Category Archives: Safety

BREAKING: New executive order by Gov. Abbott extends closure of school facilities

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference today addressing the state’s response to the new coronavirus pandemic. Abbott explained today that he was issuing a new executive order, known as GA-14, that is more restrictive and supersedes some previous orders issued by the governor’s office in recent weeks, in order to “further reduce the spread of COVID-19 and to maximize the number of lives we can save.”

The new statewide order, which takes effect at 12:01 a.m. on April 2, and runs through April 30, 2020, calls for people to minimize in-person contact with individuals outside of their own household except for providing or obtaining essential services. Gov. Abbott is relying on federal guidelines to define “essential services” for purposes of the new order issued today. In its “Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response,” the federal government has previously noted in a March 28, 2020, advisory publication that essential workers would include “Educators supporting public and private K-12 schools, colleges, and universities for purposes of facilitating distance learning or performing other essential functions.”

Under Gov. Abbott’s latest executive order, school buildings across Texas will remain closed to students, and many staff, until at least May 4, 2020. The order does not change the requirement that school districts, and district educators, continue to provide a “continuity of learning” for their students through distance learning efforts. The relevant language of Gov. Abbott’s Executive Order GA-14 on school closure is as follows:

In accordance with the Guidelines from the President and the CDC, schools shall remain temporarily closed to in-person classroom attendance and shall not recommence before May 4, 2020.

For the latest pandemic-related news for educators, we encourage you to visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page. The frequently updated resource offers expert answers and guidance for Texas educators during this unique time. Also, watch for updates from the ATPE lobbyists here on Teach the Vote and via our Twitter accounts as more regulatory developments occur.

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

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

Statewide closure orders

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

Guidance for Texas schools

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

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

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

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

Federal initiatives

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

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

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

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

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

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/.

Senate Education Committee turns focus to House mental health bills

Senate Education Committee meeting, May 7, 2019.

The Senate Education Committee returned to work Tuesday after the full Senate approved House Bill (HB) 3, the school finance bill, following a full day of debate on Monday, May 6, 2019.

Senators spent roughly eight hours Monday debating more than a hundred amendments, including unsuccessful efforts by a number of senators to remove the controversial merit pay section from the bill. Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) accepted an amendment to remove the requirement that the legislature approve legislation to increase the statewide sales tax in order for HB 3 to take effect.

Senators approved the school finance and education reform bill by a vote of 26 ayes, two nays, and three members present and not voting (PNV). State Sens. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) and Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) voted against the bill, and Sens. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), and Angela Paxton (R-McKinney) were PNV. For more on the version of HB 3 passed by the Senate, check out this blog post republished from The Texas Tribune.

The committee’s work on Tuesday focused largely on House bills related to mental health. Members heard testimony on the following:

  • HB 18, which is an omnibus school mental health bill that would include evidence based practices to address the achievement of certain student groups, and encourage positive behavior interventions and support, such as grief informed and trauma informed care. The bill calls for implementation of comprehensive school counselling services and adds detail to the training required of school counselors.
  • HB 65, which would require districts to report information on out-of-school suspensions.
  • HB 109, which would allow charter schools to have a holiday on Memorial Day. ATPE supports this bill.
  • HB 111, which would create educator training requirements on recognizing the abuse and maltreatment of students with severe cognitive disabilities. ATPE supports this bill.
  • HB 638, which would allow posthumous diplomas to be awarded to students regardless of whether they were in the 12th grade and on academic track to graduate.
  • HB 674, which would require that regional education service centers gather information from districts and report on which state mandates districts report are burdensome and expensive. The House committee substitute for this bill eliminated reporting on federal mandates.
  • HB 906, which would create a “collaborative task force on public school mental health services” charged with studying current practices, training, and impact. The task force would include parents, administrators, institutions of higher education, and foundation people, but not necessarily educators. The task force would have broad power to request information from school districts.
  • HB 1597, which would allow a student whose parent or guardian is active-duty military to establish residency for the purpose of admission to public schools. The bill would make charters subject to law.
  • HB 1734, which would strengthen the law requiring a school district that has successfully sued because a contractor did a poor job to use the settlement to fix the building and pay the state its required portion of the settlement. The bill would allow the attorney general to fine a district that does not spend the money as required.

Members of the Senate Education Committee also voted to advance the following bills to the Senate floor:

  • SB 139, which would require the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to develop a notice for distribution and internet posting that includes public education information management system (PEIMS) reporting changes for special education indicators and the rights of children to special education evaluation. The bill would also require districts to include additional information on the notice about initiating a referral for special education services, and require TEA to reimburse districts using federal funds for increases in evaluations. ATPE supports this bill.
  • SB 947, which would have the effect of expanding full-time virtual schools in Texas. ATPE opposes this bill.
  • HB 403, which would require school board trustees to undergo regular training in identifying and reporting potential victims of sexual abuse, human trafficking, and other maltreatment of children.
  • HB 638, which would allow posthumous diplomas to be awarded to students regardless of whether they were in the 12th grade and on academic track to graduate. This bill was heard earlier in the day.
  • HB 684, which would require an employee with responsibility for the supervision of a student with epilepsy to undergo a training program, which may consist of a one-hour video provided by the Epilepsy Foundation of America. The employee would be allowed to administer rescue medication in accordance with a seizure action plan and would be immune from liability.
  • HB 2243, which would add asthma medicine to the existing epi-pen authorization statute. This bill would allow a district, charter, or private school nurse to administer asthma medicine with a written notification from a parent of an asthmatic child.

Senate Education committee considers discipline bills

The Senate Education Committee considered a number of bills Tuesday, March 26, many of which focused on various disciplinary issues. The committee also favorably voted out several bills heard previously. Members approved the following bills:

  • CSSB 243 (by a vote of 6-3 with Sen. Lucio, Powell, and Watson opposing), which would enable school marshals to carry guns on them at all times.
  • CSSB 316 (by a vote of 7-3 with Sens. Lucio, Powell, and Watson opposing), which calls for the attorney general to represent teachers in certain lawsuits. ATPE raised concerns when the bill was originally heard that the subjective determinations made by the attorney general could result in teachers effectively losing or delaying their effective representation.
  • SB 406 (by a vote of 9-1 with Sen. Watson opposing), which would clarify that school marshals could carry concealed handguns.
  • CSSB 213, which would make individual graduation committees (IGC) a permanent option for students who struggle to pass end-of-course STAAR exams. This bill and the rest of the pending bills below passed with the committee’s unanimous approval.
  • SB 372 would allow charter schools to hire and commission peace officers.
  • SB 435 would add opioid addiction to the list of topics addressed by school health advisory committees (SHAC).
  • SB 522 deals with individualized education programs (IEP) for students with visual impairments.
  • CSSB 1230 would create a reporting system for private school educator misconduct.
  • SB 1231 would clarify administrative reporting requirements for child abuse and neglect.
  • SB 1476 would clarify reporting requirements when an investigation reveals an accused teacher was not engaged in misconduct.
  • CSSB 364 would require the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to develop model policies on recess.

Today, committee members heard testimony on SB 1451 by Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), which would prohibit a school district from assigning a a teacher an area of deficiency in an appraisal solely on the basis of the teacher’s disciplinary referrals or documentation of student conduct. The bill would also prohibit a district from disciplining a teacher for documenting bad student behavior. Sen. Taylor introduced a committee substitute that would clarify that a deficiency may still be assigned separately, provided that a third party documents an issue. ATPE supports this bill.

Another bill by Sen. Taylor, SB 2432, would add harassment to the list of conduct that will result in the mandatory removal of a public school student from the classroom. ATPE supports this bill. The following bills were also considered Tuesday:

  • SB 424 by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), relating to determining the appropriate disciplinary action to be taken against a public school student who is in foster care or who is homeless.
  • SB 1001 by Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), relating to the suspension of a student who is homeless from public school.
  • SB 1306 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), which would require a school district to post on the district’s website the name and contact information of each school administrator primarily responsible for student discipline at a district campus.
  • SB 1707 by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville), relating to the duties of school district peace officers, school resource officers, and security personnel.

A handful of bills heard today were not directly related to discipline. These included SB 926 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), relating to the operation of a public school transportation system, and SB 1679 by Sen. West, which would ensure that any children who are available for pre-K at the age of three remain eligible for enrollment at the age of four. ATPE supports SB 1679.

 

12 Days of Voting: School Safety

Early voting is underway NOW for the November 6 elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote TODAY! In this post, we’re taking a closer look at school safety.


School safety is an issue that has recently come to the forefront of public policy discussions in the wake of the deadly school shooting earlier this year in Santa Fe, Texas.

The Texas House Committee on Appropriations heard from Santa Fe ISD officials in October, and discussed funding for school safety. Chair John Zerwas (R-Richmond) called it one of the most important issues the legislature will take up next session. The meeting was one of several the House and Senate have held over the summer to discuss different aspects of school safety.

The House and Senate have each issued reports on how they intend to tackle the issue during the upcoming legislative session, and Gov. Greg Abbott has released a list of recommendations as well. More recently, the governor’s office released a list of actions that have already been taken to address school safety, including many by the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

The agency’s plans to address school safety include a $54 million exceptional item in the agency’s legislative appropriations request (LAR). Commissioner Mike Morath explained to the House committee that the actions taken to date as well as the agency’s budget request are aligned to Gov. Greg Abbott’s school safety plan. The commissioner said that federal funds would likely not help pay for school hardening efforts, which would fall instead to state and local taxpayers. Morath also suggested creating safety standards for facilities, such as new schools, that would force compliance.

The ideas discussed by legislators include adding more school counselors, incorporating telemedicine to help identify students who may be prone to violence, and adding more armed personnel on campus — including police officers and staff, such as school marshals. Legislators also contemplated adding metal detectors and asked architects for advice how to harden school campuses and make it more difficult for a shooter to penetrate campus security.

With the terror of the most recent shooting fresh on Texans’ minds, there will be a push to pass some sort of legislation aimed at school security in the upcoming session. Lawmakers will be faced with finding a balance between physical security and ensuring the mental, emotional, and psychological well-being of students, while avoiding turning schools into buildings that resemble prisons. They’ll also be faced with meeting this challenge with limited budgetary resources.

It will be a complicated discussion, and educators deserve to be part of it. But let’s not forget who will be at the center of those conversations: the legislators and statewide officeholders elected on Nov. 6. Voters who care about school security and the steps that should be taken to keep all students, staff members, and school visitors safe should keep these issues in mind when casting their votes.

 


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on this and other public education issues.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting and making informed choices at the polls. While it is illegal to use school district resources (like your work e-mail) to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, there is NO prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 general election runs Monday, October 22, through Friday, November 2. Election Day is November 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct.12, 2018

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


The deadline to register to vote for the upcoming general election was on Tuesday, October 9. Texas saw a record breaking surge in registered voters with 15.6 million people registering to vote by Tuesday’s deadline. Now that the deadline to register has passed, it’s time to get down to the heart of the matter: the candidates and the issues. Texans, educators especially, owe it to themselves to walk into polling stations fully informed on where candidates stand on issues like teacher pay, school finance, health care, and retirement. Use the “Candidates” section of TeachtheVote.org to learn more about the candidates in your district. You can also use Vote411.org to generate a personalized sample ballot ahead of election day. Knowing is half the battle.

 


The House Appropriations committee met on Tuesday to discuss school safety measures and the progress of TEA’s corrective action plan for students with special needs. Hearing testimony from Santa Fe ISD administrators on how they’ve implemented improved school safety measures following the tragic shooting there earlier this year. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath testified to the committee that the agency had requested a $54 million exceptional item as part of it’s legislative appropriations request (LAR) but members questioned how far that amount would go when spread statewide. With regards to the corrective action plan aimed at providing children with special needs the access to the services they require staff testified that additional funding would be needed and that at this time there is not enough trained staff available to evaluate children for special needs services. Find out more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


 

House committee discusses school safety funding

The Texas House Committee on Appropriations met Tuesday in Austin to discuss funding for school safety, which Chair John Zerwas (R-Richmond) called one of the most important issues the legislature will take up next session.

House Appropriations Committee meeting October 9, 2018.

Administrators from Santa Fe ISD, the site of the horrific school shooting earlier this year, were the first to testify. The district has since doubled its security staff, installed panic buttons in classrooms, and modified the design of certain instructional areas. The district indicated that funding for additional officers and counselors has come from the district’s fund balance, and leaders are concerned about long term budgeting.

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) called the amount of spending Santa Fe ISD has been forced to undertake “sobering,” and suggested that state lawmakers should not compound the burden on local property tax payers by leaving districts to fund school safety measures alone.

Lawmakers also heard from representatives from the Texas School Safety Center (TxSSC) and the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University. Representatives indicated that while legislators have cut program budgets, demand for services has increased. Because of this, TxSSC has not been able to address 100 percent of the needs expressed by school districts. State Rep. Helen Giddings (D-DeSoto) stressed the importance of training officers in de-escalation and in how to deal with special needs children.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath presented the agency’s plans to address school safety, including a $54 million exceptional item in the agency’s legislative appropriations request (LAR). Morath explained that the actions taken to date as well as the agency’s budget request are aligned to Gov. Greg Abbott’s school safety plan. The commissioner said that federal funds would likely not help pay for school hardening efforts, which would fall instead to state and local taxpayers. Morath also suggested creating safety standards for facilities, such as new schools, that would force compliance.

State Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston) questioned how far $54 million will go when spread statewide, given the testimony that Santa Fe ISD alone spent more than $30 million on safety improvements. Rep. Walle also suggested that if the state is going to gather data on students, lawmakers should also consider ways to ensure students faced with mental health emergencies do not have unfettered access to firearms.

State Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) also emphasized the need to address students’ emotional wellbeing in order to prevent tragedies. Along with state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso), Rep. Wu also discussed the need for access to counseling in particular in rural areas, and how telemedicine may be leveraged in some underserved locations. Morath noted that some rural schools are limited by lack of access to high-speed fiber internet. Chair Zerwas also indicated broad support for utilizing telemedicine in these settings. Zerwas credited Article III Subcommittee Chair Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) and Rep. Howard with working to provide $25 million in matching funds last session to implement telemedicine.

The committee heard additional testimony from the governor’s Criminal Justice Division (CJD), the Department of State Health Services (DSHS), and the Legislative Budget Board (LBB). The LBB pegged the total of various agencies’ appropriations requests at around $100 million.

Finally, the committee received an update from the TEA regarding the agency’s implementation of corrective action to ensure students with special needs are being adequately served. This is a result of the U.S. Department of Education finding the state instituted a de facto cap on special education enrollment and failed to comply with federal law mandating the state provide special education services to all children who qualify.

Agency staff testified that districts are seeing an uptick in special education enrollment. As part of the corrective action plan, the agency is developing a rubric for schools seeking additional funding in order to provide special education services as they are required under federal law. Staff testified that each percentage point that special education enrollment increases will cost $342 million per year. In addition, staff said there are currently not enough trained staff in the state to evaluate all of the children who theoretically could be served.

House report focuses on school safety resources

The House Committee on Public Education released its preliminary school safety report this week, the result of several hearings on the matter held over the course of the summer.

The full report, which can be read here, joins similar reports released by the Senate and Gov. Greg Abbott. The House report is notable in that it focuses on providing state funding to ensure schools have the resources to prevent future tragedies such as the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

The office of committee chairman state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) highlights specific funding recommendations for the following:

  • Increasing the number of counselors, psychologists and social workers available to students;
  • Increasing the amount of training received by school personnel, including threat
    assessment, Mental Health First Aid and training related to emergency operations;
  • Studying communication interoperability among schools, law enforcement and first
    responders;
  • Improving the integration of mental health services and student access to these
    services, especially in underserved areas.

“As we look for ways to improve school safety, we need to find a balance between making campuses safe but also healthy learning environments,” Chairman Huberty said in a press release. “Our students deserve to have schools where they feel safe but not imprisoned. The state can assist these efforts by providing resources for more school counselors and increased student access to mental health services, in addition to campus safety improvements and increased law enforcement or school marshals.”

“In the long run, we are better off spending resources on trying to prevent such tragedies rather than just being prepared for the next one to happen,” Chairman Huberty added.

The 14-page report includes suggestions under the topics of mental health and well-being, school mental health professionals, school safety planning and training, school security infrastructure, and law enforcement resources. You can read the full recommendations by clicking here.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Aug. 31, 2018

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


State leaders have been busy talking about the issue of school safety this week. On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott’s office released a “School Safety Action Plan Summary” as a follow up to its previously released “School and Firearm Safety Action Plan.” It outlines measures being implemented by school districts to address violence in schools. Highlights include offering educators training in Mental Health First Aid to help them identify the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance abuse issues through a course eligible for eight hours of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credit. Another program featured in the report is the School Marshal program that trains school employees authorized to carry arms on how to respond to violent incidents in schools.

State Board of Education Chair Donna Bahorich was a part of a separate school safety discussion earlier this week in Montgomery, Alabama. Bahorich participated in a federal panel facilitated by the Federal Commission on School Safety in which she spoke on the need to remove the stigma surrounding mental health and seeking mental health treatment. You can read more on these school safety discussions in our blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell here.


Gov. Greg Abbott has been making the rounds in recent weeks to visit with school leaders and others to discuss school finance and teacher compensation, in particular. Based on some of his comments, including those written in a new op-ed piece, the governor has seemingly become a proponent of increased school funding and property tax relief. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins explains why the governor’s recent comments deserve a closer look in the context of recent legislative actions. Check out Mark’s blog post here.


ELECTION UPDATE: Important races will decided in the general election slated for November. What can you do now to prepare? First, make sure you are registered to vote before the deadline. Ask friends, family members, and colleagues if they are registered.

Take the educator’s oath pledging to vote and visit the website of our Texas Educators Vote coalition to find additional nonpartisan election resources.

Research the candidates to find out where they stand on public education issues. ATPE’s Teach the Vote website features profiles of every candidate running for the Texas Legislature, State Board of Education, Governor, and Lieutenant Governor. Profiles include incumbents’ voting records, responses to ATPE’s candidate surveys, contact information for the campaigns, information about noteworthy endorsements by other organizations, and a calendar of events submitted by the candidates themselves or third parties. Have the candidates running in your area responded to our candidate survey? If not, ask them why not! Invite them to contact ATPE at government@atpe.org for additional information.

Dates to put on your calendar now:

  • Last day to register to vote in the general election: Oct. 9, 2018
  • Early voting: Oct. 22 – Nov. 2, 2018
  • Election Day: Nov. 6, 2018

This week two national union-affiliated educator groups in Texas filed a lawsuit against Commissioner of Education Mike Morath over his interpretation of a new law regarding school district-charter school partnerships. Passed by the legislature in 2017, Senate Bill (SB) 1882 identifies a path for school districts to partner with an open-enrollment charter school or other entity to operate one or more of its campuses. While originally intended as a lifeline for campuses facing harsh progressive sanctions under Texas’s accountability system, the new law has been eyed by some districts as a potential strategy for accessing additional funding outside of the typical school finance structure, and in some instances at the expense of school employees’ rights and protections.

The unions’ lawsuit claims that commissioner’s rules adopted after SB 1882 was passed last year violate state law. While ATPE shares concerns about how the district-charter partnership law is being interpreted and used, we do not believe it is likely that the courts will intervene in this matter. For that reason, instead of pursuing costly litigation that is unlikely to produce a remedy, we’ve chosen to support the local advocacy efforts of our members while continuing to lobby for state-level legislative improvements to our school finance and accountability systems.

ATPE supports innovation but believes it need not come at the expense of educators. While maybe not as splashy as well-publicized legal filings, our success in defeating local efforts that could strip away educators’ rights proves the effectiveness of our strategy at the local level. ATPE is also working hard to shape the debate around school finance and bills that are expected to be filed in the 2019 legislative session, urging lawmakers and those vying to become lawmakers this election cycle to prioritize funding for such critical needs as educator compensation, protecting the TRS pension fund, and providing affordable healthcare for active and retired school employees.

Stay tuned to our blog here at Teach the Vote for the latest news about our advocacy efforts around this and other issues.