability. That violates federal law, the report said, since it denies some eligible students federally funded special education services. School districts were found to be inconsistent in how they interpreted and carried out this state policy.
  • Many school district staff members said they saw evaluation for federally funded special education services as a “last resort” for students who were struggling to learn. They did not understand that students could receive these services in both special education and general education classrooms.

The agency’s attempts to address some of these problems in the last several months collapsed recently after it awarded a contract to overhaul special education to a company with a short track record without letting other firms bid for the job. After parents of students with disabilities argued the contract was poorly thought out, Morath terminated it — with $2.2 million in federal funding already spent for services rendered. The agency is now conducting an internal review of its contracting processes.

Texas now lacks both a special education director and a long-term plan for overhauling special education, leaving parents and advocates frustrated and concerned.

Reference Material

USDE special education monitoring visit letter

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/01/11/federal-special-education-monitoring-report/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

TEA submits revised federal ESSA plan

Commissioner of Education Mike Morath wrote school administrators yesterday to inform them that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) submitted its revised plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The U.S. Department of Education (ED) issued feedback in December to Texas’s original state ESSA plan, which required some revisions and asked for additional clarity.

Morath’s letter to administrators largely focused on how the revised plan would impact the implementation of House Bill (HB) 22, a piece of accountability-related legislation passed by the 85th Texas Legislature, as the major areas addressed by ED involve the new academic accountability system.

“Due to federal timeline requirements, the Agency was forced to make preliminary decisions on the new House Bill 22 (HB 22) accountability system ahead of the timeline for our state rulemaking,” Morath wrote. “I want to emphasize the decisions laid out in our revised ESSA plan do not reflect final stakeholder input and are an effort to comply with federal timelines and requirements.”

Among the changes made to address issues outlined by ED, TEA’s revised plan:

  • alters the long-term goal for ESSA to entail 30 percent growth based on baseline scores from the 2016-17 school year (the original long-term goal didn’t cut it for ED because, for example, it failed to anticipate graduation rate growth for certain student subgroups, in this case white males; proficiency goals are also now based on a meeting grade level expectation rather than the originally proposed approaching grade level expectation);
  • removes writing, science, and social studies test results from the academic achievement considerations (ED interprets the law to say only math and reading/language arts results can be used to calculate this indicator; the other test results will still be used for calculating student success and school quality);
  • aligns the accountability impact for failing to meet the required 95 percent testing participation rate with federal stipulations, which will impact schools where parents opt their students out of state standardized testing;
  • adjusts the federally required summative rating calculation so that either student achievement or progress (the better score of the two) makes up 70% of the rating, while 30% consists of progress towards closing the gaps (the original calculation would have averaged the two percentiles); and
  • changes accountability for recently arrived English language learners so that it begins in their second year in U.S. schools (the original plan would not have included some recently arrived ELL students in some accountability results for the first two years and would have omitted some asylum/refugee students for up to five years).

The revised state plan also adds language to clarify various aspects of the proposal. For example, ED asked for more information on how Texas plans to satisfy a federal requirement to track and publicly report the disproportionate rates at which poor and minority children have access to experienced, qualified educators, an issue on which ATPE has long advocated for change driven by research-based solutions. The revised plan dives deeper into Texas’s landscape and the way TEA intends to calculate and report the data.

The letter goes on to inform administrators that TEA will submit amendments to the plan if additional feedback leads to “decisions different from what is proposed and already submitted in our ESSA plan.” Similar language in the original plan submitted to ED was omitted in the revised plan.

Read Morath’s full letter and access the revised state ESSA plan here.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 5, 2018

Happy New Year! Here’s a look at this week’s education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


As the first week of January comes to a close, many people are setting their New Year’s resolutions for 2018. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter suggests adding a resolution to become a more engaged and informed voter in 2018 to your list. Read more tips in his blog post here.

 


The State Board of Education (SBOE) is hosting a series of upcoming meetings to gather feedback from educators on the state’s Long-Range Plan for Public Education. Stakeholder events are scheduled this month and next month in Houston, San Antonio, Salado, Amarillo, and the Rio Grande Valley. To learn more about how educators can register to participate in these community conversations, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


Federal education officials have weighed in on the Texas Education Agency’s draft state plan for compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As reported in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann, the state is preparing a revised submission next week to address revisions sought by the U.S. Department of Education.

 


 

Texas receives feedback from feds on ESSA plan

Over the holiday break, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) issued feedback to Texas on its final plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which it submitted in September. The letter requests that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) revise its plan consistent with the feedback identified by ED and resubmit its plan by Monday, unless the state chooses to request a later date of re-submission.

The full letter, which includes 11 pages of feedback, identifies issues with various aspects of the state’s plan. Among the revisions requested, ED disputes the state’s calculation of graduation rate progress for accountability purposes (for some subgroups, progress is not anticipated); strikes down the exclusion of test results for certain English language learners (recently arrived English language learners would not be included in some accountability results for the first two years and some asylum/refugee students would not be counted for up to five years); and questions whether the state’s inclusion of the new 95 percent testing participation rate requirement is adequate for calculating school accountability (Texas would use it to calculate accountability, but ED isn’t sure it’s being used appropriately within the system).

Another revision noted by ED is one resulting from a strict interpretation of the statutory language. TEA proposes using STAAR results in science, social studies, and writing to calculate results under the Academic Achievement indicator, but ED asks TEA to move those elsewhere in the accountability system because the law states that only reading/language arts and mathematics are permissible under the Academic Achievement indicator. ED also asks for more clarity on the School Quality or Student Success indicator, which TEA would calculate using STAAR math and reading scores in grades 3-8 and college, career, and military readiness indicators in high school.

Watch Teach the Vote next week for more on the Texas ESSA plan as TEA meets its deadline to respond. In a statement released last month, education officials in California stated they appreciated the feedback but noted “areas of disagreement over the interpretation of federal statute.” The statement is an example of uncertainty with regard to how ESSA compliance plays out at the state level while the federal government seeks to shift more control to states and sticks to strict interpretation of the law in lieu of rulemaking.

SBOE seeks local educators’ input

The State Board of Education (SBOE) will conduct two meetings this month and three more in February to allow local stakeholders, including educators, to participate in discussions regarding the Long-Range Plan for Public Education.

The plan is guided by a steering committee tasked with recommending long-term goals for the state’s public school system through the year 2030 and to identify strengths, opportunities, and challenges. The 18-member steering committee includes SBOE chair Donna Bahorich (R-Houston) and members Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands), Tom Maynard (R-Florence), Georgina Perez (D-El Paso), and Marty Rowley (R-Amarillo).

The board is currently conducting local community meetings across the state in order to solicit input on the following topics:

  • Educator preparation, recruitment, and retention
  • Equity and access to funding, technology, and advanced courses
  • Student engagement and empowerment to provide effective support systems for students and prepare them for life after high school
  • Family engagement and empowerment to help parents become strong advocates for their children in the education system.

The board plans to release an online survey to collect additional feedback. In the meantime, these community meetings offer a valuable opportunity for educators to meet and share their personal perspectives with members of the State Board of Education. ATPE encourages those who are close to one of the upcoming meeting locations to take advantage of this opportunity. The following dates and locations are coming soon:

Jan. 9 – 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Region 20 Education Service Center

1314 Hines Ave., San Antonio

Click HERE to register.

 

Jan. 18 – 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Salado Civic Center

601 N. Main St., Salado.

Click HERE to register.

 

Feb. 8 – 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Region 4 Education Service Center’s McKinney Conference Center

7200 Northwest 100 Dr., Houston

Click HERE to register.

 

Feb. 16 – 9-11 a.m.

Location TBD

Rio Grande Valley

Registration not yet opened.

 

Feb. 28 – 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Region 16 Education Service Center’s Panhandle Conference Center

5800 Bell St., Amarillo

Click HERE to register.

 

The board encourages those planning to attend to register in advance, but no registration is required and educators will be welcomed at the door. A summary of comments from the Nov. 2 meeting in El Paso is available HERE.

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 22, 2017

Happy holidays! Here’s your week in review from ATPE Governmental Relations:


Earlier today, President Donald Trump signed into law a major tax overhaul bill approved by Congress this week. The president also signed off on a short-term funding bill to keep the federal governmental operational for a few more weeks until longer-term legislation can be passed. The final $1.5 trillion tax bill omits some provisions that were worrisome for educators employed in public schools, which ATPE urged our congressional delegation to remove from earlier versions of the legislation. For more on the tax law that was approved, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.


Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has announced his appointments to two key state commissions. First, the speaker revealed his picks to serve on the new Texas Commission on Public School Finance, authorized by the legislature earlier this year. The House appointments include Reps. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), and Ken King (R-Canadian). Fittingly, all three of the representatives chosen by the speaker also hold leadership roles on the House Public Education Committee: Huberty as committee chair, Bernal as committee vice-chair, and King as chair of the Subcommittee on Educator Quality. Also appointed to serve on the commission is Nicole Conley Johnson, who is currently employed as Chief Financial Officer for Austin ISD. Additional members of the school finance commission were previously announced by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Yesterday, Straus also announced that Reps. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), Stan Lambert (R-Abilene), and Poncho Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass) would serve on the Sunset Advisory Commission, along with public member and retired accountant Ron Steinhart of Dallas. The commission is charged with overseeing and making recommendations to the legislature on periodic reviews of various state agencies.


Twenty Texas school districts will have an opportunity to take part in a pilot program using locally designed accountability measures. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath named the districts selected earlier this week from a pool of 50 applicants. The pilot program falls under Rep. Dan Huberty’s House Bill 22 passed earlier this year. For more on the local accountability pilot study, view information on the Texas Education Agency’s website here.



 

Congress releases final tax bill

The U.S. House and Senate have finalized a conference tax bill that is expected to be voted on by each body over the course of next week. After the individual chambers passed their own bills pertaining to reforming provisions of the current tax code, a conference committee was appointed to work out the differences in the bills. The final bill must now receive the support of both chambers and the signature of the president before it becomes law.

ATPE wrote members of the Texas delegation last week to urge members of the conference committee and leaders in both chambers to stand with teachers on two issues: maintaining a credit for educators who spend personal money on classroom supplies and omitting a potential new tax on investments of public employee pensions like the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas. ATPE is pleased to report that the final bill reflects our requests on both issues.

The educator expense deduction was maintained at up to $250 a year, giving educators who use money from their own paychecks a nominal but meaningful credit for at least a portion of what is spent to give all students and classrooms access to needed supplies. The House bill originally scrapped the deduction altogether, while the Senate bill doubled the max deduction to as much as $500.

The Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT), as it related to public pensions, was ultimately scrapped under the final bill. The House bill would have applied the tax to public pension investments, including the TRS trust fund, which could have weakened its financial soundness by subjecting it to new additional tax liability. The Senate’s bill did not apply the new tax to public pension investments.

Another issue that garnered significant attention was a provision termed to be one aimed at “school choice” and was included in varying forms under both bills. The Senate’s provision on the topic was added in the final hours of debate by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). The final bill includes a negotiated version of the provision, which expands spending eligibility for 529 college savings accounts. If the bill becomes law, parents will be able to use the money they’ve saved in a 529 account to pay for up to $10,000 a year in K-12 education expenses, including at private schools.

ATPE appreciates the conference committee’s final decision on both the educator expense deduction and the UBIT. We also appreciate the help of legislators and leaders who advocated on behalf educators. High-profile provisions of the final plan include a reduction of the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent, a smaller top tax rate for individuals (at 37 percent instead of just under 40), omission of the Obamacare-era tax fine for those who don’t buy health insurance, and a cap on the deduction of state and local taxes (SALT) at $10,000.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 15, 2017

As you’re preparing for a holiday break, here’s a look at this week’s education news from ATPE:


As ATPE and other associations are working to encourage the education community to get out the vote in the 2018 elections, our GOTV efforts are rankling some officeholders and the special interests that have supported them financially. Seemingly frightened by the prospect of high voter turnout among educators, at least one lawmaker is complaining about school districts fostering a culture of voting among their staffs and students. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported yesterday on our blog, Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) is asking Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to issue a legal opinion to try to stifle the nonpartisan voter education efforts being spearheaded by the Texas Educators Vote coalition, of which ATPE is a member.

ATPE and other groups involved in the movement were quick to defend the nonpartisan work of the coalition, which is comprised of several groups that do not endorse candidates at all. The League of Women Voters, for example, tweeted, “The League’s mission is Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy! We are proud to partner with Texas Educators Votes and support their mission to create a culture of voting in Texas.”

Some educators naturally questioned why a sitting state senator would want to dissuade educators from voting and teaching students about the importance of voting. “Why would a leader not want school boards to adopt a resolution that encourages students, faculty, and staff to #vote?” asked former ATPE State President Cory Colby (@EffectualEdu) on Twitter. Another educator (@drdrbrockman) tweeted, “Looks like @TeamBettencourt doesn’t want educators to turn out to vote. Nothing in the Texas Educators Vote resolution pushes particular candidates or electoral outcomes.” ATPE member Rita Long commented on our blog, “I will vote in every election and encourage every citizen to vote. It is my right and privilege to have a voice in our elections. Educators must use their votes to have a voice in what is happening in public education. Our students are our future. Education issues should be a top priority with every American.”

Responding to the growing criticism on social media, Sen. Bettencourt doubled down on his unfounded claim that the coalition was using public school resources to promote particular candidates or ballot measures. The senator has not yet identified any examples of particular candidates allegedly being promoted by way of the coalition’s GOTV efforts.

By law the Attorney General’s office has six months to respond to Bettencourt’s request for an opinion, but AG Paxton is likely to issue a ruling ahead of the 2018 primaries. Several education groups involved in the coalition efforts will be submitting briefs to the AG’s office in the coming weeks. Stay to tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.

Related content: As part of our ongoing effort to encourage educators to participate in the 2018 primary and general elections as informed voters, be sure to check out our candidate profiles right here on our nonpartisan Teach the Vote website. This election cycle, we’re featuring profiles of every candidate running for a Texas legislative seat, State Board of Education, governor, and lieutenant governor. Profiles includes incumbents’ voting records on education-related bills, responses to our candidate survey, contact information for the campaigns, and additional information compiled by ATPE’s lobby team. New information is being added daily as we learn more about the candidates. If candidates in your area have not yet answered our candidate survey, please encourage them to do so. Inquiries about Teach the Vote and our candidate survey may be sent to government@atpe.org.

 

 


The U.S. Congress conference committee established to hash out disagreements between the U.S. House and U.S. Senate Republican tax plans has come to an agreement on a final plan. The committee met Wednesday to review the plan in a public hearing. Much of the high-profile provisions of the final plan have been discussed in public and reported by the media. For example, the corporate tax rate would be reduced from 35 to 21 percent, the top tax rate for individuals would go from almost 40 to 37 percent, the Obamacare-era tax fine for those who don’t buy health insurance would be removed, and the state and local taxes (SALT) deduction would be kept but capped at $10,000. Still, many smaller details of the negotiated plan remain unknown. Those include two issues raised in an ATPE letter to members of the Texas delegation: (1) a deduction for educators who use personal money to buy classroom supplies, and (2) a potential new tax for public pension investments, such as those in the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) trust fund.

The details of the bill are expected to be released later today. Follow @TeachtheVote on Twitter and watch for more updates as information becomes available. The tax bill must still receive a final vote of support in both chambers and receive the signature of the president before it becomes law, which Republican leadership hopes to have completed by Christmas.

 


Students in some school districts affected by Hurricane Harvey will see relief from certain standardized testing requirements. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced Thursday that Commissioner Mike Morath would waive some STAAR requirements for certain students affected by the massive storm. The commissioner has remained reluctant to provide relief in the form of STAAR testing schedules or accountability requirements, but he changed his tune slightly after Gov. Greg Abbott joined the chorus of those in favor of loosening accountability and testing requirements for Harvey-affected students and schools. Morath sent a letter to impacted school districts on Thursday explaining that fifth and eighth grade students who fail to pass the required state standardized tests twice can advance to the next grade level if district educators agree they are ready. Learn more about Morath’s decision to waive some testing requirements in this article from the Texas Tribune.

 


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) and State Board of Education (SBOE) will host a free conference on teacher preparation and retention in January. The one-day event will feature roundtable and panel discussions on how Texas can better prepare its future teachers, support those in the classroom, and retain teachers tempted to the leave the field. It will also feature keynote speeches from Doug Lemov, who authored Teach Like a Champion, and Peter Dewitt, the author of Collaborative Leadership: Six Influences that Matter Most.

The conference, titled Learning Roundtable: Recruiting, Preparing and Retaining Top Teachers, will be held at the Austin Convention Center from 8:30 am until 4:30 pm on Thursday, January 25, and will offer up to 5.5 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) to participating educators. To view the full-day agenda, learn more about the event, or register to attend, visit the Texas Education Agency’s conference web page.

Related content: SBEC met last week for its final meeting of the year to discuss a broad agenda that included rulemaking resulting from bills passed during the 85th legislative session. The board also rejected revisiting a controversial and unnecessary pathway for superintendent candidates to seek certification without prior experience in a classroom, school, or managerial role. Read a recap of the meeting from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann who attended the meeting and testified on behalf of ATPE.

 


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) board met yesterday and today, and ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was in attendance. As reported in Exter’s blog post, the meeting included a discussion of the annual reports on the actuarial valuation of the TRS pension and healthcare funds.

 


 

Sen. Bettencourt leads attack on educators voting

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has fired the first public shot in what has been a heretofore behind-the-scenes effort to discourage educators from voting en masse in the upcoming elections.

On Wednesday, Sen. Bettencourt submitted a request for a legal opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton regarding school districts that are actively promoting a culture of voting. In his request, Sen. Bettencourt raises grave concern over the prospect of school districts encouraging teachers, students, and staff to exercise their civic right and responsibility to vote.

In his letter, Sen. Bettencourt draws attention to the Educator’s Oath to Vote championed by the nonpartisan Texas Educators Vote coalition, of which ATPE is a member. The oath is a means for Texas educators to demonstrate their commitment to voting in 2018 by participating in the March primary elections and November general election. The coalition has long advocated for members of the education community to develop a habit of voting by taking part in all elections.

“I am concerned about the legal implications of coercing government employees to ascribe an oath to a particular political viewpoint,” Bettencourt states in his request (emphasis added) to AG Paxton. Bettencourt offers no guidance as to which particular political viewpoint is opposed to supporting Texas school children.

Guidance offered through the Texas Educators Vote (TEV) website is nonpartisan and discourages campus leaders from advocating for any candidate, issue, or party. In promoting increased participation in the democratic process, TEV materials correctly point out embarrassingly low voter turnout in Texas. In a state of nearly 27 million people and 19 million eligible voters, just 34 percent of the state’s 15 million registered voters voted in the 2014 gubernatorial election. Only 14 percent voted in the 2014 primaries.

“In accepting a position of public trust as Texas educators, we are charged with the noble responsibility of demonstrating exemplary conduct – both to our colleagues and to our students,” the TEV Care Enough to Vote guide states. “We must model positive civic conduct by regularly casting our ballots in every election. It is our responsibility as educators to participate in elections. It is our responsibility to VOTE.”

Sen. Bettencourt’s letter further questions school districts’ legal ability to encourage teachers, staff, and eligible students to exercise their civic responsibility by voting, and whether school transportation can be used to offer assistance to those who may be otherwise unable to exercise their right to cast a ballot. Bettencourt argues that such support does not serve a public benefit.

“Rather, it is for only a certain few who are being asked to go to the polls by the school district to vote in a manner befitting their own self-interests, or those of particular organizations,” Bettencourt claims. Again, Bettencourt offers no further example of “self-interests” other than pointing to the oath to support Texas school children.

The letter asks Paxton to consider two legal questions:

  1. Does a school district providing or securing transportation for employees or students to and/or from polling places violate the Gift Clauses of the Texas Constitution?
  2. What legal constraints exist regarding a school district’s ability to spend or authorize the spending of public funds for political advertising or communications designed to influence voters to vote for or against a particular measure or candidate?

It is important to note that opinions from the Texas attorney general are non-binding, non-enforceable, and neither indicate nor create actual law. Opinions are often used as the starting point for formal litigation.

Sen. Bettencourt’s action comes amid mounting efforts to quietly discourage educators from voting as a group. These efforts include numerous public information requests targeting teachers’ and administrators’ e-mails. Such tactics are often employed by political operatives to create a chilling effect.

As long as the constitutions of Texas and the United States guarantee the right to vote, the law will continue to be on the side of those fighting to exercise their civic responsibility. Like our other coalition partners, ATPE strongly supports the right to vote and encourages all registered voters in Texas to exercise that right in every election. Educators are no exception, and the dedicated education professionals who work in our state’s public schools should not be subjected to intimidation simply because of the fact that they have chosen to work in an institution of the government that some in power would prefer to dismantle. Those who are in fact opposed to the interests of more than 5.4 million Texas public schoolchildren clearly view educators as those children’s most formidable defenders. We anticipate more attacks on teachers similar to this as the March 6 primaries approach, and we will keep you updated as we find out new information and continue to stand up for educators’ voting rights.