Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 5, 2020

It’s been a difficult week of unrest around the country, falling on the heels of what was already a stressful spring semester for students and educators. As Texas enters phase three of reopening, many districts are contemplating the 2020-21 school calendar and a safe return to school that will meet the needs of staff and students. See our headlines below and read a recap of education developments this week from the ATPE Governmental Relations team. And don’t forget to register to vote by June 15 for the July 14 elections. Your vote is your voice!


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced “phase three” of the reopening of Texas. In phase three, all businesses may operate at 50% capacity, with limited exceptions, and restaurants can seat bigger parties and expand their occupancy limits. Large outdoor events, such as Fourth of July celebrations, were made permissible but determinations on such events will be up to local officials. No changes for schools were announced in phase three. Find full details here.

Visit ATPE’s continually-updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for the latest information on COVID-19 issues. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated its coronavirus-related web resources this week as well, including updates on special education (continuity of learning), academics (Texas College Bridge and graduation), crisis code reporting guidance, reading diagnostics instruments guidance, and funding (CARES Act updates and FEMA guidance regarding a hurricane amid COVID-19).


ELECTION UPDATE: On Thursday, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a permanent stay against a lower federal court’s ruling that ballot by mail could be expanded to all Texans. Further appeals are possible. This development follows last week’s Texas Supreme Court ruling that lack of immunity to the coronavirus does not constitute a disability that would make one eligible to vote by mail, but also explaining that it is up to voters to decide whether to claim a disability and local election officials need not verify such claims. Read more in yesterday’s blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.

The deadline to register to vote in the July 14 runoff election (and a Texas Senate District 14 special election happening the same day) is only 10 days from now on Monday, June 15. Make sure you’re registered and learn what’s on your ballot here. View candidate profiles, including their education survey responses and voting records, on Teach the Vote here. If you feel you meet the eligibility criteria to vote by mail, your application to receive a mail-in ballot  must be received by your local election administration (not postmarked) no later than July 2. Find additional information about voter registration from the League of Women Voters here, plus get election reminders and other resources from Texas Educators Vote coalition here,


As parents consider their children’s return to school this fall, they might wonder about virtual schooling options. However, a recent peer-reviewed study showed students who switched from brick-and-mortar schools to virtual charter schools experienced substantial learning loss compared to their traditional public school peers, even controlling for other demographic, teacher, and classroom factors. Perhaps it is virtual class sizes of 100 students or the profit-oriented nature of many virtual schools that leads to less learning. Educators would likely agree it is the lack of face-to-face, authentic interaction and relationship-building, which are essential to teaching and learning. Learn more about the study in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


School calendars and the return to school facilities remain hot topics this week. As we previously reported on Teach the Vote, school districts were allowed to reopen their facilities on June 1 for summer school. Some districts, such as Houston ISD and others, will only offer virtual summer school options as they cite challenges to implementing the health and safety protocols outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and the TEA. Texas Public Radio reported this week that at least two school districts in San Antonio will open for limited summer school programming with both in-person and virtual options. District plans include having students eat lunch at their desks, keeping students six feet apart, taking temperatures daily, and limiting group sizes.

ATPE GR Director Jennifer Mitchell

School districts are also fervently deciding on their 2020-21 school calendars and related budgeting matters. In an opinion piece published June 1 by the Dallas Morning News, ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell wrote about the challenges surrounding school calendar decisions in light of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to health and safety considerations, many other factors need to be taken into consideration. As the Texas Education Agency (TEA) urges schools to consider longer, more flexible calendars, the extra costs of building in additional instructional days cannot be ignored at a time when many are worried about the impact of the pandemic on the next state budget. Calendar changes also impact businesses and working parents, too. “Few parents have the luxury of taking six weeks of additional leave from their jobs if students are sent home from school for extended breaks,” says Mitchell. ATPE has urged TEA to provide comprehensive guidance to help school boards navigate these decisions, and as noted in Mitchell’s op-ed, we also urge the community to support the school districts and educators who are taking on these challenges.

School start dates are a particular concern for many educators now that summer is here. Austin ISD still expects to start the school year August 18, the same date previously approved by its board earlier this year, but several other districts are heeding TEA’s advice to move up the start of the next school year. Alief ISD‘s 2020-21 calendar, posted this week as an example on the TEA website, includes an earlier start date in August, two extra instructional days, and extra week-long flexible breaks in October and February that could be used for instruction if needed. It is important for educators to pay close attention to calendar deliberations in their districts, especially since the school start date directly affects the deadline for educators to resign without penalty.

Educators can find resources and answers to frequently asked questions about returning to school on ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page. As calendar decisions are being contemplated, we also encourage educators to take advantage of any opportunities to share their voices at school board meetings or whenever staff or community input is sought by the district.


ATPE joined 20 other organizations writing a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath urging support for prioritizing students’ mental health and social-emotional needs, especially as those needs have been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic. As stress and reports of family violence and trauma have increased across the state, the letter calls for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to use available resources to infuse mental and social-emotional health strategies and practices into the state’s education priorities for the benefit of students and school staff alike. The letter was spearheaded by Texans Care for Children, a non-profit focusing on the well-being of Texas families and children.


U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady

With more educators thinking about retiring from the profession in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many are concerned about their Social Security benefits. Spearheaded by our Washington-based lobbyist David Pore, ATPE continues to urge Congress to repeal the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) that reduces many educators’ Social Security benefits. One of those leading a bipartisan effort to replace the WEP with a more equitable solution is U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-The Woodlands, Texas), former chairman and now ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means. Texas Retired Teacher Association (TRTA) Executive Director, Tim Lee, sat down with Rep. Brady this week for a Facebook Live conversion about the congressman’s efforts to reform the WEP. As noted by Lee (on the video at 13:15), ATPE has worked with TRTA and Rep. Brady for many years on pursuing WEP relief both for educators already retired and those who will retire in the future.

To learn more about the WEP and how it might affect you, read this Teach the Vote blog post or the Social Security information on the main ATPE website.

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Texas election roundup: Another court decision on mail-in voting

For weeks there has been a back-and-forth battle being waged over Texas voting laws, but that fight may be drawing closer to an end. Today, June 4, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals became the latest in a litany of federal and state courts to weigh in on a debate at the intersection of elections and the coronavirus pandemic: whether to expand eligibility for mail-in voting.

As previously reported here on Teach the Vote, the Texas Supreme Court and a federal district court were the last to weigh in on this issue prior to today’s ruling. A federal district judge previously issued an order to allow all registered voters in Texas to apply for mail-in ballots, based on finding our state’s current restrictions to be unconstitutional. The federal appellate court ruling issued today blocks that district court’s order from taking effect.

While the Fifth Circuit’s ruling today is merely a stay of the lower court’s order, the language used by two members of the three-judge panel demonstrates the appellate court’s dubious view on the merits of using litigation to expand mail-in voting eligibility. We will have to wait to hear a more final word from the appeals court, but it does not appear likely that more people will be permitted to avoid visiting the polls in person while still exercising their right to vote.

Regardless of the final outcome at the Fifth Circuit, the losing side is likely to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may or may not choose to hear the case. Most cases appealed to the highest court in the nation do not get heard, which means a ruling by the circuit court often becomes the last word on federal judicial matters. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.

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Virtual charter school students experienced learning loss, study shows

Virtual schooling is in the spotlight right now, especially with many parents considering how to approach returning to school this fall in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. For this reason, we took note of a recent study published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, which found a significant decline in achievement for Indiana students who switched to a virtual charter school. The virtual setting’s impact on the students’ achievement in math and English language arts (ELA), compared to that of their traditional public school peers, was “uniformly and profoundly negative,” according to the study’s authors.

The Indiana study showed that students in grades 3-8 who switched from a traditional setting to a full-time virtual setting experienced an 11 percentile point loss in ELA and 16 percentile point loss in math on annual assessments when compared to their peers who stayed in the in-person setting, even controlling for factors such as race, sex, poverty, achievement, and teacher and classroom characteristics. Other studies outside of Indiana have found similar results. The study authors conclusion suggests that parents who choose this type of virtual option may be putting their children at a severe disadvantage when it comes to learning.

Why might this learning loss occur in students attending virtual schools? The researchers note that the virtual schools in the Indiana study had an average class size of 100 students, which is about four to five times greater than the acceptable class-size limits fought for by education advocates such as ATPE. Additionally, virtual schools often use for-profit vendors, aiming to capitalize on the need for children to learn, to deliver the school’s educational content. Unfortunately, profit-oriented behaviors never seem to play out well in the public education field because it is difficult to cut corners in an industry that thrives on human relationships. In fact, the integral nature of relationships to teaching and learning has become even more apparent during the pandemic, as both teachers and students have resorted to parades, sidewalk chats, yard signs, driveway lessons, personal mail, and other methods of interacting when virtual classrooms just won’t cut it.

In a recent blog post, the authors of the study wrote that virtual charter schools are “ill-equipped” to expand their presence and enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic. They recommend that policymakers focus on greater accountability and oversight for these schools. ATPE has also long fought for greater accountability and oversight in numerous debates over full-time virtual programs, whether such a program enrolls students through a charter school or a school district.

Here in Texas, after the pandemic began, Republican members of the Senate Education Committee asked the Texas Education Agency to consider expanding virtual school options in Texas, despite the negative data showing virtual schools do not perform as well as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. The Coalition for Public Schools, of which ATPE is a member, responded by sending a letter in early May to Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to explain why such an expansion would not benefit Texas families. ATPE will be weighing in as developments unfold with regard to virtual schooling amid the pandemic, such as potential efforts to expand virtual or private schooling options using federal emergency dollars as touted by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Stay tuned to the Teach the Vote blog and Twitter for updates.

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 29, 2020

These are the strangest last days of school. No bustling students, smiling and excited for summer. No hugs goodbye or “Have a great summer” notes. Socially-distanced graduation ceremonies. Rest assured, students and teachers will be reunited in the coming future, more grateful than ever for the bond that is created during learning. As you start your summer, relax and enjoy some reading on this week’s education news from the ATPE lobby team.


Abbott press conference in Amarillo, May 27, 2020.

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation to expand services and activities that can be reopened in Texas, including water parks, driver education programs, and food courts in shopping malls (with limited occupancy). As previously announced, zoos can reopen today, and on Sunday, youth camps and sports can resume activity. Abbott also held a press conference Wednesday in Amarillo to share positive updates on the progress of testing and containment of the outbreak in the panhandle.

On Monday, schools have been authorized to reopen to students with special safety measures in place, such as taking students’ temperatures every day and separating desks by six feet (among many others). Citing logistical concerns with the feasibility of implementing such requirements, Houston ISD and other districts in the area have chosen to implement online-only summer school. Other districts may only offer statutorily-required summer school to rising kindergarten and first grade English learners. Midland ISD is collecting data from parents and teachers on how to proceed with learning in the upcoming school year. Ft. Bend ISD announced this week that it plans to offer a full-time virtual learning option for its students who are not comfortable returning to school in-person in the fall.

As more districts gather input from their communities and make decisions regarding summer and fall learning, we expect to see a variety of approaches emerge. To help educators navigate these changes, ATPE continues to update our Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page. The Texas Education Agency also has updated nearly every topic on its coronavirus-related webpage, including new year-round calendar examples and guidance pertaining to special education, special populations (English language learner summer school guidance), academics (dyslexia screening requirements), student assessment, and funding (CARES Act guidance).


ELECTION UPDATE: This week, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that lack of immunity to the novel coronavirus does not constitute a disability, overturning a lower court decision that would have effectively expanded who can vote by mail in Texas. The court did not, however, side with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in forcing local election officials to check the disability status of those who apply for a ballot by mail. A separate case in the U.S. Fifth Circuit is still pending.

In light of the health risks associated with voting in person, Gov. Abbott said this week in an interview (see the 4:30 mark) with Lubbock news station KCBD that he will extend the two-week early voting period for the November 2020 election.

Secretary of State Ruth Hughes this week announced a minimum health and safety protocol for voters and poll workers, which includes bringing your own ballot-marking device and curbside voting if you have COVID-19 symptoms and meet other eligibility requirements. Read more in this week’s election roundup post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


FEDERAL UPDATE: This week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education (ED) would begin rulemaking to solidify its guidance directing public school districts to spend federal stimulus funds on private schools. This follows Texas’s issuance of its own CARES Act guidance, which instructs districts to heed ED’s interpretation of the “equitable services” provision within the law.

Betsy DeVos

Many argue that DeVos’s interpretation of how “equitable services” funds should be distributed under the CARES Act is actually inequitable. Her department’s direction could send an unprecedented amount of Title I-based federal emergency dollars to private schools, regardless of their students’ income, language status, or other eligibility criteria typically required by federal education law. Read more about the dispute over CARES Act funding in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

ATPE’s federal lobby team continues to discuss our concerns with lawmakers, and we will provide formal input on any new rules that are proposed by the department. However, it’s been reported that ED may use a “good cause” exception under federal administrative procedures to try to make the rule change effective immediately upon its publication, even before the public comment period expires. The U.S. House passed a new coronavirus relief bill earlier this month that would limit Secretary DeVos’s power to steer federal coronavirus relief funds to private schools, but the Senate has not been willing to consider the measure.


ATPE recently submitted formal comments on proposed rules for the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) established through last year’s House Bill 3. The proposed commissioner’s rules outline key aspects of the TIA’s local optional designation systems, such as data sharing requirements, teacher eligibility, and the district plan approval process. ATPE’s comments to the agency highlight the need to maintain confidentiality in data sharing and recommend other changes to improve the rules. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.


Recent surveys on education during the COVID-19 pandemic show parents and educators are worried about their students, mainly with learning loss and children’s ability to follow social distancing guidelines if they go back to school. They also appear to agree with the general public  in not wanting an extended school year calendar, instead preferring summer school options. Read more about the Learning Heroes Parent 2020 survey and the USA Today/Ipsos polls of parents and teachers in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

Do YOU want to take a survey and share your thoughts, too? Until June 3, ATPE invites educators  to share your concerns about returning to campus for the 2020-21 school year in ATPE’s short, confidential survey. You don’t have to be an ATPE member to participate, so please share the survey with your colleagues, too. Help us develop resources and support Texas educators and students during these uncertain times.

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ATPE weighs in on proposed Teacher Incentive Allotment rules

House Bill (HB) 3, the landmark school finance bill passed by Texas lawmakers in 2019, included funding for a new Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA). Despite almost certain budget cuts in the upcoming legislative session that call into question the state’s ability to fund the ambitious and somewhat controversial performance pay program, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has forged ahead with implementation of the program. Administrative rulemaking to implement the new TIA law is currently underway, which affords the public an opportunity to provide input on the program. ATPE submitted formal comments on the proposed commissioner’s rules this week.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) began putting out information on the TIA through its HB 3 in 30 video series back in the fall of 2019. Earlier this year, the agency asked school districts interested in participating in the program to submit a letter of intent and also released guidance on timelines for funding and implementation. Additionally, TEA staff briefed the ATPE Board of Directors on the plans for TIA implementation in February.

On April 24, after more than six months of sharing guidance with the field, TEA published proposed commissioner’s rules on the TIA’s Local optional teacher designation systems. Local optional teacher designation systems are the school district-developed and TEA-approved rubrics by which a district can designate individual teachers for merit recognition under the TIA, giving the district access to TIA merit pay funding from the state.

During the last legislative session, the ATPE lobby team worked hard to ensure the laws creating the TIA program would include certain provisions protecting the confidentially of the teacher evaluation process. We also fought to ensure districts would not be required to use students’ STAAR test scores to rank educators, and that it would be at least mathematically possible under each district’s plan for all teachers to earn a designation if they met the eligibility requirements. In the comments we submitted this week, ATPE requested changes to improve upon the implementation plans and ensure that the fruits of those hard-fought legislative battles would be reflected in the TIA rules. Read more about how the legislature designed the TIA law in this Teach the Vote blog post.

TEA is now tasked with organizing and responding to all comments the agency has received from various stakeholders and potentially modifying the proposed rules accordingly. The commissioner’s rules on the TIA are scheduled to go into effect July 30, 2020.

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Texas election roundup: Voter safety and a court ruling

The on-again, off-again saga of whether or not all Texas voters can vote by mail continued this week with a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court yesterday. The state’s highest court agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that a lack of immunity to the novel coronavirus does not constitute a disability that would enable a voter to be eligible to vote by mail.

The issue remains clear as mud, though, as the court left much to voter discretion, saying, “…a voter can take into consideration aspects of his health and his health history that are physical conditions in deciding whether, under the circumstances, to apply to vote by mail because of disability.” Furthermore, in a rejection of Paxton’s request, the court ruled that local officials can’t reject voters who cite an unspecified disability on their application for a ballot by mail.

As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, the debate over mail-in voting is also being heard in the federal court system. Through an administrative stay, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily blocked a lower court’s ruling to expand vote-by-mail options last week. The fight is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Also this week, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughes issued a new, recommended minimum health protocol for voters and election workers. Formatted as a checklist, the protocol instructs voters heading to the polls to consider maintaining six feet of separation, self-screening, bringing their own stylus or pencil with eraser, bringing hand sanitizer, and wearing a mask. For those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, voters are encouraged to consider utilizing curbside voting, if they meet the eligibility requirements. Curbside voting is typically reserved for voters with disabilities who are not able physically able to enter polling locations without assistance or who may be likely to injure their health by doing so. The checklist also includes training and safety measures for poll workers and poll watchers, as well as overall sanitation guidelines for the polling place.

As a reminder, be sure to find what’s on your ballot here and mark the following election dates on your calendar:

  • June 15: Last day to register to vote in July 14 elections
  • June 29 – July 10: Early voting for July 14 elections
  • July 2: Last day to apply for a ballot by mail for the July 14 election. Applications must be received by the election administrator by this date (not merely postmarked).
  • July 14: Election day – Primary runoff elections and special election for Texas Senate District 14 (formerly held by Senator Kirk Watson, D-Austin). Last day for county election administrators to receive ballots by mail.

Find additional nonpartisan election information and reminders at the websites of Texas Educators Vote and the Texas League of Women Voters. Lastly, be sure to check out the candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote to see how your candidates answered the ATPE Candidate Survey and view voting records of incumbent legislators.

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Surveys illuminate parent and teacher worries in light of COVID-19

With numerous unknowns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to be able to gauge how parents, families, and educators feel about the current state of emergency learning and potential paths forward. A few recent surveys shed a little light on views of the general public, teachers, and parents about education in light of the pandemic.

Families and educators alike are adjusting to new realities, and perceived needs for improvement, in areas such as communication, are rising to the surface. There appears to be widespread worry about students and opposition to an extended year calendar. The coming school year is set to look quite different, potentially with fewer students and teachers in the classroom as some sit out the return to school awaiting the development of a vaccine.

Here’s a closer look at findings of the recent surveys:

Learning Heroes Parent 2020 Survey

Learning Heroes conducted their nationwide annual public school parent survey this spring and gathered important information about how parents are dealing with the pandemic. The research entity partners with multiple national organization such as PTA and the National Urban League “to inform and equip parents to best support their children’s educational and developmental success.” The Parents 2020 survey was conducted in English and Spanish and with a focus on low-income parents and parents of color. The survey found that while parents are mostly hopeful and grateful, 65% are also anxious/worried. Parents are most worried that their kids are missing important social interaction at school or with friends. They are more concerned with too much screen time for their child than being able to pay their bills and having enough food. The survey found that 56% of a child’s awake time involved a screen.

There is a disconnect between parents and teachers that shows the importance of effective communication channels. Parents feel more appreciation for teachers, but only 33% of parents say they have regular access to the teachers, unfortunately. Furthermore, 47% of parents feel that personal guidance for how to best support their child is extremely helpful, but only 15% have received this resource. Eighty percent of parents find texts and phone calls to be the most effective, but the main communication channel seems to be email. Even though parents feel more connected to their child’s education than ever before, they still have an overinflated view of their child’s abilities, with 92% believing that their child is learning at or above grade level. (NAEP Scores for 2019 suggest the actual percentage of students performing at or above grade level is closer to 37%.)

The way remote learning meets or doesn’t meet parents’ expectations likely translates into parents’ feelings about the coming school year. Parents with higher income and reliable internet who feel prepared to support learning consider the remote learning environment to be better than expected. Parents of elementary school children, those missing technology, and the ones with annual incomes below $37,000 feel remote learning is harder than expected. Only 23% of parents say they are using resources they find on their own, mostly from general websites such as YouTube. Parents are looking forward to being more engaged in their child’s learning into the next school year, hoping to get a better understanding of what they are expected to learn and finding more time to talk to their children about their assignments. Perhaps longing for a sense of normalcy, parents favor making summer school courses available so students can catch up rather than starting the school year early. Even more parents don’t want the 2020-21 school year to extend into the 2021 summer.

USA Today/Ipsos Public Polls of Parents and Teachers

USA Today and Ipsos conducted two public polls, one surveying the general public and parents of K-12 students and another one targeting K-12 teachers.

Both surveys found that less than half of the respondents are in favor of resuming school resuming before there is a vaccine. A broken line of communication also surfaced in these two polls, with both parents and teachers expressing that the other has struggled to support their child’s online learning. Similar to the overinflated view of mastery found in the Learning Heroes survey, parents conveyed that their kids have adapted well to online learning. In contrast, teachers said online and distance learning have caused their students to fall behind.

The general public, parents, and teachers mostly support a return either to five days of in-person schooling per week, or returning to school in-person two to three days per week with distance learning on other days. As in the Learning Heroes survey, there is less support for starting school earlier in the summer and continuing into the following summer. When school does resume, 59% of respondents said they would likely pursue at-home learning options.

In general, the majority of both parents and teachers are worried about their students. Parents and teachers agree that social distancing won’t be easy for kids. Just as 68% of parents said their child would find it difficult to follow social distancing guidelines, 87% of teachers said its likely they will have difficulty enforcing social distancing. The majority of teachers plan to wear masks and the majority of parents plan to have their kids wear masks.

We may see a wave of retirement in the coming months, the surveys suggest, as teachers report working longer hours than they did before. Even fewer teachers believe they are paid fairly compared to the time before COVID-19. One in five teachers say they would leave their job if schools reopen, including 25% of teachers over the age of 55.

Related: ATPE wants to hear from you! Educators are invited to take our COVID-19 Educator Impact Survey between now and June 3, 2020. Find out more here.

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Dispute over CARES Act funding for private schools intensifies

Secretary DeVos testifies before U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee, Feb. 27, 2020.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued guidance in late April that directed public school districts to use their federal emergency funds under the CARES Act to provide “equitable services” to all non-profit private school students in their bounds. After building strife among education stakeholders and leaders, DeVos has now announced that her department will be “issuing a rule on the topic in the next few weeks and inviting public comments.”

There are two main differences between DeVos’s new interpretation of equitable services under the CARES Act and its strict interpretation under federal education law. Under various titles of federal education law (Title I, Part A; Title II, Part A; Title III, etc.), a school district’s duty to provide equitable services is based on students residing in a public school’s attendance area and the proportion of children who meet the criteria of that title, such as students who are from low-income families, migrants, or English language learners. The provision of services, such as tutoring or teacher professional development, is meant to make the private school option commensurate with the public school option for those students. DeVos’s novel interpretation argues that these eligibility criteria don’t apply for CARES Act funds, even though 90% of the funds are distributed by Title I formulas.

As reported last week by Politico, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, agrees with many others that DeVos’s interpretation differs from what Congress intended. “My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distribute Title I money,” said Alexander, adding, “I think that’s what most of Congress was expecting.”

DeVos has received negative feedback on this issue from members of Congress, state education leaders, and other groups. Among them is the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which has argued that the department’s new interpretation is inequitable. Some states, including Maine and Pennsylvania, for instance, have decided to ignore the secretary’s guidance. Others such as Tennessee and Texas plan to require their school districts to heed the secretary’s recommendations, as we have reported here on Teach the Vote. The threat of rulemaking to formally codify DeVos’s interpretation is clearly meant to bring in line those jurisdictions that have objected to expanding the CARES Act funding eligibility.

In a May 22 letter (written in the form of a reprimand), DeVos responded to the opposition from CCSSO, using it as an opportunity to announce her intent to initiate the rulemaking process. The announcement marks a shift in tone and intensity, as the department’s move to a formal rule instead of guidance is much more binding. In the letter, DeVos argues that for purposes of the CARES Act, an interpretation of equitable services that only acknowledges students traditionally served by the provision under federal education law would discriminate against all other private school students, including those who are wealthy or otherwise advantaged. The secretary notes that 90% of the emergency funds appropriated by Congress through the CARES Act are directed toward public school students. While seemingly acknowledging that the CARES Act funds were based on the enrollment of students in public schools and flow through a Title I-based formula, DeVos insists in her letter that all students have been impacted by the pandemic. “The virus affects everyone,” writes the secretary.

As many educators know, equity is not equality. Equity makes up for inequalities in society by directing more resources and supports to those who need them the most. Providing “equitable services” to advantaged students on the grounds that these students are otherwise being discriminated against effectively nullifies the entire intention of equity. The federal government’s new approach to equitable services is actually more likely to widen the opportunity gap between our nation’s students.

ATPE has already communicated with our state’s congressional delegation about this issue will continue follow the rule-making process closely as it develops. Check back on Teach the Vote for updates and follow Teach the Vote on Twitter.

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 22, 2020

As the 2019-20 school year winds down, state leaders continue to open Texas back up. While parents, students, and teachers focus on end-of-year tasks and COVID-modified celebrations, many education leaders are already focused on summer learning and how school will roll out next fall. This Memorial Day weekend, we hope our readers will get to take a much deserved break before starting the next chapter.


Gov. Abbott’s May 18th press conference

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Monday, May 18, Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference to announce the further reopening of Texas. Child care centers and youth clubs were allowed to reopen that day, and businesses were allowed to have a limited number of employees back in the office. Today, restaurants may increase their capacity to 50% and bars can open at 25% capacity. On May 31, day camps and certain professional sports (without in-person spectators) can resume activity.

On June 1, schools can reopen to students, according to the governor, but with enhanced safety measures and physical distancing requirements in place. As noted in this article from the Texas Tribune republished on our site this week, Texas schools cannot require students to attend in the summer. Districts can make summer school attendance a condition for grade promotion, but only if they offer a distance learning option.

In conjunction with the governor’s announcement about summer school, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) outlined health and safety considerations for reopening schools next month, such as taking students’ temperatures daily and having students eat lunch at their desks. These overlap with the more comprehensive CDC school considerations, which also emphasize using masks and direct school systems to train their staff, have a back-up staffing plan, and strengthen paid/sick leave policies.

For more coronavirus-related resources from TEA, click here. Visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page and follow the ATPE lobby team via @TeachtheVote on Twitter for developments on the response to COVID-19. Also, check out our recent recap of legislative and regulatory developments impacting Texas and education since the pandemic began.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) is attempting to respond to numerous questions about what next year’s school calendars will look like. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has spoken several times recently about flexible school years, urging schools to consider starting the 2020-21 school year earlier, ending it later, and building in flexible “breaks” to accommodate pandemic-related issues.

TEA’s new school calendar FAQ stresses that calendar changes are local school board decisions, but that the calendar is a “key lever” in addressing student learning loss, even if this causes financial strain on the district. Teacher pay and contracts are also briefly addressed in the new FAQ, which states that, “in most cases, a district can require its teachers to work the extra days if the district: 1) provides additional compensation under existing contracts that permit extended calendar/number of days worked flexibility to the teachers for the extra time required to complete the adjusted school year; and 2) extends by agreement the existing teacher contracts to address the extra time and any associated compensation.”

ATPE member and former Texas Teacher of the Year Stephanie Stoebe told CBS Austin news this week, “I could support us having longer breaks. I could support year-round school, but I definitely believe we need to be in the classroom.” Also featured in the story, ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell noted that difficult school calendar decisions involve considerations such as childcare arrangements and the potential need for more funding that some districts may not have. Read ATPE’s recent press statement about school calendar concerns here.


TEA released new guidance yesterday on CARES Act funding for school districts, which includes information about using federal stimulus funds to provide services to private school students and the ability of districts to use the emergency funds to supplant, not supplement, obligations in their current budgets.

Commissioner Mike Morath

As expected, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sided this week with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s interpretation of “equitable services” under the CARES Act. DeVos asked states to instruct their public school districts to use Title-I-based federal emergency education funds to provide services (such as teacher professional development and technology) to all non-profit, private school students in their bounds, regardless of income or student residence location. This interpretation differs from the long-established intent behind the equitable services provision in Title I of federal education law, which requires equitable services only for students who reside within a public school’s attendance zone located in a low-income area and are failing or at risk of failing to meet achievement standards.

Read more about the development in this Teach the Vote blog post.


ELECTION UPDATE: The on-again/off-again saga of mail-in voting in Texas continues, but appears to be off again for now. The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments this week on whether to expand mail-in voting in light of concerns about the spread of COVID-19. A state district court and appellate court both ruled in favor of expanding mail-in voting, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) appealed the rulings.

Also this week, a federal judge ruled that the state’s current restrictions on voting by mail violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and that all registered voters in Texas could apply to vote by mail. Again, at the request of Paxton, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed one day later to temporarily stay the expanded vote-by-mail ruling while it decides whether to substantively overturn the decision.

Read more on the dispute in this week’s Texas election roundup blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) sent a letter this week to state agencies and institutions of higher education asking them to submit a plan to reduce their budgets by 5% for the current biennium.

State leaders suggest cutting administrative costs that are not “mission critical.” The Foundation School Program, school safety, and employer contributions to the Teacher Retirement System, among other essential government functions, are excluded from the call for a reduction.

Looking ahead to the next two-year state budget that lawmakers will adopt in 2021, the letter from “the big three” leaders also warns of additional belt-tightening in the months ahead.

“Every state agency and institution should prepare to submit reduced budget requests as well as strategies to achieve further savings. Furthermore, when the state revenue picture becomes clearer in the coming months, it may become necessary to make additional budget adjustments.”


ATPE wants to hear from you regarding your concerns about returning to campus for the 2020-21 school year. We invite educators to take our short, confidential survey to share your feedback. Your input will help us develop resources and provide support for Texas educators and students during this uncertain time.

This survey is open to any Texas educator, so please share it with your colleagues. The survey may be taken only once from an IP address and will remain open through June 3.

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Texas election roundup: The mail voting seesaw

The back and forth over calls to expand mail-in voting peaked this week with a flurry of court orders, further confusing what has become a dramatic, partisan fight. One side of the debate believes voters should not be forced to risk their health and the health of their families in order to exercise their fundamental right to vote, while the other side argues there is too much risk of voter fraud to allow the expansion of mail-in balloting.

To bring you back up to speed, Texas faces several lawsuits by individual voters and interested organizations seeking to expand voting by mail. Because Texas law restricts mail-in voting to individuals who meet a narrow set of eligibility criteria, one of which is having a disability, many of the plaintiffs’ arguments call for treating voters’ health-related fears of exposure to the coronavirus as a disability. Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are leading the fight against opening up voting by mail to those voters who fear contracting COVID-19 but may not otherwise qualify for a mail-in ballot. Many states, with Republican and Democratic governors alike, have already decided to expand voting by mail in light of the pandemic-related concerns.

The seesaw through the courts began with a state district court ordering, first, that all Texans who are concerned about contracting COVID-19 should be allowed to vote by mail. Last week, a state appellate court upheld that order. Appealing the ruling on behalf of the state, Abbott and Paxton echoed President Donald Trump’s claim that expanding voting by mail would increase voter fraud, which many election experts say is “extremely rare” and preventable. The all-Republican Texas Supreme Court announced Friday the expansion of mail-in voting would be put on hold temporarily while it considers the case.

Health care professionals and institutions from around the state have since filed a brief to the Texas Supreme Court arguing that COVID-19 would almost certainly be spread at polling locations, even with protocols such as sanitizing voting machines and requiring PPE for in-person voting. According to the brief, “When the risk for injury to registered voters is so severe—potentially deadly—there is little to no benefit for in-person voting when a viable mail-in alternative is already available by statute.”

The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides on Wednesday, May 20, and Paxton has asked the state’s highest court to quickly issue a ruling.

Meanwhile, the dispute over mail-in ballots is simultaneously playing out in the federal courts, too. On Tuesday, May 19, a federal judge ruled on a similar lawsuit filed in U.S. district court, finding that the state’s current restrictions on voting by mail violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and ruling that all registered voters in Texas could apply to vote by mail. Judge Fred Biery wrote in his decision, “The Court finds the Grim Reaper’s scepter of pandemic disease and death is far more serious than an unsupported fear of voter fraud in this sui generis experience.”

Paxton immediately appealed the federal judge’s ruling to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upon Paxton’s request agreed on Wednesday, May 20, to temporarily stay Judge Biery’s ruling while it decides whether to permanently overturn the decision.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on the frequently changing status of this debate.

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