Category Archives: Guest Post

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.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas schools can stay closed if local health officials order it

Texas classrooms can stay closed this fall without losing state funding if local health officials order it

Students outside North Forest High School in Houston. Photo credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Local public health officials will be able to keep Texas schools closed for in-person instruction this fall without risking state education funding, a Texas Education Agency spokesperson confirmed to The Texas Tribune Wednesday.

Last week, the state’s education agency released an order requiring schools to open their buildings to in-person instruction five days a week for all students who want it. The order gives districts a transition period of just three weeks at the start of the year to hold classes virtually and get their safety plans in place before allowing students back on campuses. After the three-week transition, districts that stay entirely virtual would risk losing funding.

But TEA officials confirmed Wednesday they would continue to fund school districts if local health officials order them to stay closed, as long as they offer remote instruction for all students.

Gov. Greg Abbott told a Houston television station this week that the state would ease up on stringent reopening requirements, as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations skyrocket across Texas, and would give school districts more flexibility to stay virtual for longer than three weeks. Public health officials warn that reopening school buildings in areas with a lot of community spread will exacerbate the virus’ impact on those communities.

Even before Abbott’s statement, some local public health officials had moved to mandate that schools remain closed at least through Labor Day, saying it would be unsafe to reopen school buildings while the pandemic was raging. El Paso and Laredo health officials were among the first to issue those mandates last week. And Tuesday, Travis County health officials ordered all public and private schools to delay on-campus instruction at least until Sept. 7.

It was unclear last week whether Abbott or the TEA would let those orders stand.

The wavering guidance has confused and frustrated teachers and parents wanting to know what the upcoming fall will mean for themselves and their families. A University of Texas and Texas Politics Project poll showed recently that 65% of Texans said it was unsafe for children to go back to school. And teachers unions are encouraging their members to look for legal avenues to stay home, including resigning or retiring early, instead of being forced back into classrooms while cases are rising.

A TEA spokesperson told the Tribune that school superintendents and school boards cannot make the decision to stay entirely virtual for longer than three weeks without a mandate from public health officials.

Some school districts, including San Antonio Independent School District, are moving their start dates to later in August and then starting their school years entirely virtually for three weeks.

The TEA is expected to roll out revised guidance on reopening schools in the upcoming days.


Texas classrooms can stay closed this fall without losing state funding if local health officials order it” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/07/15/texas-schools-closed-public-health/.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott mandates face masks in most counties

Abbott previously resisted calls for such an order and at one point banned local governments from requiring masks. First-time violators will be issued a warning, though repeat offenders could be fined up to $250.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest order requires Texans living in counties with more than 20 COVID-19 cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while in a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. Photo credit: Ricardo B. Brazziell/Pool/American-Statesman

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide mask mandate Thursday as Texas scrambles to get its coronavirus surge under control.

The order requires Texans living in counties more than 20 coronavirus cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while in a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. But it provides several exceptions, including for children who are younger than 10 years old, people who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, people who are eating or drinking, and people who are exercising outdoors.

The mask order goes into effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday. It immediately applies to all Texas counties, but counties with 20 or fewer active cases can be exempted — if they opt out. County judges must submit an application to be exempted to the Texas Division of Emergency Management. TDEM will list the counties that have opted out on its website.

Later Thursday, in an interview with Univision in Dallas, Abbott also signaled he might be rethinking plans to open the state’s public schools for in-person classes this fall, after state officials said last month that it would be safe.

“If COVID is so serious, it may mean that students are having to learn from home through a distance learning program, something like the use of Zoom or FaceTime or other strategies where a teacher in real time will have the means to speak with a student, a student will be able to speak with other students, and it will replicate the class setting as much as possible,” he said.

State officials have delayed the release of public health guidelines for in-person instruction as cases have continued to rise. But a draft version last month showed they were planning to leave safety regulations up to individual school districts instead of issuing mandates.

The mask order represents a remarkable turnaround for Abbott, who has long resisted a statewide requirement, even as the coronavirus situation has gotten worse than ever over the past couple of weeks in Texas. When he began allowing Texas businesses to reopen this spring, Abbott prohibited local governments from punishing people who do not wear masks. As cases began to rise earlier this month, he clarified that cities and counties could order businesses to mandate that customers wear masks.

In recent days, Abbott had held firm against going further than that, saying he did not want to impose a statewide requirement that may burden parts of the state that are not as badly affected by the outbreak.

Along with the mask order, Abbott on Thursday also banned certain outdoor gatherings of over 10 people unless local officials approve. He had previously set the threshold at over 100 people. The new prohibition also goes into effect Friday afternoon.

Abbott’s latest moves come ahead of Fourth of July weekend, which has raised concerns about larger-than-usual crowds gathering while the state grapples with the virus spike.

Abbott also released a video message Thursday, saying the latest coronavirus numbers in the state “reveal a very stark reality.”

“COVID-19 is not going away,” he said. “In fact, it’s getting worse. Now, more than ever, action by everyone is needed until treatments are available for COVID-19.”

In the video, Abbott reiterated his resistance to returning the state to the roughly monthlong stay-at-home order he issued in April. He said Texans “must do more to slow the spread without locking Texas back down.” He also said his latest announcement is “not a stay-at-home order” but “just recognizes reality: If you don’t go out, you are less likely to encounter someone who has COVID-19.”

“We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast there is little margin for error,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s announcement came a day after the number of new daily cases in Texas, as well as hospitalizations, reached new highs again. There were 8,076 new cases Wednesday, over 1,000 cases more than the record set the previous day.

Hospitalizations hit 6,904, setting a new record for the third straight day. The state says 12,894 beds are still available, as well as 1,322 ICU beds.

Abbott has been particularly worried about the positivity rate, or the share of tests that come back positive. That rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has jumped above its previous high of about 14% in recent days, ticking down to 13.58% on Tuesday. That is still above the 10% threshold that Abbott has long said would be cause for alarm amid the reopening process.

First-time offenders of Abbott’s order will receive a written or oral warning. Those who violate the order a second time will receive a fine of up to $250. Every subsequent violation is also punishable by a fine of up to $250. The order specifies that no one can get jail time for a violation.

After listing several exceptions to the mask requirement, Abbott’s order specifies that at least one group of people is not exempted from the order: “any person attending a protest or demonstration” with over 10 people who cannot socially distance. Like other states, Texas has seen massive protests since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody.

Democrats and local officials had been demanding that Abbott institute such a requirement, and the state party said his new order was “far too little, far too late.”

“This is unacceptable,” party spokesman Abhi Rahman said in a statement. “Governor Abbott continues to lead from behind rather than implementing preventive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”

When asked at a Thursday afternoon press conference about Abbott’s new order, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg simply said, “It’s about time.”

“We will count this one as a good step that the governor is taking,” Nirenberg added.

Nirenberg was speaking alongside Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and the leaders of the region’s main hospitals when news of the order broke. Wolff was the first local official to order businesses to require their customers to wear masks.

“Now with the order by the governor, that’s going to help take a lot of pressure off the businesses,” he said.

But Abbott’s mask requirement is likely to further anger a small but vocal group of fellow Republicans in the Texas Legislature who have grown increasingly frustrated with his executive actions. Health experts say masks help slow the spread of the coronavirus, but some conservatives have railed against mask mandates, saying they impose on people’s freedoms.

One intraparty Abbott antagonist, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, vented after Abbott’s announcement Thursday that the governor “FAILED TO MENTION” the mask mandate during a conference call with legislators.

“What a piece of crap!” Stickland tweeted. “The man thinks he is KING!”

State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, tweeted that lawmakers “need a special session now so legislators can pass laws, not Abbott.”

This is Abbott’s latest set of moves aimed at trying to get the virus surge under control in Texas. Six days ago, he ordered bars closed and reduced the permitted restaurant occupancy to 50%, among other things.

Juan Pablo Garnham and Aliyya Swaby contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/07/02/texas-mask-order-greg-abbott-coronavirus/.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas schools can hold summer classes, but students can’t be required to attend in person

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
May 18, 2020

A classroom in Cactus Elementary School in Cactus on Jan. 28, 2020.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that Texas school districts can offer in-person summer school. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Texas public school districts may offer summer school in their classrooms as early as June 1, but they cannot require any students to attend in person.

In April, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered all school buildings closed through the end of the academic year, but he announced Monday that districts could offer in-person summer school. The decision came as part of his second wave of the economic jumpstart during the coronavirus pandemic, with parents struggling to figure out how to work and take care of their children.

The state is encouraging school districts to prioritize making on-campus summer school available for their most vulnerable students, including students with disabilities who cannot learn virtually, homeless students and students with significant academic gaps. Many of those students were left behind during the academic year as school districts struggled to ramp up online instruction quickly once the pandemic hit.

School districts must use their best judgment, based on the local spread of the new coronavirus, to decide whether to offer summer school on campus, according to guidance from the Texas Education Agency issued Monday. And they cannot make in-person attendance mandatory, even for students who need to attend summer school to move to the next grade.

Staff members or students who go back to school buildings this summer will experience a marked change from the typical summer school. Teachers will have to take students’ temperatures every day, students will be supervised while washing their hands for 20 seconds twice a day, and dividers will separate student desks.

Any students and staff members who attend summer school in person must stay 6 feet apart and cannot meet in groups larger than 11. School districts are encouraged to stagger school start and end times to reduce the number of students walking close together in the hallways, and parents are encouraged to stay outside to pick up and drop off their children.

Students cannot attend assemblies, go on field trips or gather in groups outside of individual classes unless 30 feet can be kept between groups. A positive COVID-19 case in a school will require a two-week closure of the classes that were exposed to the sick person. School gyms, weight rooms and indoor workout facilities cannot reopen, but students can participate in some outdoor sports as long as they follow Department of State Health Services guidance.

School districts have been writing up back-up plans for their back-up plans as they wait to see how and whether the coronavirus continues to spread this summer and spring.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/05/18/texas-students-cant-be-required-attend-summer-school-classes-person/. “Texas schools can hold summer classes, but students can’t be required to attend in person” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Guest Post: One parent’s questions about TEA’s optional assessments

Kristi Hassett

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced recently the implementation of optional standardized end of year (EOY) and beginning of year (BOY) assessments as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One concerned parent shares her concerns about the testing.


I am thankful the Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath advocated in March to remove the state assessment requirements for our Texas students this school year. I also appreciate the information posted by TEA to districts and parents during this pandemic. I was surprised the TEA released a statement on May 7th that parents and schools could choose to give their students a version of STAAR. TEA suggested these End of Year (EOY) assessments would provide a better understanding of the progress their students have made this year.

My primary concern is how the TEA will use the data to research the statewide educational impact of the current crisis to prepare for the next school year. This leads me to multiple questions. How valid will this limited dataset be? How will this data be used? If only a small portion of students participate, how will it provide any insight into the statewide education impact on students? Drawing group or statewide decisions, conclusions, or recommendations on this limited data is problematic at best and potentially harmful at worst.

Another issue with using these optional tests is the TEA will continue to post-equate the EOY assessments. Post-equating is a statistical process, rather than an educational analysis, used to adjust scores after the students take the test so TEA can compare tests from year to year. How can TEA use such a limited student dataset to scale the scores to compare against previous tests?

Another concern I have is Texas Partnership campuses (Senate Bill 1882), which are controlled by charters and universities, may choose to administer the EOY assessments even if the district chooses not to administer these tests to its students.

My last concerns surround the TEA’s new, optional Beginning of Year (BOY) assessment for next school year. Districts are only allowed to benchmark the state’s assessment twice a year; thus, how is the TEA using all of these assessments – the EOY, BOY and Interim assessments? Also, the TEA has said these BOY assessments are diagnostic. Knowing STAAR questions have multiple embedded TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills learning standards), how is the TEA going to provide results to teachers and schools to identify deficits in students? The results provided after STAAR are not diagnostic.

Everyone is working very hard during this pandemic to support students educationally and mentally. Rather than taking a very small, possibly invalid dataset of student assessment to prepare students for next school year, I think the TEA should broadcast known strategies schools have used in the past to create authentic, effective learning for students.


Kristi Hassett is a mother of two public school graduates and another current public school student in Texas. An elected school board trustee, Hassett also serves on the board of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessments (TAMSA), a group of Texas parents concerned about the overuse and potential abuse of Texas’ standardized testing regime.

From The Texas Tribune: “Between 0 and 100%”: Texas schools weigh the odds of students returning this fall

It’s way too early to know how COVID-19 cases will trend over the next few months, but school leaders are trying to draw up preliminary plans for bringing students back to classrooms.

A student walks down the hallway at Cactus Elementary School. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

“Between 0 and 100%”: Texas schools weigh the odds of students returning this fall” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texas schools might start bringing students back to classrooms on staggered schedules in the fall. Or they might have some students show up at school while others continue their coursework online.

Or they might stay completely virtual until 2021.

While it’s much too early to pin down all the permutations of how and where COVID-19 might remain a health risk come August, Texas superintendents are starting to game out how public education will look in the fall.

Since Gov. Greg Abbott closed all schools in late March, school districts have cobbled together combinations of online learning and old-school written worksheets handed out to students without reliable internet. The evolving, makeshift system has raised concerns about students without computers being left out and overwhelmed parents struggling with their new roles as home school teachers.

Some superintendents worry that students will fall ever further behind the longer school buildings are closed. And they know they must improve remote teaching in case the return date ends up being even further off than projected.

They’re watching the number of cases rise and fall in their regions as the state slowly begins allowing some businesses to reopen and some public health experts warn against sudden moves. They’re stocking up on Chromebooks and hard-to-find Wi-Fi hotspots.

And they’re cautiously rolling out information to staff and parents as they weigh the health risks of bringing kids back too early.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has been holding biweekly phone calls with superintendents across the state to discuss plans, but no official decisions have been made.

“The bigger question is: How can you plan to be nimble so that if the situation changes quickly, you can adjust to the change either way, either toward bringing kids into buildings, or perhaps once you bring kids into building, having to put them back into distance learning environments?” said Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio.

“If you ask me today, what’s the percentage chance we come back in August? I have no idea. Somewhere between 0 and 100%.”

About half the students in the 100,000-student school district are economically disadvantaged, and 12% are receiving special education services. Woods and his staff are considering bringing back those students least likely to be served virtually in the fall while keeping the other half in distance learning as a way to reduce exposure.

But that method of splitting students up is less possible for districts like small Hearne ISD, outside of College Station, where 96% of students are economically disadvantaged, meaning pretty much all are hurting while school buildings are closed.

Superintendent Adrain Johnson is stocking up on Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots to prepare to start virtual schooling more smoothly in August than it began in March. And he’s asking the regional education service center to train teachers to better educate students across a screen.

Most teachers and even some students in Hearne ISD commute into town from elsewhere in the Brazos Valley, making the decision to return to school even more complex.

If the local health authorities permit schools to open their buildings, Johnson is considering spreading individual classes out across multiple classrooms and using technology to broadcast lessons.

“We just don’t know, so it’s hard to plan definitively,” he said.

Even details for graduation and summer school are up in the air for some districts, though the end of the school year is quickly approaching.

Worried about staff and students burning out, Johnson said Hearne ISD is probably going to take June off and return for summer school after July 4 to “hit it hard with any kid that we know needs help, either those kids struggling before this ever happened or the ones that have struggled since.”

Free meal distribution, however, will not be paused, he said.

Sunnyvale ISD, in suburban Dallas, is planning to reopen Aug. 19, but Superintendent Doug Williams knows COVID-19 cases might resurge in the summer. His administrative team is considering staggering students in the morning and afternoon, or even on different days of the week, so that all students can get direct contact with their teachers.

“I don’t know if you can continue in an online format and have the same rigor, the same depth of instruction that we believe is necessary,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/05/04/texas-schools-reopening-coronavirus/.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas’ coronavirus strategy is a patchwork of different local rules

While other states fighting coronavirus enforce widespread closures, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott goes with a patchwork system

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has employed a mostly decentralized approach, giving cities, counties, school districts and universities the discretion to respond to the new coronavirus however they see fit. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, states across the country are increasingly taking a more heavy-handed approach to contain the new strain of coronavirus — shuttering schools, bars and restaurants and deploying state militaries.

Nearly 30 states have mandated temporary school closures, for example, with some orders applying even to private institutions. In Texas, though, only half of school districts have ordered students to stay home after spring break.

That’s because Gov. Greg Abbott has clung so far to a mostly decentralized approach, giving cities, counties, school districts and universities the discretion to respond to the virus however they see fit. The result has been a patchwork of local policies that differ from county to county, with leaders setting various limits on public gatherings and other putting in place other regulations meant to encourage “social distancing.”

Over the weekend, Abbott said he was confident that cities will make the best decisions for their communities. And he appeared to double down on that approach Monday at a news conference in San Antonio, where he praised Mayor Ron Nirenberg for opening the state’s first drive-through testing facility and choosing to go well beyond almost every other Texas city in banning public gatherings of more than 50 people, following recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Those are smart strategies that will prove effective,” he said.

To be sure, Abbott has taken notable steps to combat the spread of the virus. Last week, he declared a state of disaster — as every state has — and directed state agencies to provide flexible and remote work options to employees. He restricted visitation to high-risk facilities including nursing homes, hospitals, day cares and jails. Amid panic buying, he waived regulations on the trucking industry to streamline the flow of goods to depleted grocery stores. And on Monday, amid bipartisan pressure from state lawmakers, he waived standardized testing requirements for public schools, saying it would be impossible to administer the STAAR tests as planned given the closure of more than 560 districts and charter schools beyond spring break.

Overall, though, Abbott’s cumulative actions stop short of those taken in many other states, including neighboring Arkansas, New Mexico and Louisiana, whose governors shuttered schools across the board, mobilized their militaries and implemented travel restrictions.

According to the National Governors Association, about 20 state leaders have activated their national guards and limited travel of state employees or citizens, and about 17 have passed legislation to divert state funds to the response effort. (Abbott promised Monday that federal money is on the way.) More than a dozen have also ordered restaurants and bars to close to in-house patrons — a policy various cities and counties, including Houston and Dallas, enacted Monday.

Local decision-making

Abbott’s office, asked about the local protocols, said Monday that cities and counties “have done a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities” and nodded to how helpful local decision-making can be in a state as large as Texas. That approach is in stark contrast to Abbott’s recent attitude toward local control. In the past few years, he has routinely sparred with mayors and backed several laws that chipped away at the power of cities and counties.

“Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said. “These cities and counties are following the proper protocol and guidance that they are receiving from their local health departments.”

Abbott’s push for local decision-making comes as the nation’s top infectious disease expert said the most effective way to stop spread of COVID-19 may be a 14-day nationwide shutdown.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of the new coronavirus, said Sunday that “Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.”

On Sunday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told superintendents and lawmakers that decisions on extended school closures would be left up to locals.

That means that policies may differ even among neighboring school districts.

Public-health experts said such a patchwork approach can be confusing and make it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of containment policies. They also said governors have sufficient authority to ensure such consistency during emergencies.

It “makes people feel that they don’t really know what’s going on and that the people who are in charge don’t really know what’s going on,” said Mary Bassett, director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

Leaders should be consistent not only in policy, said Bassett, who was New York City health commissioner during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, but also in messaging, “otherwise people aren’t confident that they’re being given good advice.”

She noted that President Donald Trump has largely deferred to governors on COVID-19 response strategy.

Because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention health care, it’s an authority that largely resides with the states, and some have more decentralized approaches than others, said Claire Standley, a researcher with the Center for Global Health Science and Security and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Georgetown University.

That can be a good thing, particularly when the federal government’s response is inadequate, Standley said, noting that New York was able to expedite COVID-19 testing before federal guidelines were finalized.

But having many different response policies across a state might make it difficult to manage the crisis, too.

“I honestly think it’s more about coordination between central level and peripheral level and having that trust in place,” she said. “If people don’t trust their authorities, they’re not going to comply with regulations, which is largely what we’ve been seeing so far with a few exceptions.”

Elected officials respond

Abbott has also been in frequent contact with members of the Texas Legislature and other local officials since the spread of the virus reached a fever pitch last week. The governor’s office has organized a number of conference calls already in an attempt to get state lawmakers and local players on the same page as new information becomes available.

Many Republicans and some local officials have lauded Abbott’s decentralized strategy so far, thanking his office for his leadership approach, giving local governments the flexibility to operate as they see fit on most matters.

“I have not been one who has been bashful about criticizing Abbott in the past,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who has previously criticized Abbott for micromanaging county spending. “But I think he’s doing a fantastic job and giving us the flexibility to do what’s right for our areas. I don’t see any politics in this deal; I see [Abbott] really trying to tackle a difficult issue and recognizing the importance of the fact that this is a huge state.”

Meanwhile, a number of Democrats have offered muted praise for Abbott’s crisis management, though some have suggested the governor could be doing more to offer guidance for local governments.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, a freshman Democrat from Driftwood, said she thinks clearer guidance at the state and federal levels would better position local governments to respond to the virus.

“I’ve observed confusion from my local decision makers,” Zweiner told The Texas Tribune. “I see my city councils, my city administrators, my county commissioners desperate for answers on what the right thing to do is, and they’re not getting answers; they’re getting general advice.”

Another House Democrat, state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, told the Tribune that the best thing leaders can do is “give to the people of Texas consistency, uniformity and predictability, because that’s not coming from any other direction.”

“To the extent we can give people some normalcy … and whoever has the most authority to do that as swiftly as possible, should do it,” Moody said. “They should do it with an understanding that no one expects them to be perfect right now, but that we expect them to act quickly so that we remain ahead of the virus.”

But Republicans said Abbott has handled the situation appropriately — and that he has rightly shifted certain responsibilities to local governments.

“In terms of a crisis, we don’t need somebody to act like a dictator and push all of that information down to people,” said state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. “We need those empowered local officials to make the detailed decisions, and the governor has empowered local officials to make those judgments.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/03/17/experts-say-texas-patchwork-strategy-coronavirus-problem/.

From The Texas Tribune: Most Texans want lower property taxes and more school spending, UT/TT Poll finds

By Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune
Feb. 17, 2020

Illustration by Emily Albracht/The Texas Tribune

Texas voters still think that property taxes are too high and that the state spends too little on public education, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Local property taxes are a key source of funding for public education, and last year’s Texas legislative session was focused on those two issues. Lawmakers sought to increase the state’s share of public education spending and to increase incentives for local school districts to hold down property tax increases.

A majority of Texas voters said they pay too much in property taxes. Only 5% said they pay too little, and 26% said Texans pay about the right amount. Among Democrats, 45% said the property tax tab is too high; 63% of independents and 59% of Republicans said so. The “too much” number among all voters has dropped to 54%, compared with 60% in the June 2019 UT/TT Poll, but remains a majority view.

Overall, 50% of Texas voters said the state spends too little on public education, while 12% said spending is too high and 21% said it’s about right. Democrats, at 69%, were most likely to say spending is too low. Among Republicans, 32% agreed, but another 32% said spending is about right. Only 19% of Republicans said public education spending is too high.

“The results are slightly more positive on property taxes, stagnant on public education,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. The overall on property taxes hasn’t changed dramatically, however. “It’s an article of faith that taxes are too high,” Blank said. “It would take a pretty drastic change for that attitude to move.”

A plurality of Texans gave good grades to the quality of public education in the state. A total of 46% rated it “excellent” or “good,” while 42% rated it “not very good” or “terrible.” Praise was stronger in Republican quarters, where grades for the schools were 55% good and 34% bad. Among Democrats, the good-to-bad split was 41-47.

Most Texans, 54%, said the state government here is a good model for other states to follow, and they gave relatively positive ratings to two of the state’s top three leaders. Almost half of the voters said Gov. Greg Abbott is doing a good job in office, while 34% disapprove of the work he’s been doing. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick won approval from 39% and disapproval from 35%, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was given good marks by 19% and bad ones by 27%. Bonnen, caught on tape last year plotting against some of his fellow Republicans in the House, isn’t seeking another term in the Legislature.

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from Jan. 31 to Feb. 9 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points, and an overall margin of error of +/- 4.09 percentage points for Democratic trial ballots. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100% because of rounding.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Reference
University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, February 2020 – Day 2 summary
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Reference
University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, February 2020 – Methodology
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/02/17/most-texans-want-lower-property-taxes-and-more-school-spending-poll-fi/.

From The Texas Tribune: Half of registered Texas voters turned out in 2018. Just 12% turned out this year.

This year, 12% of registered voters cast ballots, compared with 6% of the state’s 15 million registered voters who voted in 2017. Photo by Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Half of registered Texas voters turned out in 2018. Just 12% turned out this year.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texas voters approved nine amendments to the state’s Constitution on Tuesday. Only 12% of registered voters actually cast ballots — a higher percentage from the 2017 election, but still overwhelmingly low overall.

A majority of Texas voters must approve any changes to the Texas Constitution. Getting a proposed amendment on the ballot requires support from more than two-thirds of both chambers of the Legislature.

Voters in some communities also weighed in on important local issues. For example, Houston voters weighed in on a contentious mayoral race, while Travis County voters approved a proposition authorizing 2% of the hotel occupancy tax to go toward renovating the Travis County Exposition Center.

Turnout is — and has always been — historically low in elections that take place during odd-numbered years. Here’s what it looked like this year.

How easy is it to amend the Texas Constitution?

It’s fairly simple.

That simplicity, in part, is because few people vote in constitutional amendment elections. This year, 12% of registered voters cast ballots, compared with 6% of the state’s 15 million registered voters who voted in 2017. By comparison, 59% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the latest presidential election.

Unsurprisingly, turnout relies heavily on what’s on the ballot. Turnout in 2015 was higher than normal in part because of a Houston mayor’s race and a state ballot proposition dealing with property taxes. In 2005, nearly 18% of registered voters cast ballots. That year, voters overwhelmingly approved writing a ban on same-sex marriage into the state’s Constitution. Twelve percent of registered voters voted in 2003, when a controversial amendment limiting lawsuit damages was on the ballot.

Do people vote on the whole ballot?

For the most part, yes. But they don’t have to.

Proposition 4, which would make it harder to enact a state income tax, received the most votes by a hair — roughly 1.97 million Texans who cast ballots weighed in on this change to the Constitution.

The closest race on the ballot was Proposition 9, which would allow the Legislature to create a property tax exemption for precious metals in state depositories like the Texas Bullion Depository. Proposition 9 also had the lowest turnout, with only 1.89 million Texans casting ballots — 79,057 fewer votes cast than there were on Proposition 4.

In 2005, more than 2.2 million people voted on the proposition concerning same-sex couples. The proposition with the fewest number of votes — an item focused on clearing land titles in Upshur and Smith counties — had only 1.9 million votes.

Turnout is hard to chart during constitutional amendment elections because of how the Texas secretary of state compiles data. A spokesman with the agency said voter turnout data is compiled based on a designated turnout race, even if it’s not the race with the most votes. This year, the designated race is Proposition 1.

Why was Proposition 4 so popular?

The proposition, authored by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, and state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, drew considerable attention in the lead-up to Election Day.

Supporters of the amendment said they wanted to provide assurance to residents and outsiders interested in doing business in Texas that the state is committed to a business-friendly environment; those in opposition argued the measure could tie the hands of future generations as they look to fund areas like education and health care.

Several left-leaning groups, including the Center for Public Policy Priorities, rallied against the proposal. CPPP says it launched digital ads in “targeted areas of the state” and sent a mail piece to tens of thousands of households.

Which counties had higher turnout than others?

Among the 10 counties with the most registered voters, Harris, Fort Bend and Travis counties had the highest turnout. Harris County had a 15.69% turnout this year, compared with 6.46% in 2017. Fort Bend County had a 14.69% turnout, compared with 6.6% in 2017.

One of the reasons for Harris County’s higher turnout is because its county seat, Houston, is the only major Texas city that holds its mayoral race in November. (Dallas and San Antonio held their elections in May.)

This year’s Houston race drew considerable attention as first-term Mayor Sylvester Turner sought to fend off several challengers, including high-wattage trial attorney Tony Buzbee, who self-funded his campaign to the tune of $10 million. It’s also the first mayoral race to take place since Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Texas coast. Turner received 47% of the vote, compared with Buzbee’s 28%, sending the two to a runoff election slated for next month.

In addition to the rollicking mayoral race, Houston-area voters living in two state House districts had high-profile special elections on the ballot.

After the resignations of state Reps. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, and Jessica Farrar D-Houston, some voters in the Houston-area districts voted for their next state representatives. (Only Houston-area voters living in District 28 and District 148 cast ballots in these two races.)

Farrar’s seat is solidly blue; Zerwas’ seat, meanwhile, was a target for Democrats well before he announced he was resigning and joining the University of Texas System. Eliz Markowitz is the sole Democratic candidate in the race. Six GOP candidates have also lined up for the seat.

In Farrar’s former district, Democrat Anna Eastman and Republican Luis La Rotta are headed to the next round; in Zerwas’ former district, Markowitz and Republican Gary Gates will go to a runoff.

Carla Astudillo contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities, Tony Buzbee and the University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/11/06/texas-2019-election-voter-turnout/.

 

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The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas lets struggling schools partner with nonprofits or charters for improvement. But many got Fs this year.

Kate Yetter teaches fifth grade writing at Ogden Academy in San Antonio ISD, which has been low-performing for seven years in a row. Photo by Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Adrain Johnson was one of five Texas school superintendents last year to take a Hail Mary pass in order to improve two low-performing schools: He let a new nonprofit take over the management of Hearne ISD’s elementary and junior high, both of which had failed to meet state academic standards for years.

The partnerships, an idea lawmakers approved in 2017, are supposed to give the outside organizations — charter groups, private nonprofits or universities — flexibility to try out new educational models and hopefully lead to major gains in student test scores. In return, the low-performing schools get more money per student and a two-year pause from any state penalties, which are required after a school has underperformed for five years or more in a row.

But after a year being run by Hearne Education Foundation, and managed by a separate appointed school board of regional educators, Hearne Elementary School received its seventh consecutive failing rating from the state this month, meaning it may have to shut down unless it passes over the next couple of years.

In fact, seven of the 12 schools across the state in similar partnerships with nonprofits or charters received F ratings this year, including four that, like Hearne Elementary, that could face state sanctions if they don’t pass in the next couple of years. All 12 schools serve student populations that are between 70% and 100% economically disadvantaged, in school districts with higher rates of teacher turnover than state average.

Partnerships with charters and nonprofits show mixed results

The 2017 Texas Legislature allowed public schools to partner with charter groups and nonprofits, giving them two years to demonstrate progress and avoid shutdown. After the first year, the direct effect of the partnerships is unclear.

Hearne Junior High, a rural Central Texas school with 100% economically disadvantaged students, had actually managed to improve significantly before the partnership even started and its performance remained relatively steady this year. That means it’s safe for now from any state penalties.

Johnson said he’s proud of the district’s improvement, given the challenges an underperforming school faces in being able to overcome the stigma of working or learning there. It’s hard to convince high-quality teachers to work in a school that may close within a few years. And the elementary school’s new principal didn’t have much time to build relationships with staff members and students before the next round of state tests came.

“It’s like running against the wind. You can be a good runner, but if you’re running against the wind, it makes it hard for you to perform well,” he said.

Texas recently switched its school assessment system to give schools and districts letter grades based almost entirely on state standardized tests, especially in the elementary and middle schools, replacing a previous pass/fail system. And alongside the new report card came higher stakes and drastic penalties for the schools that perform poorly year after year.

But lawmakers gave school officials a life raft from those penalties by incentivizing them to partner with private or governmental groups — a last ditch effort at improvement before the schools are forced to completely shutter. Any school can be under a partnership; underperforming schools get the benefit of a temporary pause on having their ratings count against them.

Transforming a long-struggling school into a top-rated one requires more than just a focus on academics. It also requires a massive cultural shift: stopping teachers and principals from leaving at such high rates, figuring out better ways to manage student behavior and erasing a negative reputation earned over the course of several years.

“This first year would’ve been great if all our partnership schools would have done amazing. But this kind of change and these turnaround strategies don’t happen overnight,” said Bibi Yasmin Katsev, executive director of the Texas District Charter Alliance, which advocates for district-charter partnerships.

She warned against coming to conclusions too soon about the value of the partnerships.

“Just looking back on this one year, we are really hopeful and we really think a lot of these schools will improve themselves after the next year,” she said. “If not, we really need high-quality partners.”

The challenges a school district faces don’t just go away with a new partner. Ector County ISD, in West Texas’ oil-rich Permian Basin, is missing almost 20% of needed teaching staff, starting the year with 349 vacancies, said Scott Muri, the new superintendent. Housing is extremely expensive in the area and teachers have turned jobs down because they can’t afford to live there.

“You can get a good wage job here. The oil industry pays. But in education, we have a hard time competing,” he said.

In Waco ISD, where five low-performing campuses were turned over to a new nonprofit, administrators said many teachers jumped ship at two of the schools before the partnership even began. That left the nonprofit starting at a disadvantage finding high-quality educators — a key goal of the partnership.

Those schools — J.H. Hines Elementary and G.W. Carver Middle — both improved significantly in 2017-18, but then plummeted to an F this year, with the latter dropping the equivalent of two grades.

But all of Waco ISD’s schools have met state standards for at least one of the last five years, meaning they won’t face state sanctions anytime soon. Waco ISD officials created their own nonprofit to partner with while state education officials were creating rules outlining how the partnership law would work — a serious logistic challenge, according to Kyle DeBeer, the district’s assistant superintendent of communications.

Other districts also faced logistical issues getting ramped up in the first year, with some guidance but little established structure from state education officials.

Besides Hearne Elementary, Ector College Prep Success Academy in Ector County ISD, Ogden Academy in San Antonio ISD, and Mendez Middle School in Austin ISD all need to do better in the next couple of years or else they might be forced to shut down. Shutting down a school is generally extremely unpopular with parents and community members, and requires a school officials to figure out other schools for those students.

Instead of shutting down Ogden Academy, San Antonio ISD handed the management of the elementary school to Relay Lab Schools, a charter organization affiliated with the Relay Graduate School of Education. The school is now a training ground for student teachers, who commit to work in the district for three years after graduation.

“Turnaround is hard and it takes some time and it takes relentlessness,” said Mohammed Choudhury, chief innovation officer at San Antonio ISD.

According to Choudhury, Ogden Academy students started off further behind academically than students at Stewart, another chronically low-performing elementary school that improved significantly the year before its partnership began and then plummeted to a D rating this year. Families of students at Ogden are more likely to have less education and lower incomes.

The 10-year contract with Relay Lab Schools allows school district officials to consider dissolving the partnership if they don’t see needed results within the first few years.

A little-known provision in the partnership law allows low-performing schools to get up to two additional years of a reprieve from state penalties, if the Texas education commissioner approves it. Both Choudhury and Johnson, of Hearne ISD, said they would consider asking the state for an extension from those penalties, if their schools don’t improve.

Johnson said Hearne’s partnership, which has drawn on the expertise of local school district and university educators, allows them to use data more effectively to pinpoint specific weaknesses. Some of the best teachers from local school districts in East Texas and the Houston area have gone to teach Saturday classes in Hearne, and Texas A&M professors helped with professional development for Hearne’s teachers.

Johnson wants those benefits to last.

“We didn’t create this and go into this with it being a two-to-three year and done system,” he said. “We’re trying to build a system that has sustainability.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/08/27/texas-charter-nonprofit-ratings/.

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.