Category Archives: Congress

BREAKING: Congress passes third stimulus bill for coronavirus relief

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

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

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

State and federal officials respond to virus with new closures, contemplate aid for schools

Regulatory developments stemming from the growing concerns about the new coronavirus pandemic gripping the nation have been occurring swiftly these last two weeks. Numerous school districts announced decisions to extend spring breaks and/or close their doors temporarily, leaving school leaders and educators scrambling to find ways to continue providing instruction during the closures. Many municipalities, including Austin, have ordered certain businesses to close and limited the size of permitted gatherings.

Statewide closure orders

In a press conference today in Arlington, Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a new executive order calling for statewide closure of schools, gyms, bars, and restaurants through April 3. The governor has faced some recent criticism at home and nationally for leaving closure orders up to the discretion of local officials prior to now. The statewide closure order, which takes effect at midnight tomorrow, also restricts gatherings of 10 people or more and limits visitors to nursing homes. The order affecting bars and restaurants will still permit food delivery and takeout. In what may be welcome news for many stressed-out educators and parents of students now stuck at home, Gov. Abbott is also allowing restaurants that already hold liquor licenses to deliver alcoholic beverages along with their food deliveries.

Guidance for Texas schools

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has shared new guidance with school officials about issues related to school closures, including the cancellation of STAAR testing this year. Texas, like many other states, has requested that the U.S. Department of Education waive student testing and accountability requirements that are part of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), but a decision has not yet been made. In the meantime, TEA issued correspondence this week providing information to districts on how the cancellation will impact academic operations.

In the absence of State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) scores, districts will have discretion in promotion decisions for 5th and 8th grade students. Without the necessary end-of-course (EOC) assessments, graduating seniors will use the Individual Graduation Committee (IGC) process to graduate. For non-graduating students who are in courses with an EOC, they will not have to take the EOC in a future year so long as they earn credit for the course this year. The STAAR Alternate 2 exam is also cancelled. Determinations regarding students receiving special education services will be completed by their admission, review, and dismissal (ARD) committees. The Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) is also impacted by this cancellation and the agency is still undergoing conversations to determine how to proceed to serve these students. See TEA’s Coronavirus Support and Guidance webpage for more information.

Yesterday the governor announced the planned launch this weekend of a new “Texas Students MealFinder Map,” offered in conjunction with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to help parents find available meals for their children during the school closures. Also yesterday, Gov. Abbott gave local officials the authority to postpone their May 2 elections. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins will have more on the election-related order in his election roundup blog post for Teach the Vote later today.

Tonight, Gov. Abbott will be joined by Commissioner of Education Mike Morath and other state officials in a virtual town hall that will be aired by television stations and live-streamed starting at 7 p.m. CDT.

Federal initiatives

While there are a multitude of state and local activities that impact Texas public education in response to the coronavirus pandemic, there is also significant legislation being considered and enacted at the federal level.

Last night, President Donald Trump signed into law the second coronavirus-related aid bill passed by Congress, which is dubbed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Among the bill’s several provisions, most of which do not directly impact public education or educators, is a provision giving the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to waive federal provisions regarding the National School Lunch Program. This flexibility should allow schools that have closed due to COVID-19 to continue providing food service to qualifying students while they are not on campus. The first coronavirus bill signed by the president was a supplemental appropriations package that sent $8.3 billion to federal agencies to promote their work in combating the developing crisis in America.

In general, members of Congress and the White House are still looking to appropriate funds to ease the burdens of unexpected costs for needs such as school cleaning, counseling, online/distance learning support, and campus closures. Additionally, funds are being considered to facilitate remote work by employees of the U.S. Department of Education and to ease student loan obligations temporarily. There are also widely publicized discussions ongoing about the potential for sending payments directly to individuals to help them deal with the crisis.

Currently, proposals vary widely on the amount of spending that should go toward schools, with numbers from as little as $100 million to as much as $3 billion being touted in various press releases. In addition to the uncertainty on the amount of funding, it is also too soon to know specifically how funds would flow. What is certain is a general agreement that public education providers and institutions of higher education need assistance and should be a part of the broader conversation on federal relief.

Check back for more information on federal aid as specific proposals gain traction and move toward passage. Also, be sure to visit ATPE’s coronavirus FAQ and resources page for comprehensive information to assist educators in dealing with the pandemic.

Rural schools get a temporary reprieve on loss of federal funds

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has backed down, at least temporarily, on her department’s plan to cut federal resources currently flowing to more than 800 low-income rural schools. The move comes after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter in opposition to the plan this week. The announcement also follows the secretary’s appearance at a tense congressional hearing on Feb. 27 to defend the Trump Administration’s education budget proposal.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testified before a U.S. House Committee on Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Feb. 27, 2020.

The proposed cut in federal funding was due to the department’s decision to change its internal rules on the type of poverty data it would accept to determine eligibility for the Rural Low-Income Schools Program (RLIS). The program is one of two sub-grants under the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP), which senators who who wrote the letter to DeVos describe as “the only dedicated federal funding stream to help rural schools overcome the increased expenses caused by geographic isolation.”

Under REAP, which was enacted in 2002, school districts seeking RLIS grant funding would prove their eligibility based on census poverty data. However, upon recognizing in 2003 that adequate census data often was not available to the districts the act was meant to help, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) changed its course. By rule, ED began to allow school districts to substitute census data with the same internal data on the percentage of their students eligible for free and reduced lunch, which is used to determine Title I eligibility. The department has allowed the use of this substitute data ever since.

After receiving significant legislative push-back to the proposed change, ED has shied away from making the change for now. As reported by Bloomberg Government, a spokesperson for the department explained the rationale for the change as follows:

“We have heard from States the adjustment time is simply too short, and the Secretary has always sought to provide needed flexibility to States’ [sic] during transitions. This protects States and their students from financial harm for which they had not planned.” The spokesperson added, “[D]ue to the States’ reliance on the Department’s calculations for the past seventeen years, the secretary has concluded the Department can use its authority to allow alternative poverty data to be used for an additional year.”

Clearly, ED is still positioning itself to be able to make this change in the future, which would negatively affect hundreds of rural schools short of some additional action by Congress or the administration. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for future updates from ATPE’s federal lobby team.

President releases education budget proposal for 2021

On February 10, 2020, President Donald Trump released his budget proposal, which is a statement of  his administration’s spending priorities across all sectors of government. Because the president’s budget is merely a proposal, any of these funding amounts would still need to be approved by Congress in order to be enacted. Historically, Congress has largely ignored President Trump’s funding proposals for education.

The education portion of the president’s 2021 budget recommendation is focused on “education freedom.” While cutting funding for the U.S. Department of Education by $5.6 billion, the proposal requests funds to provide up to $5 billion annually in “Education Freedom Scholarships.”  Using these funds, states would be free to design their own scholarship programs, which could be used to send public dollars to private schools. This requested increase in voucher funding reflects the president’s statements during his State of the Union address last week, which my fellow ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported on here and here for Teach the Vote.

Trump’s proposal also consolidates 29 federal education programs into one block grant totaled at $19.4 billion, which is $4.7 billion less than Congress approved for these programs in 2020. A list of the programs can be found here (see p. 9), which includes 21st Century Learning Centers, charter schools, school safety national activities, and the $16 billion Title I Grants. This change purportedly would cut the role of the Department of Education significantly by reducing staffing and administrative costs. Though this is labeled a “block grant,” funds would still be allocated using the Title I formulas. The proposal indicates that states and school districts could use the funds on any of the consolidated programs and would still have to follow key accountability and reporting requirements.

Consistent with the president’s affinity for career and technical education (CTE), the proposal also includes $2 billion for CTE state grants and $90 million for CTE national programs. Part of this $763 million increase would be funded by a proposal to double the fee for H1-B visas.

The president’s 2021 budget recommendation includes an increase of $100 million in funding for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B grant funding, for a total of $12.8 billion. This increase is relatively small considering the overall funding needs for students with disabilities. (Texas appropriated over $2 billion for this purpose during the 86th legislative session.)

As was the case in previous presidential budget requests from the Trump administration, the proposal eliminates the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, citing that it “unfairly favors some career choices over others.”

Review past reporting on President Trump’s budget requests for the 2018, 2019, and 2020 fiscal years here on ATPE’s Teach the Vote blog.

Texas election roundup: Campaign finances

A new set of campaign finance reports has shed some light on the 2020 races for federal office around Texas.

Current U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is up for reelection and reported raising more than the entire field of Democratic challengers combined. Cornyn listed $3.2 million in donations for the third quarter, while his Democratic rivals posted a combined $2.8 million. Former congressional candidate M.J. Hegar raised $1 million, the most of the Democratic field, followed by $557,000 raised by Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards, and $550,000 raised by state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas). Cornyn listed nearly $11 million cash on hand, compared to $894,000 listed by Hegar. Cornyn has also outspent Hegar 12-to-one. Republican state Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) announced this week that he will no longer pursue a primary challenge against Cornyn.

In competitive U.S. House of Representatives races, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX 2) outraised his Democratic rival Elisa Cardnell by $1.4 million to $100,000. Democrat Stephen Daniel edged out Rep. Ron Wright (R-TX 6) $111,000 to $106,000. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX 7) outraised her top Republican challenger $640,000 to $469,000. Democrats Shannon Hutcheson, Pritesh Gandhi, and Mike Siegel outraised Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX 10) $504,000 to $334,000. Former state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) nearly doubled Rep. Chip Roy’s (R-TX 21) fundraising total, $941,000 to $574,000, but Roy maintains nearly double the cash on hand reported by Davis. Democrats Kathaleen Wall and Sri Kulkarni led fundraising in TX-22, and Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones posted a $1.1 million fundraising total in retiring Rep. Will Hurd’s (R-TX 23) district, which far exceeded all other contenders. Republican Beth Van Duyne leads the field in fundraising in TX-24, followed by Democrat Kim Olson, who maintains a cash advantage against Van Duyne. Rep. John Carter’s (R-TX-31) $152,000 fundraising total was just enough to beat the combined total of his nine Democratic challengers. Finally, Colin Allred (D-TX 32) outraised Republican challenger Genevieve Collins $583,000 to $458,000.

Voting is the single most powerful way educators can use their voices to make change happen. The elections beginning this November and lasting through November of 2020 have the potential to be the most consequential elections in a generation, so it is critical that you and everyone you know who is eligible is registered to vote. You can find more information and resources about voter registration and voting at TexasEducatorsVote.com.

Congressman Kevin Brady files WEP replacement bill, version 2.0

U.S. Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX), the ranking member of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, has introduced H.R. 3934, the “Equal Treatment of Public Servants Act of 2019,” considered a new and improved version of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) replacement bill he filed during the previous congressional session.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady

The new version of the bill keeps many of the same provisions in place as its predecessor. For example, the new Public Servants Fairness formula (PSF) proposed in the bill would increase the overall amount in Social Security checks received by most future retired Texas teachers who would otherwise be subject to the WEP under current law. H.R. 3934 also maintains the previous legislation’s provision granting a $100 per month rebate to current retirees whose Social Security benefits are reduced by the WEP.

The primary change between the new version of the bill and the last is a greatly expanded hold harmless period. Under the new legislation, anyone over the age of 20 but not yet eligible for Social Security before the year 2022 would get the higher of the benefit amount provided by either the old WEP formula or the new PSF formula. For the vast majority of affected retirees, the new formula would produce a higher benefit payment except for a few current or future educators over the age of 20 who could otherwise see a slight reduction under the new formula; for the educators who fall into that relatively small category, Brady’s bill would hold them harmless, ensuring that their benefit will be no less than they would otherwise receive under current law.

H.R. 6933 / H.R. 3934 Comparison Chart

With 18 months left for the current congress to pass the bill, ATPE is hopeful that the time for WEP reform may finally be at hand. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on this legislation.

Texans in Congress cosponsor federal bill to double teachers’ tax deduction

There is good news to report from the nation’s capital, as some members of Congress are looking to double a popular tax deduction that benefits educators. H.R. 878, the Educators Expense Deduction Modernization Act, was filed by Democratic Congressman Anthony Brown of Maryland and has garnered support from some members of the Texas delegation.

The bill as filed would allow teachers to deduct up to $500 from their federal taxes (instead of $250 under current law) for any classroom supplies that they purchase. The permanent tax deduction also would be adjusted for inflation.

The following Texans have signed on as cosponsors of H.R. 878:

  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-018)
  • Rep. Eddie Johnson (D-TX-030)
  • Rep. Filemon Vela, Jr. (D-TX-034)
  • Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX-015)
  • Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX-23)

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX-23)

In signing on to become a cosponsor of H.R. 878 today, Texas Congressman Will Hurd appears to be the first member of the Republican party to do so nationwide. Hurd issued a press release lauding the bill and noting ATPE’s support for it.  “There’s no good reason why our teachers should pay out of their own pockets for the resources needed to do their jobs, which is why I’m proud to cosponsor this bill today,” said Rep. Hurd.

ATPE recognizes that many of our members routinely spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars out of their own pockets to help provide students with the supplies they need to thrive in the classroom. We appreciate those among our Congressional delegation who are supporting this bill to help give teachers additional, modest tax relief, and we hope that other members of our delegation will join the bipartisan effort. View ATPE’s press release about the federal tax deduction legislation here.

State of the State and Union: Where does education fit in 2019 priorities?

On Feb. 5, 2019, both the Texas Governor and President of the United States delivered high-profile speeches in front of a large audience of lawmakers and the public. In his 2019 State of the State address Wednesday, Governor Greg Abbott began by touting the “economic prowess” of Texas.

The U.S. Capitol, where Pres. Trump delivered his State of the Union address, Feb. 5, 2019

Later that same day, in his 2019 State of the Union address, President Donald Trump similarly expressed sweeping admiration for the successes of our American economy. Despite the idea that the foundation of a great economy is a stellar education, our governor and president differed greatly in the amount of attention they focused on educating our children.

Pres. Trump mentioned education twice during his address. In one instance, the president expressed that our schools were overburdened due to immigration. In another, he said, “To help support working parents, the time has come to pass school choice for America’s children.” Other than these two remarks, the president gave no other details regarding education.

Standing ovation for teacher pay during Gov. Abbott’s 2019 State of the State address

Gov. Abbott spent a large portion of his address speaking on the importance of improving student outcomes. He said that, in order to address low rates of third-grade reading readiness and similarly low rates of college and career readiness, we must target education funding to the people who matter most (other than parents). These are our educators.

According to the governor, nobody plays a more vital role in our children’s education than teachers. He noted in his address that he wants Texas to recruit and retain the best teachers, pay teachers more, provide incentives to put teachers in the classrooms that need them the most, and create pathways to earn a six-figure salary. Gov. Abbott even declared teacher pay an emergency item, along with school finance reform and school safety.

Perhaps we can consider ourselves lucky that education is mostly left up to the states and that – at least for the early weeks of this legislative session – our governor is talking about making teachers and students a priority and not prioritizing harmful distractions such as private school vouchers. As we move forward with the legislative session, it is important to continue making the voice of the teacher heard on topics such as pay, incentives, and recruitment and retention. ATPE members can help by using our tools at Advocacy Central to send messages to lawmakers about these issues and our legislative priorities.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 25, 2019

Here’s your weekly wrap-up of education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


On Wednesday, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen released his chamber’s committee assignments for the 86th legislature. Speaker Bonnen assigned chairmanships to Republicans and Democrats alike with each party having a number of chairmanships roughly proportionate to its representation in the House, which is contrast to the Senate where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appointed only a single Democrat to chair a committee. Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) will continue to chair the House Committee on Public Education with Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) again serving as Vice-Chair. A full list of House committee assignments can be found here. View Senate committee assignments as previously reported on Teach the Vote here.

Meanwhile, there remain three vacancies in the House pending upcoming special elections. Voters in House Districts 79 and 145 will elect a new state representative (unless there is a need for a runoff) during a special election on Tuesday, Jan. 29. ATPE encourages educators in El Paso and Houston to visit the Candidates page on Teach the Vote to view the candidates who are vying for election in those two districts. A special election will take place to fill the third vacancy in San Antonio’s House District 125 on Feb. 12, 2019.

 


Earlier this week the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced the recipients of Cycle 2 of the agency’s Grow Your Own grant period. An initiative created as a result of Commissioner of Education Mike Morath’s 2016 Texas Rural Schools Task Force, the Grow Your Own grant program was designed to help school districts inspire high school students to pursue careers as classroom teachers, certified paraprofessionals, or teacher aides.

Research shows that 60 percent of educators in the United States teach within 20 miles of where they went to high school,” said Commissioner Morath. “Because we know our future teachers are currently in our high schools, the goal of Grow Your Own is to help increase the quality and diversity of our teaching force and to better support our paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides and educators, especially in small and rural districts.”

Thirty-six school districts and educator preparation programs were selected for Cycle 2 of the program: Bob Hope School (Port Arthur), Bridge City ISD, Brooks County ISD, Castleberry ISD, Del Valle ISD, Elgin ISD, Fort Bend ISD, Fort Hancock ISD, Grand Prairie ISD, Hillsboro ISD, La Vega ISD, Lancaster ISD, Laredo ISD, Longview ISD, Marble Falls ISD, Mineola ISD, Muleshoe ISD, New Caney ISD, Palestine ISD, Presidio ISD, Region 20 Education Service Center, Relay Graduate School of Education, Rosebud-Lott ISD, Sabinal ISD, Somerset ISD, Stephen F. Austin State University, Texas A&M University, Texas A&M University- Commerce, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, Texas Tech University, Texas Woman’s University, Vidor ISD, Waxahachie Faith Family Academy, West Texas A&M University, Westwood ISD, and Woodville ISD.

The full press release from TEA can be found here.


Two congressmen from Texas will be serving on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee for the 116th Congress.

Both Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX 20) and Rep. Van Taylor (R-TX 03) will be serving on the committee, which has gone several years without a Texas member among its ranks. In press releases published earlier this week, both Castro and Taylor spoke of their commitment to finding bipartisan solutions to challenges faced by America’s education system and workforce. ATPE congratulates Congressmen Castro and Taylor on their appointments and looks forward to working with them in Washington on federal education issues.

 


With the legislative session underway and committees in place, we’re beginning to see a busy calendar of upcoming hearings, which ATPE’s lobby team will be participating in and reporting on throughout the session for Teach the Vote. State agencies and boards also have upcoming meetings of interest to education stakeholders, and we’re your go-to source for updates on any developments.

Next week, the State Board of Education (SBOE) will hold its first meeting of the new year starting Monday in Austin, where new members will be officially sworn in. Matt Robinson (R-Friendswood), Pam Little (R-Fairview), and Aicha Davis (D-Dallas) are joining the board following the 2018 election cycle. The board will also elect a vice-chair and secretary and announce the chairs of its three standing committees: School Initiatives, Instruction, and School Finance/Permanent School Fund.

SBOE members will host a learning roundtable Wednesday at the Austin Convention Center that will focus on the Long-Range Plan for Public Education, which the board released at the end of 2018.

Rep. Dan Huberty

Also on Wednesday, the House Public Education Committee will hold its first meeting of the 86th legislative session. The committee, under the chairmanship of Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), is expected to consider major bills related to school finance and teacher pay this session. Wednesday’s meeting will feature invited testimony from Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath.

 


The Senate Finance Committee began its work on the state budget this week with its chairwoman Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) introducing Senate Bill (SB) 1, the Senate’s version of the budget. The budget is broken down into several different articles that represent different policy areas. Article III, which includes TEA, the Foundation School Program, and TRS, as well as higher education funding, is set to be discussed the week of Feb. 11.

In addition to SB 1, the Senate Finance committee also laid out SB 500, the Senate’s supplemental appropriations bill. SB 500 includes approximately $2.5 billion in proposed funding from the Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF), or Rainy Day fund. With about $1 billion of that money going to Hurricane Harvey relief, the bill includes a substantial amount for affected school districts. Another $300 million has been slated toward the TRS pension fund.

The House Committee on Appropriations was also named this week and will begin its work right away, including naming the members of the subcommittee that will oversee the portion of the budget dedicated to education for the House. Initial hearings are slated for next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates from ATPE’s lobbyists as various budget-related proposals move through the legislative process.

 


Congressman Kevin Brady files WEP replacement bill

U.S. Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX) who chairs the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, along with Ranking Member Richard Neal (D-MA), has introduced H.R. 6933 to amend Title II of the Social Security Act. The bill would replace the windfall elimination provision (WEP) with a formula equalizing benefits for certain individuals with non-covered employment.

Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX)

ATPE has worked closely with Chairman Brady to bring forward a bill that addresses the inequities in the current law, which stem from the arbitrary formula known as the windfall elimination provision. The goal for both ATPE and Chairman Brady is to put in place a formula that can both pass Congress and get more money on average into the pockets of retirees by treating them more fairly than they are treated under current law.

Stay tuned to TTV for a deeper dive on the bill as well as updates as it moves through the legislative process.