Category Archives: federal

What will a Biden presidency mean for education?

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On November 7, the Associated Press and numerous other news outlets called the 2020 Presidential Election for former Vice President Joe Biden. Since then, much speculation has surfaced on what a Biden presidency will mean for education, especially in light of a Congress that will likely be divided. Let’s take a look at what a Biden presidency may mean for education.

Highlights:



Biden’s education platform: Early childhood, teachers, equity, and CTE

The cornerstone of President-Elect Biden’s education platform during the 2020 election was a promise to triple Title I funding and require the increase to first be used for pre-K, teacher pay, and ensuring a robust curriculum across campuses in a district. Related to funding, Biden’s policy advisor Stef Feldman told the Education Writers Association (EWA) in a recent interview that Biden would ban for-profit charter schools from receiving federal dollars. “No one should be getting rich by taking advantage of our kids,” Feldman stated during the campaign.

Biden ran on a platform that included providing teachers with competitive wages and benefits, investing in teacher mentoring, leadership, and continuing education, and helping educators pay off their student loans. Additionally, Biden proposed doubling the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in schools, which is aimed at addressing student mental health while freeing up teachers to focus their time on teaching.

President-Elect Biden’s focus on equity included supporting grow-your-own educator preparation programs and working with historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) and minority-serving institutions to diversify the teacher pipeline. Biden also proposed supporting schools with wraparound services and efforts to desegregate and diversify schools. The president-elect promised to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) over the next 10 years, citing that current funding levels only cover 14% of the extra costs for providing special education services rather than the law’s original intent of subsidizing 40%.

The Biden education platform heavily emphasized the concept of “investing in all children from birth,” which included providing high-quality universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds and placing early childhood development experts in community health centers. Biden also proposed expanding home visiting so families can receive coaching from specialists on preventative health and prenatal practices.

Biden’s plan also covered career and technical education, namely making sure middle and high school students have access to meaningful vocational training by investing in this area. For a detailed overview of the Biden plan, see a breakdown of Feldman’s interview with EWA.

In terms of higher education, the Biden plan touts relieving student debt, making college affordable, eliminating controversial Title IX policies, reversing course on the previous administration’s treatment of DREAMERs, and renewing regulations on for-profit colleges. Biden has proposed making community college free and providing additional funding and incentives to help vulnerable students graduate. Additionally, Biden wants to double funding for Pell Grants.

Most items on the president-elect’s wish list will require the approval of Congress. These proposals will face an uncertain partisan makeup in the U.S. Senate, where two seats in Georgia remain undecided pending a runoff election in January.



Addressing education during a pandemic and school reopening

Over the summer, Biden rolled out a plan to reopen schools that focuses on getting the virus under control and providing enough funding and resources for schools to reopen safely. Biden supported the HEROES Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year, which the Senate has not acted upon; and he said he would work with Congress to provide funding for ventilation, custodial and health services, and reducing class sizes.

Biden’s plan tasks the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with developing metrics such as the level of community spread and risk to guide schools through reopening. His plan aims to work against politics-driven reopening plans that have been based on ultimatums, such as withholding funding until schools return to in-person instruction.

President-Elect Biden wants to ensure high-quality learning during the pandemic by initiating a U.S. Department of Education effort to share best practices. He plans to create a White House initiative to work towards combating equity gaps exacerbated by the pandemic and launch a grant program to help fund efforts in this area.

When asked whether Biden would waive federal testing requirements due to the pandemic, Feldman didn’t promise anything. She said the answer “depends on how much progress we can make in supporting our schools and getting them back up and running.”



An educator as U.S. Secretary of Education

This week we saw the first names released as Biden’s cabinet picks. An announcement could be made soon regarding the important post of U.S. Secretary of Education. In her EWA interview back during the campaign, Feldman confirmed that Biden would nominate a public school educator to be his Education Secretary, but she did not clarify whether this meant a K-12 educator or one from higher education. The U.S. Senate must confirm the president’s cabinet nominees, and with two Georgia Senate races not set to be decided until January, it is too soon to know the partisan makeup of the upper chamber and how that might have an impact. According to this Education Week article, some potential picks could include national labor union leaders (who would have a tough, if not unsuccessful confirmation process in a Republican-led Senate), high-profile school district leaders, state education chiefs, or even U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), who was the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.

Those in the higher education community argue that a community college-level expert would fit the bill and potentially alleviate problems with Senate confirmation. Dr. Jill Biden is a community college expert herself, having completed a dissertation in the subject and being a longtime community college professor. Other potential picks could be HBCU leaders, especially since Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), is an HBCU graduate.

One thing we do know is that President-Elect Biden’s education transition team is being led by former public school teacher Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, a legend in the education policy and research world and a leader for equity in education. She is a professor at Stanford University, president of the Learning Policy Institute, and president of the California State Board of Education. Darling-Hammond also led President Obama’s education transition team in 2008.



Dr. Jill Biden: A veteran educator

Dr. Jill Biden (credit)

In his acceptance speech November 8, President-Elect Biden said, “Jill’s a mom — a military mom — and an educator. She has dedicated her life to education, but teaching isn’t just what she does — it’s who she is. For America’s educators, this is a great day: You’re going to have one of your own in the White House, and Jill is going to make a great First Lady.” Biden’s reverence for his wife may mean she will have a meaningful influence on education policy during his tenure.

Dr. Biden has been an educator for over three decades. While earning her two master’s degrees, she taught English to adolescents with emotional disabilities at a psychiatric hospital. She also taught at the high school and community college levels. Biden has a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware. Her dissertation focused on maximizing student retention in community colleges and her work as former Second Lady focused heavily on community colleges. This background may influence the president to pick a higher education educator for U.S. Secretary of Education.

Also of note, Dr. Biden has announced her intent to continue teaching while serving as First Lady. She reportedly will have the distinction of being the first woman to maintain outside employment while holding that role. Dr. Biden teaches courses at a community college in nearby Virginia.

Texas schools may access federal funds to reimburse remote learning costs

Earlier this year Congress passed the CARES Act to provide pandemic relief funds to individuals, as well as K-12 schools. Texas has received more than $1.5 billion of the federal allocation targeting education. There have been attempts this year by some policymakers to divert the federal funds earmarked for public schools to private individuals or entities, but ATPE has consistently maintained that these funds should flow directly to the public schools that need them to address the challenges of COVID-19. This week state officials shared more information about how they are spending the federal dollars.

Texas received $29.2 million through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) and $1.28 billion through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, both funded by the CARES Act. In June, Texas notified the federal government that it intended to use its GEER funds to support remote learning through Operation Connectivity, provide virtual interventions for students with dyslexia, and create online instructional materials. Similarly, the state indicated that it would spend its ESSER funds on a summer bridge program to help graduating seniors, mental and behavioral health supports, remote instructional platforms and materials, and assistance for school districts adapting to remote learning environments.

On Wednesday, November 18, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that $420 million of the CARES Act funds sent to Texas will be made available to school districts for reimbursement of COVID-19 expenses. Specifically, schools may request the funding to offset prior purchases of Wi-Fi hotspots and other technology devices.

The Dallas Morning News reported on the development last night, sharing ATPE’s comment that the announcement is a significant step in the right direction but only the beginning, as districts’ funding needs related to COVID-19 will persist. ATPE has also urged the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to make it easier for schools to access the funds. School leaders have reported many bureaucratic hurdles involved in the process of applying for the reimbursements. Similarly, in response to ATPE’s surveys, educators have expressed frustration over burdensome paperwork and reporting requirements imposed by the state since the pandemic began disrupting the school environment.

The state has already used a smaller portion of CARES Act funds to reimburse some of the expenses incurred by schools during the latter part of the 2019-20 school year, to fund “hold harmless” agreements to prevent schools from losing funding due to enrollment drops, to subsidize broadband access through Operation Connectivity, and to create instructional materials for its TexasHomeLearning.com online platform launched earlier this year. More controversially, Gov. Abbott has allocated approximately $30 million of the CARES Act funding he oversees to a new voucher program for students with disabilities, a move ATPE and other organizations have opposed.

TEA announced Thursday, November 19, that the agency is adding new instructional materials to the latest iteration of Texas Home Learning (THL 3.0) geared toward Pre-Kindergarten students. The THL initiative began as an effort to give families direct access to instructional materials, including summer reading assistance, but has since grown to include the provision of an optional Learning Management System (LMS) for school districts through the acquisition of a statewide license with the education vendor Schoology. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath told members of the State Board of Education this week that $64 million of the CARES Act funds have been spent on THL.

It appears that only about one-quarter of the state’s school districts have opted to use the new LMS, and ATPE members’ reviews of the Schoology platform and THL instructional materials have been mixed, at best. Although the allocation of CARES Act funding for THL has been relative small, educators tell us that they would rather see those pandemic relief funds sent directly to school districts to help them hire additional staff and give teachers more time for planning and develop their own innovative curriculum that meets the needs of their students.

Congressional leaders file retirement bill, but fail to address the WEP

On Tuesday, U.S. Congressmen Richard Neal (D – Mass.) and Kevin Brady (R  – TX) filed the bipartisan “Securing a Strong Retirement Act of 2020,” a major bill directed at helping more Americans save for their future. Neal chairs the important U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, while Brady is the committee’s former chair and ranking member on the Republican side.

According to a joint statement released by Neal and Brady, the new retirement legislation aims to accomplish the following:

  • Promote earlier retirement saving by enrolling employees automatically in 401(k) plans newly offered by their companies;
  • Create a new incentive for small businesses to offer retirement plans;
  • Increase tax credits for contributions to a retirement plan or IRA;
  • Expand retirement savings options by allowing groups of non-profits to join together to offer retirement plans to their employees;
  • Offer individuals 60 and older more flexibility to set aside savings as they approach retirement;
  • Increase the required minimum distribution age to 75;
  • Allow individuals to pay down a student loan instead of contributing to a 401(k) plan and still receive an employer match in their retirement plan;
  • Make it easier for military spouses to save for retirement;
  • Allow more flexibility to make charitable gifts through IRAs;
  • Allow taxpayers to avoid penalties for inadvertent errors managing an IRA that can lead to a loss of retirement savings;
  • Protect retirees who unknowingly receive retirement plan overpayments; and
  • Create a national online database of lost retirement accounts.

Unfortunately, the bill as filed does not address the federal Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), which reduces many public employees’ Social Security benefits. This is despite the fact that both Chairman Neal and Ranking Member Brady have each filed separate bills that would repeal and replace the WEP. The Neal and Brady WEP bills, which are largely identical and both supported by ATPE, have been largely stalled despite having been filed over a year ago. There has been little advancement of non-emergency legislation this election year, as many are waiting to see which party will win control of the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and the White House.

ATPE and other members of the public education community, both in and outside of Texas, are calling on Neal and Brady to incorporate language from their WEP legislation into the Securing Strong Retirement Act of 2020. Doing so would finally give educators and other public servants impacted by the WEP the relief they deserve.

Read a section-by-section summary of the Securing a Strong Retirement Act here, or read the bill’s full text here.

Equitable services saga ends following court decision against DeVos rule

As we reported here on Teach the Vote a couple weeks ago, a federal court nullified a controversial federal rule that would have funneled additional public dollars to private schools under an “equitable services” provision of the CARES Act. With a statement that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will not appeal that decision, it seems as though the equitable services saga has finally come to an end. Here’s the story from start to finish:

On March 27, 2020, the CARES Act was signed into law. It provided Texas public schools with federal aid meant to combat extra costs associated with COVID-19. The CARES Act requires public school districts to use a portion of their emergency funds to provide equitable services to certain private schools, following long-standing federal education law practices.

Leave it to DeVos to disregard Congressional intent and interpret the equitable services provision in the CARES Act to send an unprecedented amount of public school emergency funds to private schools. Deviating from the prior practice, DeVos issued April 30 guidance directing school districts to calculate their equitable services allocation using ALL students at ALL private non-profit schools in their bounds. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) held districts to this questionable guidance while other states chose to ignore it.

Two main points make this interpretation egregious: Number one, equitable services allocations are typically calculated based on eligible students (low-income, English learners, etc.) who live in the district’s bounds but who attend a private school. Number two, CARES Act funds were 90% based on Title I formula-funding. Under DeVos’s interpretation, a student who lives in a wealthy neighborhood but attends a private school in another part of town would now get the benefit of federal emergency dollars that were calculated based on low-income children. The “poor must share with the rich” is not equitable.

After much consternation from the education community, the department issued an interim final rule (IFR) on July 1 that gave three options to school districts. On the one hand, the rule gave districts an option to follow the long-standing interpretation of equitable services, which was good. However, the rule meant that the DeVos interpretation now held the effect of law, which was bad. ATPE submitted formal comments opposing the new rule in July, but the department did not change any of its practices. Meanwhile, TEA conducted new trainings to inform districts of the changes.

A slew of court cases and a final summary judgement leads us to the beginning of September. The September 4 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Dabney L. Friedrich vacated the IFR nationwide. TEA updated its equitable services guidance the following week but cautioned districts that DeVos had 60 days to appeal the decision.

On September 25, DeVos issued a letter to all chief state school officers stating that the department would not appeal the decision. TEA held a new training this week instructing districts to revert to the original interpretation of equitable services, as intended by Congress.

Betsy DeVos

While DeVos argues, “all schools and all students have borne the pandemic’s burden and need support,” Congress has provided small business assistance that private schools and even some public charter schools have taken advantage of already. Should Congress wish to specifically fund private schools, they could consider a separate piece of legislation that is not tied to Title I formula-funding.

The back-and-forth over the equitable services issue this year reminds us of the power struggles that can arise at the state and federal level between elected lawmakers, agency heads appointed by a governor or the president, and the courts that provide much-needed checks and balances in our democracy. The Secretary of Education is appointed by the President of the United States and is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Not only are there many state and federal legislative races being decided this year, but the presidential election in 2020 will shape the next four years of education policymaking at the federal level.

ATPE encourages you to make sure you are registered to vote by October 5 and research your ENTIRE ballot using resources such as the candidate profiles on Teach the Vote (for Texas House, Texas Senate, and State Board of Education races on the ballot this year) and vote411.org, where you can build and print out a sample ballot of your own. Early voting for the general election begins October 13.

U.S. Department of Education hosts webinar on school reopening

The U.S. Department of Education hosted a virtual panel presentation today, Sept. 23, on successful strategies to reopen schools this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The live webinar opened with a statement from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos who reiterated her support for school choice by saying that parents need options more than ever during this time. DeVos also maintained her position that every school should offer an in-person option for parents who want that for their children.

Next, a panel of invited witnesses shared best practices in how they have re-opened their schools during the pandemic. Panelists included the following:

  • Sue Blakeley, founder and administrator of Lake Mead Christian Academy in Nevada, a private school
  • Shane Robbins, superintendent of Kershaw County School District in South Carolina
  • Jeremiah Newell, superintendent of MAEF Public Charter Schools in Alabama
  • Nisha Gupta, administrator and teacher at Homestead Montessori School in New York, a private school
  • Glen East, superintendent of Gulfport Schools in Mississippi
  • Frank Brogan, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Newell shared that his charter school, a specialty charter for students age 16 and older who have dropped out or fallen behind, is offering parents the option on selecting in-person learning, synchronous/asynchronous virtual instruction, or night schooling for students who need to work to support their families. He also stressed that sitting in front of a computer is not an effective form of learning for students.

Blakeley’s private school created a task force to bolster communication between stakeholders in her school community and consulted with an infectious disease expert regularly. Her school also staggered reopening and conducted “rehearsals” by gradually opening the school’s day care and early childhood facilities.

East said his public school district opened at 30% capacity and has since increased capacity to 100%. The district also hired additional instructional support staff so that there are two adults in each classroom, in order to support students.

Gupta’s private school simplified classrooms by removing furniture and marking the floor with dots. The number of personalized materials was increased, too, including some materials that the school 3-D printed and laser-cut on their own. Spaces were organized to isolate cohorts, along with scheduling changes, and experiential learning was moved outdoors. Teachers moved classroom furniture outdoors and a local Native American leader donated additional outdoor space so that students could learn in weather-proof teepees.

Robbins said his public school district was already an e-learning district and that the transition was a little bit easier because of this fact. The district created a task force that formed subcommittees made up of healthcare professionals, parents, and teachers. Robbins said responding to the pandemic has created an expensive situation, especially with the new learning environments and need to ensure health and safety. His district has partnered with local businesses to provide internet access to students and has created a COVID-19 dashboard to show the number of cases in their schools.

Several of the panelists said they created videos in order to best communicate with their families.

A few things come to light in analyzing these comments from school leaders across our nation.

  1. The pandemic is costly to school systems and has created new costs that should continue to be reimbursed by the federal government.
  2. Teachers are rarely included in the considerations and conversations engaged in by school leaders. In this panel at least, leaders did not express a balance of concern for their educators or share best practices on how to engage educators.

ATPE has continuously advocated for the involvement of educators throughout the pandemic. For resources and support for educators, please visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources. To share your opinions on back-to-school health and safety, ATPE members can visit ATPE’s Advocacy Central to fill out a quick two-question survey open until Sept. 27, and also use the communication tools there to share input with their elected officials.

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

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


Source: Office of the Texas Governor

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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


Census workers are knocking

U.S. Census Bureau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betsy DeVos tells states not to expect student testing waivers

Betsy DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sent a letter to the top school official in every state today regarding federal requirements for student testing in the 2020-21 school year. States requested and the secretary granted a waiver of testing mandates for 2019-20 when the novel coronavirus forced schools to abruptly shut down during the spring. However, DeVos makes it clear in her Sept. 3 letter that the Trump administration has no intention of waiving the testing requirements again this year.

Below is an excerpt from the letter in which DeVos claims there is broad support for testing and urges the states to demonstrate their “resolve” in these challenging times by continuing to administer the assessments to students:

“Several of your colleagues recently inquired about the possibility of waivers to relieve states of the requirement to administer standardized tests during School Year (SY) 2020-2021. You will recall that, within a very short time, waivers were granted to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education this past spring following the declaration of a national emergency. That was the right call, given the limited information available about the virus at the time and the need to stop its spread, as well as the practical realities limiting the administration of assessments. However, it is now our expectation that states will, in the interest of students, administer summative assessments during the 2020-2021 school year, consistent with the requirements of the law and following the guidance of local health officials. As a result, you should not anticipate such waivers being granted again.”

A growing number of elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum, parent groups, and education associations including ATPE have called for student testing requirements to be waived in 2020-21. As we have previously reported here on Teach the Vote, Texas Governor Greg Abbott removed a few of the high stakes attached to STAAR test results this year but has not shown interest in a broader waiver of testing requirements, despite the fact that many schools have had to delay the start of the new school year. The ATPE House of Delegates also passed a resolution this summer calling for a waiver of STAAR and TELPAS requirements this year due to the ongoing negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education system.

While there has been widespread bipartisan support for cutting back on student testing, the general election coming up in November will play a large role in determining whether high-stakes tests are actually administered this year and used for such purposes as school accountability grades and determining teachers’ evaluations and compensation. Stay tuned to our Teach the Vote blog for updates.

ATPE meets virtually with Texas Congressional delegation

Submitted by ATPE Contract Lobbyist David Pore of Hance Scarborough, LLP

Tonja Gray

Jimmy Lee

Newly inaugurated ATPE State President Jimmy Lee and immediate Past President Tonja Gray spent time in July joining me and the ATPE Governmental Relations team for a series of online roundtable policy discussions with key members of the Texas Congressional Delegation and their staffs.  Although perhaps not as effective (nor as much fun) as the annual state officer trip to Washington, DC, we made progress in our federal advocacy efforts and built on existing relationships with the delegation. Our goal was to provide input to the members who sit on the key committees of jurisdiction on the policy issues important to Texas educators, parents, and students. We focused our discussions on safely returning to school, federal COVID-19 relief funding for education, and the GPO/WEP Social Security offsets that continue to reduce the benefits of retired educators and other public servants.

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX 20) sits on the House Education and Labor Committee that has oversight over the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and how they spend the money appropriated for K-12 and higher education by the Congress. The congressman and his Education Legislative Assistant Kaitlyn Montan joined us for a great discussion of the challenges facing Texas educators, administrators, parents, and students as we work to return to the classroom safely. ATPE leaders stressed the importance of local, district-level decision making and the need for flexibility for school districts to be able to return virtually, in-person, or with a hybrid model where appropriate. The congressman agreed that federal money should not be used to incentivize one return model over another and that ED should not divert limited federal taxpayer money appropriated for COVID-19 relief for public schools to private schools or for the virtual voucher pet projects of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Rep. Castro committed to using his role on the committee to conduct robust oversight and make sure the department follows the law as Congress intended.

Rep. Van Taylor (R-TX 3) also sits on the House Education and Labor Committee and represents a North Texas district with over 4,000 ATPE members. The congressman’s Legislative Director Jett Thompson met with us, and while less enthusiastic about the need for strong oversight of ED, he did agree that Secretary DeVos should stick to congressional intent when implementing the COVID-19 relief bills, including in how taxpayer money is distributed to private schools.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX 35) sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and has been a long time cosponsor and champion for legislation completely repealing the WEP and the GPO. The repeal bills have never made it out of committee due to their enormous costs to the Social Security trust fund and the inequities that would be created for private sector beneficiaries. Rep. Doggett’s Legislative Assistant Sarah Jones met with us and informed us that the congressman does not support the more limited bill repealing the WEP that has been authored by Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX) or the version introduced by committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA). Surprisingly, Jones stated that Rep. Doggett did not support the Neal bill because it “is not paid for,” despite his long-time support for the full repeal bill that costs the Social Security trust fund much more than either the Brady or Neal WEP repeal bills. Although she did express support from the congressman on our position regarding how ED is spending COVID-19 relief funds, we let Jones know that Congressman Doggett’s opposition to the WEP repeal bills was inconsistent with his previous positions on the issue and extremely disappointing to Texas public educators, both active and retired.

ATPE state officers and lobbyists met with Rep. Jodey Arrington via Zoom, July 28, 2020, to discuss COVID-19 considerations and Social Security reform.

Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX 19) also sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and has emerged as a champion for legislation to repeal the WEP and replace it with a proportional formula. We discussed with him the partisan breakdown of previously bipartisan legislation authored by committee Chairman Neal and Ranking Member Brady that has now devolved into two separate bills bogged down and unlikely to move before the election in November. Tonja Gray relayed on-the-ground concerns about the return to school from Abilene ISD, which lies in Arrington’s congressional district, while Jimmy Lee spoke from his unique perspective as a retired career educator, statewide leader, and the husband of a superintendent. While we agreed to disagree with the congressman on his position that it is appropriate to use federal relief money to incentivize in-person teaching this fall, regardless of the health and safety concerns of the district, we expressed our sincere appreciation for his open line of communication with ATPE and his strong support in the Ways and Means Committee for addressing the WEP. Arrington also praised ATPE for its professional approach to working with officeholders, expressing his belief that the national union groups “are not winning anyone over” in Washington.

Unfortunately, our senior U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) was unavailable to meet with ATPE’s statewide leadership and the governmental relations team. Although his Legislative Assistant Clair Sanderson met with us, she was unable to commit the senator to a position on how ED is implementing the CARES Act and spending federal taxpayer money appropriated for COVID-19 relief for education. We also discussed the Senate companion to the Brady WEP bill that Senator Ted Cruz has introduced, which to date, Senator Cornyn has not cosponsored.

It is important for our elected officials at every level to hear directly from professional educators about the issues you face, such as returning to school safely, how our tax dollars are spent on education, and how federal Social Security laws affect your retirement. I am grateful to Tonja and Jimmy for taking the time to participate in these roundtable discussions. They both are outstanding ambassadors for ATPE and for public education as a whole. Thank you, Tonja and Jimmy!

Food for thought: School nutrition and COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Texas in March, one of our first concerns was how students who normally relied on the school for meals would continue to have access to nutritious food. Public school districts went above and beyond to ensure students continued receiving meals, parking at motels for meal distribution, initiating drive-thrus, and packing different foods that worked better for grab-and-go. These efforts contributed to higher costs for public school nutrition services this spring, which put a financial strain on districts’ ability to continue providing meal service to those who need it the most.

But it isn’t just the higher costs associated with out-of-school meal service that is a concern; it is also the lower numbers of students accessing meals that is straining districts. According to recent reporting by Politico, the National School Lunch Program served 28 percent fewer meals in March 2020 compared to March 2019. North East ISD estimated a $2.6 million shortfall this spring due to increased costs from serving more expensive foods for grab-and-go consumption and decreased revenue from fewer meals served. While census data is used for meal service planning purposes, districts are actually reimbursed for nutrition services based on the number of meals served and whether students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Students who purchase meals at school, or even a la carte food items, help provide extra revenue to districts that enable them to break even in their food operations.

Federal waivers provided in the spring allowed school districts to serve meals at any campus, without students present, and at no cost to all students, regardless of their eligibility for free and reduced-price meals.This flexibility has not been extended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which could inhibit districts’ ability to receive enough reimbursement to maintain operations without needing financial support from other district funds (which are also tight at the moment). Furthermore, the expectation for families to fill out and districts to process free or reduced-price meal eligibility paperwork could create an unnecessary burden for families and schools. It is expected that millions of children have become eligible for free and reduced-price meals due to the economic effects of the pandemic. Pending legislation in Congress could address meal service flexibility in schools, as well as general funding, but negotiations are currently stalled due to debates over unemployment benefits.

Schools are part of larger district systems, which are part of state systems and federal systems. These systems work together to ensure that students’ basic needs are met, such as having a nutritious meal to eat, which allows for learning to occur. When school nutrition services are strained, these basic needs can also become strained. Other benefits such as the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) have provided essential funds to families, but P-EBT does not guarantee the “square meal” nutrition of the school nutrition programs. In order for schools to continue acting in creative and courageous ways to get meals to students, more will have to be done to ensure financial stability for these programs.