Category Archives: Funding

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.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Nov. 6, 2020

It’s been a long week, but the election isn’t the only thing happening. Catch up with these news highlights from ATPE Governmental Relations:


ELECTION UPDATE: This week, we celebrated a long-awaited Election Day for the 2020 general election. Despite record turnout, Texas ended up seeing less of a “blue wave” than many polls had anticipated. Republicans maintained control of the Texas House and Senate, the State Board of Education and statewide offices on the ballot such as Texas Supreme Court seats.

While results are still up in the air nationally for the presidential race, we know more about what the election results mean here at home in Texas. Read this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins for a preliminary analysis of the election, including what the results mean for the election of a new House Speaker. ATPE will provide additional analysis of the election results in Texas once ballot counts are more complete.

ATPE is grateful to all who turned out to vote in this historic election!


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Education Agency (TEA) made several updates to its Coronavirus Support and Guidance page this week. TEA’s public health guidance was updated to include instructions for when asymptomatic, test-positive individuals can return to school and a clarification that close contact can be 15 minutes over the course of the day rather than 15 consecutive minutes. This is a consequential change for teachers and students who are in intermittent close contact throughout the day.

TEA also updated its attendance and enrollment FAQs to allow districts to require a student to come back for in-person instruction (e.g., a remote student who is falling behind), following certain protocols. Additionally, as has been the case in TEA’s guidance on STAAR testing, students must be on-campus for STAAR testing. The agency has noted that the paper-testing window cannot be extended due to processing requirements. ATPE has been urging state and federal officials to waive testing requirements this year due to the pandemic.

ATPE also wrote a letter to Commissioner of Education Mike Morath this week asking the agency for more local help for schools that are struggling during the pandemic. Read more in in the next section.

Updates to the Texas Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard show that for the week ending October 25, the number of positive cases increased 10.8% among students and 7.7% among staff. We are not reporting on the data for the week ending in November 1 because the most recent week’s data has consistently been incomplete, typically showing a marked increase the following week as districts input new information. Positive test results are only included for students and staff who participate in on-campus instruction and activities. It is unclear whether these trends are reflective of upward trends in the state or an increase in students participating in on-campus instruction as the school year progresses.

Check out ATPE’s frequently updated COVID-19 FAQs and Resources for answers to common questions asked by educators. Find additional ATPE resources related to the pandemic on our professional learning portal, and don’t forget to visit Advocacy Central where ATPE members can contact their legislators and other state and federal officials to share concerns about the coronavirus response or other issues.


This week ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes wrote a letter to Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to complain about the state’s recent handling of local COVID-19 issues. “As the pandemic continues to affect all aspects of life, educators are disappointed with what they perceive as a lack of leadership shown by state officials and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) as school districts across the state grapple with very real challenges,” wrote Holmes.

The letter cites two examples of local challenges stemming from the pandemic that TEA has failed to adequately address. The first example is in El Paso, where soaring COVID-19 cases prompted local superintendents to ask the state for additional time for remote instruction. TEA released revised guidance in a Region 19 School Safe Zones plan that would allow El Paso school districts to have fewer students on their campuses. ATPE lauded the agency’s decision use objective, virus-related metrics at the local level in determining when it is safe to reopen campuses, which we have long recommended, but we also shared recommendations on making the Region 19 plan more effective and expanding it for statewide use. ATPE’s letter also criticized TEA for failing to enforce its own COVID-19 guidance when some school districts have refused to implement health and safety precautions or neglected to report COVID-19 case numbers on their campuses. TEA has declined to take any enforcement action, saying instead that local school boards should decide what to do in those cases.

Read more in this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell, and read ATPE’s November 2 letter to Commissioner Morath here.


With the election now (mostly) in the rear-view mirror, more attention is turning toward the upcoming 2021 legislative session and the outlook for public education funding. With a Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, the fate of funding and education policy will rest in the same hands (albeit with some new members and a new Speaker of the House) as during the 2019 legislative session.

The last legislative session saw major school finance reforms and an increase in public education funding that enabled a pay raise for many Texas teachers. But with the state facing a deficit, many have wondered if lawmakers will allocate resources to preserve the gains made last session. ATPE State Treasurer Jayne Serna and ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter spoke with KXAN news this week about school funding and the anxiety many educators feel about their pay.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins also spoke to the media this week about the need for increased resources to help public schools deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Mark spoke about the anticipated need for remediation of students as a result of learning losses during the time that the pandemic has disrupted the school environment. Extra help for struggling students will necessitate additional financial resources. Watch Mark’s Thursday interview with Fox 7 Austin here.

For more on the funding needs for public education, keep reading below.


The Legislative Budget Board (LBB) held joint hearings this week regarding legislative appropriations requests (LARs) that have been submitted recently by multiple state agencies, including the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Education Commissioner Mike Morath briefly outlined his agency’s LAR on Thursday, which he said seeks to maintain current funding levels with the exception of two new “exceptional” items aimed at addressing COVID-19 issues. The first exceptional item is meant to alleviate learning loss that has disproportionately impacted students from low-income backgrounds, through targeted teacher and student-focused interventions. The second exceptional item would restore the 5% budget cuts made to the Windham School District.

Officials with the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) also addressed the LBB at this week’s hearing. Executive Director Brian Guthrie testified that the TRS pension trust fund values decreased early in the pandemic, but they have since rebounded. TRS expects a 7.24% rate of return for this year. Guthrie also outlined his agency’s LAR, which includes requests for funding to hire additional TRS staff and open a regional office in El Paso.


 

 

State issues report on educator compensation increases under HB 3

Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released a new 2019-20 compensation report this week showing the pay increases teachers, counselors, librarians, and nurses received as a result of last session’s House Bill (HB) 3.

HB 3, authored in 2019 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), increased the funding for public schools through a variety of provisions, such as raising the Basic Allotment and increasing the state’s Minimum Salary Schedule (MSS). The bill required that at least 30% of a district’s funding increase go toward improving compensation, with 75% of that amount dedicated to raising the salaries of teachers, counselors, librarians, and nurses, prioritizing those with more than five years of experience.

HB 3 also increased the formulas used to calculate the MSS. While this change has not been talked about as much, it was for many educators as big, or even bigger, a driver of any compensation increase they saw as a result of the bill. Increases to the MSS also shifted some of the state’s costs associated with payroll, freeing up additional dollars in all districts that could be spent on compensation increases. It is not yet clear based on the information released in this week’s new report how much each of these provisions of HB 3 contributed to the overall increases in teacher compensation.

Across the state, teachers with 0-5 years of experience received an average raise of $3,839, and teachers with more than five years of experience received an average raise of $5,215. The report indicates higher average raises in rural regions and in smaller districts across the state.

Read the governor’s press release here and find individual district compensation data here. A more detailed analysis of the compensation increases will be forthcoming here on Teach the Vote.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 2, 2020

Here is this week’s recap of the latest education news from your ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATEATPE released a response to a press statement sent out by The Texas Education Agency (TEA) this week stating that the agency would extend the “hold harmless” funding period for school districts by six weeks to help mitigate the effects of enrollment drops across public schools in Texas. However, in a move that seems contradictory to the TEA’s acknowledgement last week of COVID-19 hotspots, the agency has tied a district’s access to the additional “protected” funding to whether a district offers in-person instruction. Read more about the development in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier, or in this article, quoting ATPE, by Aliyya Swaby of the Texas Tribune.

ATPE is here for educators. Be sure to check out our COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page and other resources:


ELECTION UPDATE: Are you registered to vote in the county you live in? Has your name recently changed? Have you been purged from the voter rolls? The deadline to register to vote is October 5, this coming Monday! Be sure to check your registration and learn how to register. Early voting begins October 13 and lasts for three weeks through October 30. Find more voting dates and reminders here.

The Texas Senate District 30 special election ended this week in a runoff. The date of the face-off between salon owner Shelley Luther and current state Representative Drew Springer (R-Muenster) has not yet been set by Gov. Greg Abbott. For more on this week’s election news, including the recent straight-ticket voting court battle and Gov. Abbott’s proclamation Thursday limiting mail-in ballot drop-off locations, read this informative blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

October is Voter Education Month, so let’s get learned! To learn about who makes education decisions (and which of these positions you can vote for), check out this post by our partners at the Texas Educators Vote coalition. Also, click here to learn about candidate forums being sponsored by Raise Your Hand Texas starting next week.


Sec. DeVos at a Feb. 2020 House Approp. subcommittee hearing

FEDERAL UPDATE: Remember when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asked public schools to spend an unheard-of amount of their Title-I-based federal emergency dollars on all students in all private non-profit schools within their boundaries? With DeVos’s decision last Friday to not appeal a recent court case that vacated her inequitable interpretation of the CARES Act, it seems the “equitable services” saga has come to an end. Read more about the saga, from start to finish, in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

 


After data discrepancies, this week the state adjusted numbers on the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Department of State Health Services (DSHS) dashboard that tracks COVID-19 cases in public schools. Updated every Wednesday, this week’s numbers show 1,490 new student cases and 819 new staff cases reported for the week ending in September 27. Compared to the previous week’s numbers for students and staff, both have changed slightly (2% decrease for students, 2.5% increase for staff). Read about the adjusted numbers in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


This week, ATPE responded to formal requests for information from both the House Public Education committee and the House Appropriations Article III subcommittee, which focuses on public K-12 and higher education. ATPE’s submissions covered educators’ concerns with COVID-19, STAAR testing and accountability, educator and student mental health and well-being, and ways the state can prioritize funding to maintain the public education gains made by the 86th Texas Legislature. Read more about ATPE’s submissions and our contribution to these committee’s interim work in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.


Are you retired or considering retiring? Be sure to check out these upcoming events to be in the know.

  1. The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) has opened registration for its 2020 TRS-Care virtual information sessions. These webinars are intended to help retired public education employees, or those considering retirement, learn more about the TRS-Care Standard and TRS-Care Medicare Advantage plans for 2021. They will also introduce the new providers that will administer TRS health plans starting Jan. 1, 2021. You can register for these webinars at trs.texas.gov/trs-care-events.
  2. This week, the Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) hosted a virtual townhall on teacher retirement issues with incumbent U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). The second TRTA townhall will feature Cornyn’s challenger, retired U.S. Air Force combat veteran M.J. Hegar on October 3 at 2:15 pm. Find more details on Cornyn’s townhall and register for Hegar’s townhall here.
  3. ATPE is partnering with RBFCU and the RBFCU retirement program on a webinar on October 7 at 5 pm about retirement planning for educators. Find the sign up information here.

TEA extends funding hold harmless period, ties to in-person instruction

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released a press statement today regarding how Texas public schools will be funded during the pandemic amid unstable enrollment.

TEA’s new funding mechanism will offer full funding to districts for a full 18 weeks, an extension of six weeks over the original 12 weeks of “hold harmless” offered by the agency, but with a significant strings attached. The hold harmless creates a cushion for districts that would otherwise lose funding due to unforeseen drops in enrollment because of the pandemic. Some districts have reported significant declines, especially in their prekindergarten and kindergarten grades, which are not mandatory in Texas.

The strings? In order for districts to receive the full funding for the 18 weeks held harmless, they must offer, or continue to offer, an in-person instructional option to all parents who request it. Additionally, the TEA release says that districts, “will be required to identify students who are missing from enrollment and determine their location.” Placing an additional administrative burden on already time and cash strapped districts of not only identifying students who were previously, but are not currently, enrolled in the district, but also of tracking down the whereabouts of students who are not currently enrolled.

As for future funding, the press release states, “TEA will address whether further funding adjustments for the second semester are needed based upon information and data gathered between now and January 2021.” As the Texas Legislature convenes in January, lawmakers will surely weigh in on school funding.

ATPE released a statement in response to the development from TEA, expressing gratitude for the change but regret that the agency has decided to tie funding to in-person instruction. In the statement, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter commented on the agency’s conflict with their own recent guidance on extending remote instruction.

“Since schools have opened around the country, the percentage of new COVID-19 cases in the school-aged population has increased, according to a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics,” said Exter. “Just last week, TEA itself recognized that there are currently existing COVID-19 hotspots in Texas that warrant a delay in returning to in-person classes.”

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.

 

ATPE submits interim testimony to House committees on COVID-19, school funding, and more

As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, several Texas legislative committees have solicited written feedback from stakeholders this year in lieu of taking public testimony at in-person hearings this year. House and Senate committees have been tasked by Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, respectively, with studying interim charges on a host of issues and offering recommendations to the 87th Texas Legislature that will convene in January 2021.

The House Public Education Committee recently issued formal requests for information on a handful of its interim charges. Today ATPE submitted the following responses, sharing our members’ feedback on these issues:

  • Interim Charge 1[A] asks the committee to monitor implementation of House Bill (HB) 3, the comprehensive school finance bill passed in 2019 that resulted in compensation increases for many teachers. In response to this charge, the committee is focusing specifically on “pay raises districts have provided to staff and the various approaches adopted to differentiate these salary increases according to experience.” ATPE’s submission highlights the importance of elevating educators’ pay as a means of raising the prestige of the profession. We are recommending that lawmakers ensure funding is in place to maintain educator salary increases under HB 3 and encourage districts to distribute any additional funding in the form of permanent raises. ATPE also shares our feedback on ongoing implementation of the bill’s merit pay program known as the Teacher Incentive Allotment.
  • With Interim Charge 1[B], the committee seeks feedback on school accountability, assessment, interventions, and school district-charter partnerships. ATPE’s submission includes general observations about the state’s A-F accountability rating system and various bills passed in recent years that have affected student testing and the manner in which school districts and campuses are rated. We highlight our concerns about the use of data derived from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) and other tests during the 2020-21 school year while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the educational environment.
  • Interim Charges 1[C], 1[D], 1[E], and 1[F] all sought input on school safety and mental health initiatives spurred by legislation in recent years. ATPE submitted feedback on these charges emphasizing the heightened importance of health and safety measures being prioritized amid the pandemic, the need for continued funding of these initiatives, the vital role of school counselors and other mental health professionals employed in public schools, and the recommendation that classroom teachers be involved in task forces that are studying mental health issues for students.
  • The committee solicited information about digital learning with its Interim Charge 2. ATPE’s response answers the committee’s questions about barriers to providing a digital learning environment for all students and determining where gaps exist in internet coverage.
  • The committee also sought information for an interim study of COVID-19. ATPE’s submission for this interim charge addresses very specific question posed by the committee: “Are Texas public schools ensuring the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff during the 2020 Fall Semester? ATPE shares insights gleaned from a member survey we conducted last week through the Advocacy Central section of our website on this topic, along with concerns we have heard from educators dealing with the pandemic. Safety protocols, workload impacts, educator retention, and the difficulty of adhering to rigid high-stakes testing requirements amid the pandemic are some of the concerns highlighted in our written input.

The House Appropriations Committee similarly solicited written input from stakeholders regarding its interim charges. ATPE submitted comments today to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Article III, which oversees the state budget for public education. Our input focused on the costs of implementing HB 3 and areas where the state could save money during the COVID-19 pandemic, including halting charter expansions and pursuing a second-year waiver of federal testing and accountability requirements.

Guest post: Schools need reliable and consistent funding

Laura Yeager

COVID-19 has wrought unprecedented challenges on American society including on our public education system. Not least among those challenges is funding. In the following guest post, public education advocate and parent Laura Yeager shares her opinion on why the state needs to do a better job of ensuring that Texas public schools have reliable and consistent funding.

Schools need reliable and consistent funding

By Laura Yeager on behalf of Just Fund It TX

Communities, families, and teachers throughout Texas are having the same conversation: What does back to school look like this year, and how do we balance students’ learning and parents’ need for childcare with health and safety? We know that there are no easy answers. But we do know that every solution, in every part of our state, will require steady and reliable school funding.  We also know that current Texas Education Agency (TEA) policies put that funding at risk. As we talk about the start of the school year, we also need to talk about how the TEA plans to allocate money for our schools. Their current plans threaten that funding. We need to act now to ensure that every Texas school has the money it needs.

In the weeks ahead, 5.4 million Texas students are expected to start the new school year in some form or fashion. Navigating this moment will require flexibility and ingenuity, based on good public health data, thoughtful discussion about what’s best for students and teachers, and enough local control to factor in different rates of disease in different Texas communities. Thoughtful plans are not possible without knowing how much funding is available.

While some might assume that costs will drop if some students will be learning from home, or if kids are in the classroom only part of the year, the opposite is true. A study from the Association of School Business Officials estimates that on average, it will cost districts an additional $485 per student to provide PPE, increase cleaning, transport students safely, and staff new health monitoring systems. This estimate does not include other essentials, like training teachers for effective virtual learning or ensuring that students have the tech needed to connect those virtual classrooms. Everything about education in the age of COVID costs more, not less.

For months, district leaders, teachers, and parents have been following the latest guidance from the Texas Education Agency. Now, with back to school days away, confusion has turned to alarm. Many TEA announcements about how schools will open and how the state will fund districts have been confusing or contradictory. More than once, a key statement made one day is reversed soon after. Most recently, TEA has issued rules that force districts to choose between plans that ensure funding, and plans that ensure the best balance of education for students and safety for students and staff. Districts know that this year, and every year, funding depends on following TEA’s rules. But that’s impossible when some of those rules are contradictory, unclear, and change from day to day. We are asking Governor Greg Abbott to cut through the noise and commit to funding Texas schools at a hold-harmless level based on last year’s pre-COVID attendance levels for the entire school year.

Last spring, TEA recognized that reliable attendance figures would be hard to capture in the midst of a pandemic, and chose a system that would ensure reliable and steady funding for every Texas district – a “hold harmless” plan that guaranteed not to cut funding below the last available attendance numbers. Right now, TEA has committed to holding districts harmless for the first 12 weeks of school – with the caveat that if districts choose to go fully remote for longer than 8 weeks and don’t receive TEA approval for doing so, they would  lose funding. Our schools and communities need to know funding will hold steady all year long.

We urge Governor Abbot to direct his Commissioner of Education, Mike Morath, to commit to funding Texas public schools for the entire 2020-2021 school year at a hold-harmless level, based on last year’s attendance levels. Cutting funding partway through the year based on attendance or task completion risks our students’ health, our teachers’ jobs, and our communities’ safety. More than 5.4 million children are counting on Texas to provide the public education they are promised under the Texas Constitution.

This article is signed by the following Just Fund It TX parent and community leaders:
Laura Yeager, Austin ISD
Alison Alter, Austin ISD
Lynn Boswell, Austin ISD
Anette Carlisle, Amarillo
Jennifer Collins, Denton ISD
Jill Dutton, Van ISD
Jennifer Moren Cross, Frisco ISD
Sharon Dworaczyk, Katy ISD
Heather Eichling, San Antonio ISD
Kim Farbisz, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD
Heather Golden, Houston ISD
Kristi Hassett, Lewisville ISD
Brooke Meabon, Alamo Heights ISD
Cherie Moeller, Keller ISD
Heather Sheffield, Eanes ISD
Anne Smith, Lovejoy ISD
Cameron Vickrey, North East ISD
Lauren White, Lake Travis ISD

Just Fund It TX is a group of parents, students, and citizens from around the state concerned about adequate funding for Texas public schools. A condensed version of this op-ed was previously published Aug. 20, 2020, by the San Antonio Express-News.

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.

Another round of federal stimulus inching closer to reality

Another round of federal relief money is one step closer to becoming a reality, as Republicans in the U.S. Senate on Monday presented their proposal two months after Democrats passed theirs out of the U.S. House of Representatives. With substantial differences between these latest two COVID-19 relief proposals, however, there is much work to be done to negotiate a plan that can pass out of both chambers.

The $1 trillion Republican proposal, dubbed the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act, includes $105 billion for education, $70 billion of which would go to K-12 schools specifically. However, two-thirds of that funding, roughly $47 billion, would only flow to schools that reopen for in-person instruction and would not be available to schools that only offer virtual instruction in response to high levels of local COVID-19 infections. Schools that delay in-person instruction for safety reasons could receive some of the remaining one-third of the funding that would be split among all schools, regardless of whether they open in-person or through distance methods. Similar to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed by President Trump on March 27, the new proposal also includes $5 billion for state governors to spend on K-12 and higher education.

Even though states would receive funds under the Republican HEALS Act proposal based proportionately on their previous school year’s Title I funding, states would have to reserve a proportional portion of the federal funding for private schools. Private schools receiving federal funds would not be subject to the same requirements under the GOP proposal as public schools. The new proposal does not include a requirement to provide “equitable services” to private schools under the new funding as was included in the CARES Act.

The Republican proposal also includes immunity from liability intended to shield school districts and businesses that reopen amid the pandemic from lawsuits by employees or customers who are exposed to the virus or become infected as a result.

Another major headline of the Senate plan includes lower monthly unemployment payments. Payments would decrease from the current $600 per week down to $200, which could be combined with state unemployment benefits for up to 70% of a person’s wages before losing their job due to the pandemic. Those unemployment payments, created by the CARES Act in March, are scheduled to expire this weekend unless extended by Congress. The GOP plan would extend the moratorium on evictions, a provision from the first CARES Act that has already lapsed, and would provide another round of stimulus checks using the same criteria as under the CARES Act. Each individual earning up to $75,000 per year would receive $1,200, and decreasing amounts would be paid to those earning up to $99,000.

The Republican plan is part of a larger package of legislation that includes a stand-alone voucher bill filed by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and cosponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would create a permanent program providing up to $5 billion in tax credits for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations (SGO) that transfer public school dollars to private institutions. This is a perennial proposal advocated by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in her quest to privatize education. The new voucher bill would also direct emergency education funding meant for public schools to SGOs for private use. Expansion of these voucher programs remains a top priority of the Trump administration and Secretary DeVos, as they continue using the pandemic to promote these proposals despite repeated failures to pass them through the Congress.

The House, under Democratic leadership, passed the $3 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act back in May. The House bill would provide $90 billion directly to education, including $58 billion for all K-12 schools. Unlike the Senate plan, the House bill provides a separate $950 billion in emergency funding to state and local governments aimed at preventing budget shortfalls that could lead to layoffs of teachers and other public employees.

The HEROES Act would also provide another round of stimulus checks to individuals, and would additionally raise the payout for each dependent to $1,200 up from $500 under the CARES Act. The bill would extend the full $600 weekly unemployment payments into next year, extend the suspension of student loan payments, provide up to $10,000 in student debt relief, and prohibit Secretary DeVos from imposing restrictions on populations of students who receive emergency financial relief under the CARES Act.

Each of these proposals represents the opening bid in negotiations between the two chambers and the Trump administration. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has expressed a desire to vote on the Senate bill before members leave for recess August 7. The Senate bill was originally expected to be unveiled last week, but was reportedly delayed amid ongoing negotiations with the White House, which supports the Senate’s proposal. House Democrats passed their bill in May, but Senate Republicans ignored it and declined to take action on another relief package until recently.

Federal relief for schools would come at a critical time as the 2020-21 school year begins. Regardless of whether instruction is being delivered virtually or in person, school buildings across Texas will once again fill with teachers and staff, necessitating costly safety protocols. Virtual instruction poses added technology costs to districts, which are already looking at potential budget shortfalls due to declining tax revenues caused by the pandemic-induced recession.

Texas is estimated to face a $4.6 billion budget shortfall by the end of 2020, and the 2021 legislative session is already expected to feature drastic cuts in state spending. Federal relief dollars would go a long way in reducing the pressure to cut education spending here in Texas. House Democrats, Senate Republicans, and the president all will have to approve any additional relief package from Congress.

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!