Category Archives: Funding

Help spread the word about the 2020 Census

The 2020 Census is well underway, but at a smidge over 56%, Texas still has a long way to go in its response rate. Using the resources compiled by Texas Counts, here’s what educators and community stakeholders should consider as they help to get out the count in their communities.

Messaging: Find sample messaging here and remember to keep it simple and emphasize that completing the census is safe, easy, and important. Unfortunately, the potential inclusion of a citizenship question on the census has garnered fear among many who live in Texas. Some are also afraid that the information on the number of people who live in their household will be shared with their landlords or that their location will be shared with police or law enforcement. It important for those living in Texas to know that it is illegal for the U.S. Census Bureau to release information from the census and that the information shared, especially regarding children, will help to provide an adequate amount of resources for public schooling, meals, child care, and other essential public resources. Find a repository of videos, postcards, flyers, and posters from Texas Counts here.

Source: usatoday.com

Responding to the census is easier than ever with the new online response system, and you don’t have to have received an invitation to submit your response. As we previously reported, the U.S. Census Bureau has a great webpage explaining ways to respond to the census and updates on situations caused by the coronavirus, such as college students who are now at home. (Please count college students in the town in which they attend college!) Those who have not self-responded to the census can also use phone or mail methods to respond and must do so by October 31, 2020.

Recognizing Hard-to-Count Communities: It is estimated that 25% of Texans and 30% of Texas children live in areas that are considered hard-to-count due to difficulties in contacting, locating, surveying, and/or engaging. In some cases, factors like language barriers, lack of stable housing, or distrust of the government can contribute to the presence of hard-to-count communities. School systems are particularly suited to easing these factors because educators and school leaders are trusted community members, who can reach families through regular communications and contact (such as meal pickups), and are readily able to translate census outreach materials in the same ways they translate other school communications.

The image below gives you some idea of the vast area of Texas that is hard-to-count by showing the portions of Texas (in yellow) that are just beginning to receive hand-delivered packets from census workers. These areas do not have stable access to the internet or are in areas that require in-person delivery of census materials. Since these areas are perhaps just hearing about the census for the first time, so be sure to reach out to families and reinforce the safety and ease of completing the census. Census workers will undertake the huge task of non-response follow up (NRFU) starting August 11 through October 31, at which point they will go to all households that have not responded yet to the census. Since school will be starting again around this time, communications about the census to families are vital and should be disbursed regularly.

Know the Facts: As we previously reported here on Teach the Vote, Texas received $43 billion in total census-statistic derived funding in 2018. This included over $1.3 billion dollars in Title I funding, $1.4 billion in National School Lunch Program funds, $1.1 billion for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), and billions more for foster care, early childhood education, child care, and other nutritional programs. A 1% under count could cost the state $300 million, which would heavily impact families, children, and the elderly. Knowing what is at stake will help messaging to those who rely on these services.

The tool below, developed by the City University of New York, is a great way to explore census data and see specifically which parts of your community need extra outreach.

See the full map at www.censushardtocountmaps2020.us

Happy census-ing and thank you to all educators and community stakeholders who are engaging in get-out-the-count efforts. Our public schools depend on it!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 26, 2020

The education community saw a whirlwind of news this week as multiple pieces of guidance were released from the Texas Education Agency regarding the return to school in the fall, including a draft public health document that was posted online and promptly taken down. In this week’s wrap-up, the ATPE Governmental Relations team will fill you in on the latest happenings.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: It was gone in the blink of an eye. On Tuesday of this week, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) posted a draft public health guidance document, seemingly by mistake. By the time it was taken down, the guidance had been widely circulated in the education community, and many were not happy with the lack of attention it paid to the worsening coronavirus numbers in Texas. Featured in a story by ABC affiliate KLTV-7 in East Texas, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter said, “…while we would like for the state to give teachers and districts guidance in an expedient fashion, we’re glad that the draft put up yesterday is not the final product.”

As reported by the Texas Tribune, the guidance largely focused on suggesting health and safety practices to districts rather than mandating them, reflecting Commissioner of Education Mike Morath’s statement last week that it “will be safe” to return to in-person classes in the fall. Morath has since appeared to walk back that sentiment as the state’s coronavirus numbers have worsened, and the agency has said it is still soliciting feedback and developing the final guidelines. Unfortunately, this week’s developments provide little solace to educators feeling anxiety about returning to school since Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement last week that in-person classes will resume this fall.

ATPE continues to meet with legislators, other stakeholder groups, and policymakers at the local, state, and federal level to share our members’ feedback about the return to school. We released a statement on TEA’s draft health guidance document this week, in which we strongly urge the state to require stronger actions to ensure the safety of school employees and Texas students. ATPE also asks school districts to listen to their employees and the recommendations of medical experts regarding the impact of the pandemic in their area as they implement their back-to-school safety protocols. In the statement, ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes says, “Elected school boards and superintendents now face a difficult balancing act between preventing COVID-19 outbreaks and ensuring children are in the most productive learning environment possible—a physical classroom with an in-person teacher. They deserve to have support and actionable guidance from the state of Texas.” Read more about ATPE’s response in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.

Gov. Abbott gives a COVID-19 update on June 22, 2020

At the gubernatorial level, Gov. Abbott took several actions this week in response to a growing positivity rate for the coronavirus. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported here on Teach the Vote, Abbott strongly encouraged (but did not mandate) wearing masks in his press conference on Monday. By Thursday, the governor had decided to halt the state’s reopening plans, calling for cancellation of elective surgeries and by Friday, closing bars and reducing restaurant capacity to 50%.

Be sure to check the ATPE Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page, which offers answers to common educator questions related to returning to school in the fall, health and safety concerns, laws governing sick leave, and more. ATPE is continuing to update this page on a daily basis as new developments occur.


ELECTION UPDATE: Are you ready to vote? Get your hand sanitizer, stylus (a pencil with an eraser works), and mask ready! Early voting for the primary runoffs and the Texas Senate District 14 special election begins this coming Monday, June 29, and continues through July 10. Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughes reiterated this week that voters should aim to vote early to avoid election day crowds, utilize curbside voting if possible, and follow  minimum safety guidelines released by her office in May. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

ATPE reminds voters that a decrease in election poll workers has reduced the availability of polling sites in some areas. Click here to find early voting sites near you, and check your county’s election website for wait times during voting hours. The League of Women Voters vote411.org site has a personalized sample ballot generator and more! Lastly, check out candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. Thank you for your commitment to voting, and stay safe!


This week TEA (intentionally) posted guidance on remote learning and attendance/enrollment for the 2020-21 school year, which gave districts a better idea of how they may operate this fall and how they will be funded. The agency gave districts two main options for remote learning that are differentiated by whether or not a student receives real-time, teacher-lead instruction. Additionally, the models have different ways of documenting student engagement for purposes of taking attendance. The agency plans to hold districts harmless for attendance for the first two six weeks, but this may not be enough to provide stability to districts in such an uncertain situation. Read more on the remote learning guidance in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

TEA also updated several other coronavirus resources this week, including personal protective equipment (PPE) updates, updates to general support (family mental health flyers and new child care emergency rules), “Strong Start” planning and survey tools, several updates to waivers, finance, and grants (new answers to equitable services FAQ, remote learning, attendance, missed school days, and more), and school nutrition (new letter to families on the P-EBT application).


Betsy DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education will release a final interim rule on how public school districts must spend their federal emergency dollars under the CARES Act for equitable services provided to private schools. The rule, which is unofficially published for now, gives districts more flexibility than what was originally indicated by the department; but the new rule still misses the mark in its obvious intent to expand private school access to public school resources, using the department’s strained interpretation of the CARES act. Read more about what the new rule entails in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


Texas 2020 Census response rates by county as of June 25, 2020

The decennial U.S. Census is crucial to ensuring adequate funding and programming for roads, infrastructure, our public schools, and so much more. The current national response rate for the 2020 Census shows that 61.7% of households have responded to their census. At 56.3%, Texas doesn’t have the lowest response rate in the country, but we still have a long way to go.

The update/leave process is now underway, so you might see census workers in your neighborhood visiting households that have not responded yet. Find upcoming events, training, tool kits, and other resources at Texas Counts. Here are two things you can do to help Texas shine on the 2020 Census:

  1. Text or call your family (even those great aunts) and friends and ask them if they have filled out the census. Walk them through the process if not. We have until October 31 to self-respond!
  2. Pop a census reminder in student materials and family communications or staple to school lunch bags on a regular basis and make sure parents count even their youngest babies on the census.

DeVos issues rule on sending stimulus funds to private schools

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) issued a final interim rule today to address disdain over its previous guidance directing public school districts to share an unprecedented amount of their federal emergency relief funds with private schools. As we previously reported here on Teach the Vote, after Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos interpreted language in the Act to require public school districts to use a proportional share of their federal emergency funds to provide equitable services to all students in private nonprofit (PNP) schools within their district bounds.

The new rule provides flexibility to school districts by giving them options – either spend the CARES Act funds only on Title I schools in the district and be held to normal proportional share and operating standards of equitable services under Title I; or spend CARES Act funds on all students in the district and be held to the department’s controversial interpretation of equitable services that requires districts to set aside more money for private school services. Under this clarification by ED, if a school district only has Title I schools, equitable services would be business as usual. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) recently conducted webinars on how districts should implement the CARES Act, including information on equitable services, and TEA will likely share more information in the coming weeks related to this new rule.

The Trump administration’s broader interpretation as announced by DeVos in April differed from the conventional interpretation of equitable services under Title I of federal education law (which is what the CARES Act references), which only requires equitable services to be provided to eligible students (such as low-income students) who reside in the district’s bounds. DeVos’s interpretation, which turns the intent of equitable services into something inequitable, was met with consternation from education stakeholders and push-back from top members of Congress in both parties.

The new interim rule will become effective immediately once it is officially published and will be much more forceful than simple guidance, so states will have no choice but to follow it. There will be a public comment period of 30 days once the rule is published, and lawsuits and injunctions against the rule are likely. ATPE has been lobbying members of the Texas congressional delegation to guard against unintended uses of the federal stimulus funds, and we will also share our input on the interim final rule with federal officials. Stay tuned for updates here on Teach the Vote.

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.

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.

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.

Texas signals it may send federal K-12 dollars to private schools

This post has been updated from its original version to reflect new guidance issued by the Texas Education Agency on May 21, 2020. See details at the bottom.

Federal stimulus funding appropriated by Congress to help states and school districts deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic could find its way into the coffers of private schools and virtual education vendors. Even though public schools sorely need the federal emergency funding for their own students, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is calling for districts to set aside an unprecedented amount of their CARES Act funds for use by private schools. While other states have pushed back against that guidance, Texas officials seem more inclined to go along with Devos’s plan.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocated $13.5 billion for the K-12 Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund and another $3 billion for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund for K-12 and higher education needs. While both streams of funding are based to some degree on the number of low-income students, 90% of CARES Act funding aimed at K-12 schools will be distributed using Title 1 formulas. Second only to California, Texas is set to receive $1.29 billion in CARES Act ESSER funds and $307 million in GEER funds.

At the end of April, DeVos issued guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) directing school districts to use their federal emergency funding under the CARES Act to provide “equitable services” to all students attending private schools in their districts, which is a dramatic expansion of the population qualified to receive such services. As districts look to use these funds, questions remain as to whether Texas officials will press districts to adhere to ED’s questionable guidance.

“Equitable services” is a term that has existed in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) since its passage in 1965. It refers to a school district’s duty to a specific population of students — those who live in the attendance zone of a Title I school, are low achieving on the basis of multiple, educationally related, objective criteria, and attend a non-profit private school. After a consultation process and an equitable services agreement with a private school, districts must provide equitable services to eligible students. Services include such things as counseling, professional development for the students’ teachers, or other instructional services that would improve their academic outcomes. DeVos, a long-time supporter of private school vouchers, wants to expand the population of eligible students from those described above to cover all private school students, including those from wealthy areas or not at risk of poor educational outcomes.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

Under federal law, the proportion of funds districts set aside to pay for equitable services agreements is determined based on the number of eligible students living in the attendance zone of the public school district as a percent of total Title I eligible students. DeVos and her ED colleagues, however, have interpreted the CARES Act in such a way as to divorce it from the ESEA’s standard eligibility criteria for equitable services. The interpretation effectively requires public school districts to offer equitable services to all non-profit private school students living in the district. This includes private schools that have never participated in an equitable services agreement in the past. To illustrate the change, the ED guidance includes a simple proportional example in which 10% of the children in a school district’s attendance zone are enrolled in private schools, which would be eligible now to receive 10% of that school district’s ESSER and GEER funds.

The secretary’s privatization efforts are no surprise to the education community, which has witnessed numerous privatization and anti-public school proposals being pushed from the start of DeVos’s tenure, from partnering with Sen. Ted Cruz to promote his federal voucher legislation to her most recent call for microgrant vouchers using federal emergency funds. Unable to garner congressional approval for the Trump administration’s voucher ideas, DeVos appears to be circumventing the legislative process by exploiting perceived ambiguities in emergency legislation that was intended to help public schools address the coronavirus crisis.

An electronic board in the Texas House chamber showed legislators’ votes for a budget amendment prohibiting vouchers in 2017.

The decision on how to use federal emergency funds meant for public schools is now mostly up to governors, state education agencies, and local school districts. As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, ED’s parameters for implementation of the CARES Act give governors significant discretion over how their state will spend the stimulus money. There are fears that Gov. Greg Abbott will allow the state’s set-aside of federal emergency funds to be used for private school voucher or virtual voucher programs here in Texas. Such an executive action would fly in the face of numerous polls that have shown little appetite among Texas voters for private school vouchers, not to mention repeated decisions by Texas legislators to reject voucher bills.

We expect to hear soon, perhaps this week, more detail on how state officials intend to use Texas’s CARES Act funds. The Texas Tribune reported in an article published today that Texas will adhere to DeVos’s plan for making at least a portion of the stimulus money available for all private school students, according to the Texas Education Agency. Unlike the other states that have rejected DeVos’s guidance, it appears that Texas state officials are poised to direct school districts to adhere to the ED recommendation, or possibly even take state-level action to funnel CARES Act funds to private schools prior to sending the remaining money to public school districts.

Stay tuned to our blog and @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest as developments occur.


UPDATE as of May 21, 2020: The Texas Education Agency published new guidance on CARES Act funding for school districts on May 21, 2020. Confirming the state’s decision to abide by the direction from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to expand eligibility for equitable services, the agency explains in its FAQ document that school districts must use their stimulus funding to offer equitable services to all private nonprofit schools within the attendance zone. TEA adds that the district must provide the services, as chosen by the private school, to any of the private schools who opt to participate. Under this guidance, school districts would not be forced to send the stimulus money directly to the private school for its own discretionary use, but the districts would have to pay for services requested by the private school

U.S. Dept. of Education releases first K-12 coronavirus dollars

Ever since the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law on on March 27, 2020, education stakeholders have anxiously awaited the release of billions of federal dollars for education in the states. Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that governors can apply for the $3 billion in relief allocated by the CARES Act as the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund.

The funds can be used for both K-12 and higher education and are designed to be “highly flexible,” according to DeVos. Additionally, the very short, 15-page application for the funds is incredibly streamlined. It is essentially an agree-to-the-terms, sign, and submit format with a short questionnaire on how the state intends to use the funds for remote learning and technology.

Second only to California, Texas is set to receive one of the largest sums of money from this specific allocation – over $307 million. Sixty percent of that amount is based on our state’s population of individuals aged 5 through 24, and 40% of the funding is based on Texas students counted under the Title I, Part A formula. Gov. Greg Abbott can use the funds to provide emergency grants to school districts, institutions of higher education, or any other educational entities deemed essential for carrying out services to students to support continued instruction and operation. There are other provisions in the CARES Act, including $13.5 billion solely dedicated to K-12 education, that states are still waiting for more information on from the U.S. Department of Education.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and follow us on Twitter for updates. Also, educators can find up-to-date resources and information on the novel coronavirus, including more about the CARES Act, on the ATPE Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page.

Sunset report recommends TRS improve its member relations

Every state agency in Texas is subject to a period review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission. When the state creates a new agency, it usually sets a “sunset” date. This is the date when the agency will cease to exist unless the commission decides it should continue. Even agencies that are created by the Texas Constitution and cannot be abolished, such as the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas, undergo cyclical review by the Sunset Advisory Commission to determine ways they can improve and operate more efficiently.

The TRS Sunset Report was released last week, as we reported last Friday here on Teach the Vote. While much of the report addresses standard sunset fare such as integrating best practices and improving transparency and oversight, one issue identified in the report seems likely to resonate with TRS members above the rest: “TRS Needs to Repair Its Relationship With Its Members by Focusing on Their Needs.”

Excerpt from the 2020-21 Sunset Staff Report on TRS

Sunset commission staff points out in the report, “While TRS has a critical fiduciary duty to manage the $157 billion trust fund in the best interest of its members, the agency also has an important responsibility to ensure its members have the support and information needed to be secure in retirement.”

The report goes on to state that in the Sunset Advisory Commission staff’s estimation:

“TRS’ benefit counseling options do not meet members’ needs… TRS has not provided the information and support its members need to be secure in retirement, with overly complex explanations, insufficient retirement information, and inadequate counseling options… TRS also does not provide enough member-friendly financial planning information to ensure members understand what they need to prepare for retirement, such as the importance of additional savings beyond their TRS pension benefits.”

Sunset staff identify core issues and findings, as well as recommendations to address them. In considering sunset recommendations and weighing their merit, it is important to consider that implementing new programs and initiatives comes at a cost, mostly in additional manpower. For TRS, those costs are paid directly out of the same trust fund that provides member benefits.

The sunset staff’s first finding related to the issue of repairing TRS’ relationship with its members is that the agency “has not provided the information and support members need to adequately ensure they are secure in retirement.” With 1.6 million members, most of whom have limited or no access to Social Security benefits and little other retirement savings outside of their TRS pension, simply managing the TRS trust assets and administering pension payments is not good enough without taking a more holistic role in helping TRS members prepare for a secure retirement.

This is particularly true when considering that Texas is last in the country in the percentage of payroll our state puts toward teacher retirement. The state does not provide mandatory cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) on a regular basis and rarely provides funding for even one-time COLAs. Together, these legislatively driven policies mean that a TRS pension alone often will not provide a comfortable — or potentially even adequate — retirement over the duration of an average educator’s retired years.

This makes it even more important for Texas educators to understand the importance of having a supplemental retirement plan and to begin funding that plan early in their careers. Sunset staff point out that other state retirement systems, including the Employees Retirement System (ERS) for Texas state employees, “emphasize retirement planning is a shared responsibility between members and the system.” On the other hand, the report observes that TRS “puts the burden of navigating the complex retirement system primarily on its members.”

To make matters worse, TRS appears to have serious deficiencies communicating in the areas where it does currently engage with its members on retirement issues. Regarding the agency’s written materials, sunset staff found that TRS commonly uses legalistic language and overly complex explanations. While call times have come down significantly, TRS has not yet met its internal goal of answering 80% of calls within three minutes. More troubling, when agency staff do answer a call, internal policy prevents most TRS phone counselors from relaying basic information such as a member’s account balance or estimated retirement benefits — not to mention explanations of how systems such as TRS and Social Security are supposed to interact, which often leaves TRS members confused and frustrated.

To receive more complete information on their TRS benefits, a member must make an appointment — often months in advance — and then travel to Austin for an in-person consultation. Thankfully, TRS is looking into opening a limited number of field offices to do in-person consultations in the future so that some members will not have to make the trek to Austin. Why the agency is only now contemplating this option is somewhat baffling. (TRS has been offering member consultations via video conferencing during the current shutdown period that has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic.)

In order to address these issues, sunset commission staff recommend that the legislature require TRS to develop a communications and outreach plan to help members prepare for retirement. Sunset staff also recommend, with regard to other issues identified in the report, that TRS engage stakeholders and adopt a member engagement policy. Also, the legislature should consider incorporating  recommendations for required stakeholder engagement into the development of TRS’ communications plan.

Continuing on the issue of repairing its relationship with its members by focusing on their needs, the sunset report also recommends that TRS improve its communications with employers, improve  efforts to return contributions to inactive members, and adopt a member engagement policy to increase transparency on key decisions.

The commission staff found that many, if not most, employers of TRS members report that the system TRS uses to collect payroll and other information from them is cumbersome and “plagued with problems,” even three years after its launch. TRS should attempt to resolve the problems with its reporting system and do a better job of providing troubleshooting for employers that are trying to work around such problems until they are resolved.

Sunset staff also suggest that TRS provide employers and education service centers (ESCs) with training so that school districts and ESCs can help educate TRS members (school employees) on retirement and healthcare issues. While this sounds good in theory, as districts certainly have more access to their own employees than TRS ever will, I am skeptical of most districts’ desire to take on this additional responsibility. Prior to pursuing this recommendation, TRS should communicate with school district leaders to determine if districts would actually utilize any such training or tools TRS might create for them. Policymakers should also consider whether such a communications strategy might be duplicative or confusing for TRS members.

The sunset staff further recommend that TRS be more proactive in returning contributions to inactive members. However, additional effort on the agency’s part has an administrative and staffing cost. Therefore, in considering this sunset recommendation, TRS and the legislature should work to balance the needs of members leaving the retirement system with those who will remain in it.

Certainly, educators have a right to redeem the contributions they have put into the system if they leave it; however, they also bear some responsibility for being aware of their own money. TRS currently sends a refund application to members who have not requested a refund on their own when their membership automatically terminates after seven years of inactivity under Texas law.The report’s description of contributions being “forfeited” after seven years of inactivity could lead some to believe that former members lose the ability to redeem their contributions at some point. In fact, former TRS members remain eligible to withdraw their funds at any time, before or after the seven year mark.

As the sunset staff noted, federal law prohibits TRS from automatically returning funds to an inactive member. Should active and retired members bear the cost of additional staff, the use of credit reporting agencies, or sending out thousands of pieces of certified mail to track down long-time inactive members who have failed to claim their own money?

Finally, the sunset report recommends that TRS “adopt a member engagement policy to increase transparency on key decisions.” Generally speaking, this is an excellent idea. A policy that incorporates increased use of expanded stakeholder groups and a better methodology for clear and timely two-way communication could go along way toward improving TRS functions and educators’  perceptions of the agency. However, it is important that any legislative action around this recommendation stay focused on the broader context of improving overall communications between TRS and its members.

Unfortunately, legislators might end up focusing only on issues surrounding TRS’ abandoned decision to lease a particular property to house its investment division. If this happens, discussions could easily become mired in attempts to assign blame around this single, high-profile issue. Rather, the legislature should consider a more positive approach of trying to holistically improve TRS’ communications and engagement with and trust among its members.

No fooling, it’s Census Day!

We all know that April 1 is April Fool’s Day, but did you know that every 10 years it is also Census Day? Today we celebrate the counting of all people living in the United States in order to fulfill a requirement of the U.S. Constitution. Without a proper counting, it would be impossible to uphold the ideals of our representative democracy and all of the benefits, especially to public education, that come with it.

The 2020 Census faces a hurdle this year as the nation progressively shuts down due to the novel coronavirus. The U.S. Census Bureau has delayed the timeline and rollout of communications to individuals in order to keep human-to-human contact to a minimum. Fortunately, for the first time ever, the census questionnaire can be completed online. As of yesterday, the U.S. census response rate is 36.2% and the Texas response rate is 31.3%, with the majority of responses completed online. While Texas ranks quite low across the nation in response rate, we also have vast expanses of land and many households and individuals with limited internet access. Check out the map below to explore current census response rates in Texas and the nation.

See the full map at www.censushardtocountmaps2020.us

Though the timeline has been adjusted due to the pandemic, every household should receive an invitation by today. Likewise, the Census Bureau expects to get population counts to the president and to states on schedule, which are important for U.S. House seats and redistricting purposes. Unfortunately, those living in group quarters (college students, nursing homes, etc.), experiencing homelessness, or living in remote areas or areas without an address will be contacted or counted in person later in the year. This delay in timing to hand-delivery of packets and in-person counts could deal a hard hit to Texas, as a large portion of the state relies on this method of contact to be counted.

Initial contact modes for 2020 Census in Texas. (source)

The census is no joke! As explained in this earlier post on Teach the Vote, the 2020 Census is crucial to public education funding for low-income students and students with special needs, as well as many other federally-funded programs that help to support families and children. Census-statistic derived funding also helps to support entire communities as it drives dollars to public necessities such as roads and emergency services. While participating in online meetings and classes, virtual happy hours, and digital chats with friends and family, make sure to mention the census. By pushing online and completion by phone options, we can stay on track to get an accurate count.

Looking for more resources to use with your colleagues, friends, family, and students? The U.S. Census Bureau website is a great resource for learning about how to respond to the census. Additionally, the website has been updated to address new concerns such as college students who are now home due to school closures (they should be counted as if they were still at their college, FYI). For lesson content, educators can download free lesson materials and activities, created by teachers for teachers, on this site. Find more information and FAQs on responding to the census, check out this post previously featured on Teach the Vote.

Before we go and prank the dog (since there is nobody else around), please be aware of these reminders:

  • You don’t have to receive an invitation to go ahead and complete your census questionnaire online or by phone.
  • There is NO citizenship question.
  • Your response to the census, by law, cannot be shared with law enforcement and is only used for statistical purposes.

Happy Census-ing!