Category Archives: Vouchers

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 23, 2020

Here are this week’s education news highlights from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


The governor has decided to use federal coronavirus relief funds to create a new voucher program for students with disabilities. On Oct. 21, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced the Supplemental Special Education Services (SSES) program, which uses CARES Act money to fund accounts for parents of students with special needs to buy education-related goods and services. The $1,500 accounts are strikingly similar to “education savings account” voucher proposals for students with special needs previously rejected by the Texas legislature. Abbott will use $30 million in taxpayer dollars in his Governors Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund for the program.

ATPE swiftly expressed concerns over the SSES program. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes said, “ATPE is extremely disappointed the governor has made the unilateral decision to spend our state’s GEER funds in such a manner. Not only does this action ignore the Legislature’s clear opposition to vouchers, but also it denies public schools access to this $30 million allocation. Public schools are better positioned to equitably and efficiently provide for the needs of all students with disabilities.” Read ATPE’s full press statement here and ATPE’s blog post on the development here.


ELECTION UPDATE: There is one more week of early voting in Texas, through Oct. 30. Already, Texans have set a record for voter turnout. Election Day is just 11 days away on Nov. 3. This week the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the Texas GOP in a lawsuit, deciding Harris County can continue using drive-thru voting locations. Read other election news, including polls and candidate fundraising analyses, in this week’s Texas election roundup blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

We celebrated Educator Voting Day Monday and enjoyed seeing the many educators who posted their “I Voted” selfies on social media. Let us know why voting is important to you by sharing your own photo or video on social media using #WhyIVoteTXEd and tag @OfficialATPE and @Teach the Vote. Find additional voting tips here, and don’t forget to check out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard shows an increase in the number of positive cases reported last week for both students and staff. Districts update their submissions as they are informed of positive test results, causing data delays. The updated data show that between the weeks ending in Oct. 4 and Oct. 11, the number of positive cases rose by 31.7% among students and 37.7% among staff. Positive test results are only included for students and staff who participate in on-campus instruction and activities.

As parts of the state deal with alarmingly high case counts and hospitalization rates due to COVID-19, some school districts are asking state officials for additional flexibility on when they must resume in-person instruction. ATPE has recommended and continues to emphasize the importance of using objective health-related criteria to guide local decisions on reopening school facilities rather than a one-size-fits-all approach or arbitrary timelines. Weighing the input of school employees and parents of students is also essential in the decision-making process.

As reported this week by the Texas Tribune, some Texas teachers been asked to return to school even though they had a previously approved accommodation. Find information related to this situation and more on ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQs and Resources. Here are additional ATPE resources:

  • Learn how to manage pandemic anxiety in this ATPE-hosted webinar by therapist Kathryn Gates.
  • Get answers to legal questions about COVID-19 and earn CPE by watching ATPE’s webcasts on our professional learning portal.
  • Use ATPE’s Advocacy Central website, exclusively for our members, to share your coronavirus-related concerns with state officials, including the governor and commissioner of education.
  • Check out our Parent-Teacher Toolkit, featuring a video on helping kids thrive in today’s world.
  • See the pandemic and ATPE’s response evolve through our interactive timeline.

When the coronavirus forced schools to close their doors this spring, state and federal officials wisely called off plans for the administration of standardized tests and school accountability ratings tied to test results. ATPE has been lobbying for a waiver of testing and accountability requirements for the 2020-21 school year. The ATPE House of Delegates adopted a resolution in July calling for STAAR and TELPAS testing to be suspended due to educational disruptions caused by COVID-19. This week, school board members in the Austin-area Eanes ISD passed a resolution of their own calling for Gov. Abbott and TEA to suspend the STAAR this year. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter spoke to CBS Austin Thursday about the difficulty of administering standardized tests in a non-standardized environment. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins also spoke today to KXAN News about the growing calls for a testing waiver.


 

Abbott, TEA launch voucher program for students with disabilities

On Oct. 21, Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced a new funding program for students with disabilities that is strikingly similar to previous voucher-like privatization proposals, including “education savings accounts” or ESAs, that have been consistently rejected by Texas lawmakers. The program will enable parents of students with special needs to apply for $1,500 grants for supplemental educational services.

  • The Supplemental Special Education Services program will be funded with $30 million in federal coronavirus relief funding appropriated by Congress through the CARES Act earlier this year.
  • The funds are part of a $307 million federal grant via the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund, over which Gov. Greg Abbott has authority with little to no state legislative oversight required.
  • ATPE is criticizing the voucher plan, arguing the COVID-19 relief funds should instead flow more equitably to school districts that already have an obligation under federal law to provide for educational needs, including paying for supplemental services, of students with disabilities.

The new Supplemental Special Education Services (SSES) program is funded by a $30 million allocation from Abbott’s $307 million GEER (Governor’s Emergency Education Relief) fund, which was authorized by Congress through the CARES Act, is administered by the U.S. Department of Education (ED), and is funded with taxpayer dollars. GEER funds can be used on emergency support for K-12 and higher education, as well as support for any other education-related entity in the state the governor deems essential for carrying out emergency educational services to students.

As we reported here on Teach the Vote in April, the federal GEER funds were designed to be “highly flexible,” according to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has been a vocal proponent of federally funded vouchers. The streamlined, 15-page application for the GEER funds was essentially an “agree-sign-submit” format with a short questionnaire on how the state intended to use the funds. No public comment period or state legislative oversight was required. In the certification and agreement that Abbott’s office sent to the Education Department earlier this year, there is no mention of using the GEER funds for vouchers. The state plan instead refers to the most notable GEER fund K-12 expenditures, the Texas Home Learning and Operation Connectivity initiatives.

According to a TEA FAQ document on the new program, the SSES will offer $1,500 in an online account for each eligible student through which “goods and services” can be ordered using the money. Eligible students must have been enrolled in public school since the COVID-19 school closures and have a low-incidence disability. The allowable goods and services include private tutoring, educationally related services and therapies from a licensed or accredited provider, textbooks, curriculum, or other instructional materials, and computer hardware, software, or other technological devices that are used for educational needs. TEA will approve vendors for the online voucher account. Approximately 20,000 students could be served through the $30 million allocation at $1,500 each, though the agency says 59,000 students in Texas are eligible. On its website today, TEA noted that details on how the accounts will work are “coming soon.”

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) already provides school districts with federal funds to fulfill students’ educational needs under the requirement of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). There is no doubt that the pandemic has disrupted education, especially for students with disabilities. However, it is essential that districts receive adequate resources, such as money for extra staffing and personal protective equipment, to fulfill their responsibility under IDEA for all students with disabilities to provide a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

Historically, Texas does not have the best track record for meeting its obligation to adequately fund the state’s special education needs; state officials were forced to implement a corrective action plan after 2016 investigations revealed an arbitrary cap on special education program enrollment had resulted in many students being denied the help they needed and were entitled to by law. However, lawmakers, education stakeholders, and the voting public have expressed little appetite for privatization initiatives, even when ostensibly aimed at helping students with special needs.

In 2017, the Texas Legislature, and principally the House of Representatives, rejected Senate Bill 3 (85R), a bill pushed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that would have funded an extremely similar voucher proposal aimed at students with disabilities. The bill would have sent public taxpayer dollars to private entities that provide services to students with disabilities, which are not subject to the protections and accountability required by federal education law. In fact, it would have required participating students to surrender their federal protections under the IDEA.

ATPE members have long opposed using taxpayer dollars to fund private school vouchers, including ESA programs in which there is little oversight of how the money is ultimately spent. ATPE is extremely disappointed the governor has made the unilateral decision to spend our state’s GEER funds in such a manner, not only circumventing the Legislature’s clear opposition to vouchers but also denying the use of this $30 million allocation by public schools that need additional COVID-19 relief and are in a better position to equitably and efficiently provide for the needs of all students with disabilities.

In addition to opposing further efforts to funnel public education dollars to private individuals or entities with little oversight, ATPE urges lawmakers to continue their efforts to improve the state’s school finance system in a manner that will ensure districts have access to the resources they need for serving all students in an equitable and responsible manner. Funding for school districts on behalf of their students should match the actual student needs rather than being based on arbitrary and rigid formulas that can be limiting and frustrating for families.

Read ATPE’s press statement about the SSES announcement here.

ATPE urges Congress to keep private school vouchers out of COVID-19 relief legislation

On Sept. 8, Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate shared their latest proposal for COVID-19 relief legislation, termed the “Delivering Immediate Relief to America’s Families, Schools and Small Businesses Act.” The Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House have been deadlocked since May on negotiations for additional relief from the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) shared details of the new GOP proposal Tuesday and announced his intent for the Senate to pass the bill by the end of this week. However, amid criticism that the bill does not go far enough to help those affected by the pandemic, the legislation was considered highly unlikely to move forward, and a preliminary vote taken today in the Senate fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to proceed.

The latest Senate bill would shield businesses against lawsuits related to COVID-19 and spend $500 billion on initiatives that would include debt forgiveness for the postal service, additional paycheck protection loans for small businesses, partial continuation of enhanced unemployment benefits, and funding for coronavirus vaccine development and testing. Schools would be eligible for additional funds under the bill, too, but the Senate proposal reserves two-thirds of the K-12 money for schools operating in person. Unlike the most recent U.S. House proposal, states would see no additional direct funding that could be used to offset anticipated budget cuts in public education and other areas.

To the dismay of the education community, the Senate GOP bill also calls for funneling $5 billion in tax dollars toward private school voucher programs favored by the Trump administration and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The proposal would offer federal tax credits to bolster state voucher programs and fund private school tuition “scholarships.” Additionally, the bill would expand access to 529 savings accounts, typically reserved for college costs, to pay for private and home schooling. The voucher language in the McConnell bill mirrors similar legislation filed by U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) to subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling costs with tax credits and other federally funded incentives.

Responding to Tuesday’s announcement, ATPE issued a statement criticizing the inclusion of the controversial private school voucher funding in a bill that purports to provide COVID-19 relief. ““Congress should be focusing on helping our nation’s public schools that are dealing with unprecedented challenges,” said ATPE State President Jimmy Lee. “We cannot afford to divert our limited resources from public schools to private entities  during a global crisis,” Lee added. View ATPE’s full press statement here.

“School choice” in the spotlight as presidential election approaches

The 2020 general election is rapidly approaching, with early voting slated to begin in Texas just over six weeks from now on October 13. Now that the presidential slate of candidates has been finalized, the focus is shifting to the candidates’ views on particular issues, including some related to education. One education-related issue, in particular, is being mentioned frequently.

President Donald Trump said Sunday, Aug. 23, he will make “school choice” a top priority if he is reelected for four more years in the White House. The Trump campaign followed up the next day with a 49-point bullet list that broadly outlines things the president hopes to do if reelected. The education section states, “Provide school choice to every child in America.” During the Republican National Convention taking place this week, First Lady Melania Trump also used her Tuesday night speech to highlight the president’s commitment to “fight for school choice to give parents the option to have their school flourish.”

While “choice” is an enticing word, and there are choices of varying educational settings that exist within the public school system, the phrase “school choice” has been used by private school proponents to market the defunding and privatization of public schools. Whether described as “school choice” or with more specific verbiage, the goal has been diverting public taxpayer dollars to private and for-profit entities through vouchers, tax credits, school choice “scholarships,” education savings accounts, and other initiatives. All of these proposals are designed to deny public schools the funding they desperately need to provide quality instruction to all students and transfer it instead to subsidize private entities that are not subject to state accountability standards, taxpayers, or voters. For many years, ATPE members have included a position in our Legislative Program expressing our association’s opposition to private school vouchers or “choice” initiatives. Currently, the ATPE Legislative Program most recently approved by our House of Delegates in July states, “ATPE opposes any program or initiative, tuition tax credit or voucher system that would direct public funds to private, home or for-profit virtual schools.”

This is not the first time President Trump has expressed support for privatization. “We’re fighting for school choice, which really is the civil rights of all time in this country,” the president said in a June 2020 speech about police reform and national protests over the killing of unarmed African-Americans. That same month, Trump accused schools of “extreme indoctrination” of children.

President Trump is also not the first to attempt to market private school vouchers by invoking the Civil Rights movement, despite the fact that vouchers originated as an attempt to avoid desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Texas) made the same civil rights argument for school choice in the 2017 legislative session and blocked attempts at providing needed resources for public schools by tying their funding to a school voucher bill. It was the push for privatization and the failure to address school funding in 2017 that led educators to dominate the 2018 midterm elections, which temporarily halted the push for vouchers in Texas and paved the way for the 2019 school finance legislation, House Bill 3.

While the president may be showing a renewed emphasis on privatization, it is not a new issue for his administration. Trump appointed wealthy GOP megadonor and privatization activist Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education during his first year in office. DeVos faced criticism for her promotion of privatization in Michigan that resulted in a dysfunctional school system and the proliferation of low-quality charter schools. She has used her federal cabinet post to continue to push privatization, including using COVID-19 relief funds as an opportunity to promote private school voucher programs and to force public schools to spend an unprecedented amount of money on private school services.

As reported in in the Austin American-Statesman last month, Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden’s campaign has described his position on “school choice” as follows:

“Joe Biden opposes the Trump/DeVos conception of ‘school choice,’ which is private school vouchers that would destroy our public schools. He’s also against for-profit and low-performing charter schools, and believes in holding all charter schools accountable. He does not oppose districts letting parents choose to send their children to public magnet schools, high-performing public charters or traditional public schools.”

While ATPE does not endorse candidates, we encourage voters to learn more about their candidates’ views on public school funding and private school vouchers or “choice” programs. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and with the 2021 legislative session on the horizon, there have already been calls for expanding privatization initiatives right here in Texas. On Teach the Vote, we profile all candidates for the Texas Legislature and invite them to participate in ATPE’s candidate survey, which includes the following question:

“Would you vote to create any type of voucher, tax credit, scholarship, education savings account, or other program aimed at paying for students, including any subpopulation of students, to attend non-public K-12 schools, such as private or home schools?”

We also track incumbent legislators’ voting records, which have included votes on privatization bills in many prior legislative sessions. Use the search tool here on Teach the Vote to research your candidates’ views on private school vouchers and other education issues ahead of the November 3 election.

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 1, 2020

If we’ve learned anything from COVID-19, it is that teaching is more than content; it is relationships. It is important to keep your friends and family relationships strong too. For more on what has happened this week, check out the latest installment of education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a phased plan to re-open Texas businesses, starting today with limited capacity at malls, movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants, museums, and libraries. Establishments are limited to 25% occupancy, although those in counties with five or fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases are allowed up to 50% occupancy. After two weeks, if there has not been a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the state will move into the next phase, loosening restrictions and opening hair salons, barbershops, gyms, and bars. Phase two could go into effect as early as May 18. One concern expressed by some Texans is that workers heading back to work in phase one are not considered “essential” and may not have access to child care, especially since Abbott has ordered schools to remain physically closed through the end of the school year.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) this week updated its main coronavirus resource page on educator support, academics, student assessment, special populations and waivers, finance, and grants. TEA’s guidance on educator certification and preparation answers questions mainly oriented to last week’s announcement that certain educator certification candidates will be able to apply for a one-year probationary certificate. In particular, candidates will pay the probationary certificate fee now, plus the standard certificate fee later, once they pass the required examinations. Candidates must also meet all requirements for initial certification, which are outlined in the Texas Administrative Code (TAC) Chapter 230, Subchapter B, General Requirements (230.11), with the exception of passing an examination. These requirements include having a bachelor’s degree and submitting to a criminal history review, though candidates who have already been fingerprinted will not have to repeat that process.

Educators in some districts may be confused and even alarmed by renewed talk of end-of-year student testing. Even though this year’s STAAR tests were waived due to the difficulty of administration, and despite the reality that any test results gathered in the current environment would be unreliable, TEA is still encouraging districts to conduct voluntary end-of-year assessments. In addition, the agency will ask districts for another round of voluntary assessments at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. The agency wants these assessments for the purposes of gathering classroom data.

For more resources related to the pandemic, visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page, and follow the ATPE lobby team via @TeachtheVote on Twitter.


FEDERAL UPDATE: The U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced this week that it will use some of the funding approved by Congress through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act for competitive grants to states that may used the money for private school vouchers. The $180 million “Rethink K-12 Education Models” or “REM” grant would be available for implementation of  voucher programs, statewide virtual learning, or other models of remote learning. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a vocal proponent of vouchers, has previously said her department would urge Congress to approve a form of voucher termed a “microgrant,” but many lawmakers were surprised by her decision to use the CARES Act funding, intended to provide coronavirus relief, in this manner. Read more about the development in this blog post here on Teach the Vote.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

DeVos also announced this week that ED would not seek additional waiver authority from Congress on the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Additionally, the Department is not requesting further waiver authority from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), but it is requesting various waivers under other federal education statutes such as the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the IDEA, and the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act that mostly pertain to flexibility in using federal funds. The CARES Act required DeVos to notify Congress 30 days after its passage on any additional requests for waiver authority.


ELECTION UPDATE: We reported last week on a Texas district court’s ruling that effectively allowed all Texans to vote by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has now appealed that decision, notifying county officials in a letter today that his appeal prevents the district judge’s ruling from taking effect in the meantime.

By state law, mail-in ballots in Texas have generally been restricted for use only by individuals who are over the age of 65, absent from the county during the election, or suffering from an illness or disability. Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak issued injunctive relief last month to expand opportunities for mail-in voting, treating fear of contracting COVID-19 under the disability portion of the statute and noting in his order, “Time is of the essence.” Representing the state, the attorney general has taken the position that a healthy person’s fear of contracting the coronavirus does not constitute a disability and therefore does not entitle such person to vote by mail. Paxton also used his letter today to warn that anyone advising voters that they can apply for a ballot by mail because of a fear of contracting the virus through in-person voting may be subject to criminal penalties.

In other news, a new poll by Public Policy Polling shows Joe Biden (D) with a narrow 47% – 46% lead over Donald Trump (R) in Texas if the November presidential election were held today. The same poll shows a slim majority of Texans disapprove of the president’s job performance, with 49% expressing disapproval compared to 46% approval. Gov. Greg Abbott’s approval was higher at 58%.

Asked about their feelings regarding the coronavirus pandemic, 45% of Texans said they are “very concerned” about being around others. Another 33% said they are “somewhat concerned,” while 21% said they are either “not very concerned” or have “no concerns.”

A 53% majority of Texans said they are in favor of allowing all registered voters to vote by mail due to health safety concerns, compared to 38% who oppose the idea. Sixty-three percent of Texans said they are either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about voting during the outbreak, yet 88% answered they still plan to vote in person in the November election if voting by mail is not an option.

Most local elections originally slated to take place tomorrow were postponed to November. The runoff election for the Texas primaries, which also would have occurred this month, has been rescheduled for July 14. Check out ATPE’s election resources and candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote to learn about candidates running for office in your area.


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) held its first-ever virtual board meeting today, May 1, 2020. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier testified live during the video-conferenced meeting, conveying our support for options to address unintended consequences of last year’s House Bill (HB) 3 for Master Teacher certificate holders.

ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier

HB 3 eliminated the Master Teacher certificates and barred them from being renewed, which means that without action by SBEC, some Master Teachers may not be able to keep their teaching assignments once their certificates expire. SBEC expressed agreement today with ATPE’s position.

The board also voted to approve several proposals to implement the Science of Teaching Reading requirements of HB 3 and discussed effects of the coronavirus on educators. Read a comprehensive summary of today’s SBEC meeting in this blog post today from Chevalier.



May is National Foster Care Month. Did you know there are nearly 17,000 Texas public school students and over 437,000 children and youth in foster care across the nation?

Students in foster care are subject to higher mobility, more absences from school, greater rates of trauma, and are 2.5 to 3.5 times more likely to be identified for special education services. The adverse childhood experiences that children in foster care experience can make learning difficult, which is why it is more important than ever to promote awareness this month as children are separated from some of the only constants and love they may know: their school and teachers.

To learn more about foster care in Texas, view the Texas Education Agency’s foster care student success resources here, information from Texas CASA here, and resources from the Child Welfare Information Gateway including an outreach toolkit with shareable graphics and messaging tools here.


Social distancing is kind of the antithesis of teaching, so teachers are finding creative ways to stay close to their students. From reading to students at a safe distance in the driveway, to special signs in students’ yards and art lessons on the lawn, teachers know their students need love as much as they need content. ATPE member Victoria Norris of Aubrey ISD in northeast Texas shared on social media this week that she made mini cutouts of her Bitmoji to send to students, along with a fun and sweet note. Special actions like these remind students how much their teachers care and lay the foundation for engagement and learning. Thank you, Victoria!

ATPE sends our thanks to all educators who are transitioning to meet the unique needs of students during this time! #TeachersCan

Do you have a story to tell? ATPE wants to hear how you are adapting to a new educational environment during the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to email us your stories, best practices for distance learning, or strategies you’re using to stay upbeat during the crisis.

DeVos uses federal coronavirus aid to fund “microgrant” vouchers

As we previously reported here on ATPE’s Teach the Vote blog, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a longtime champion of privatization, has been advocating for federal funding of “microgrants,” a relatively new term for a voucher that could be used for private schooling. When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act in late March, which included an infusion of federal cash into an Education Stabilization Fund, it was at best questionable whether Secretary DeVos could use the federal relief funds provided by the act for her “microgrants” pet project. This week, however, it has become clearer that DeVos intends to use the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to circumvent congressional approval and plow forward with a publicly-funded voucher plan using CARES Act funds.

On the heels of last week’s release of the application for CARES Act funding, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) swiftly announced this week that an additional $180 million would be available to states under a new  “Rethink K-12 Education Models” or “REM” grant program. The department pointed to a provision in the CARES Act that allows it to use 1% of the $30.75 billion allotted to the Education Stabilization Fund for “grants to states with the highest coronavirus burden to support activities under the Act.” The department’s description of the grant program states that it is intended to “address specific educational needs of students, their parents, and teachers in public and non-public elementary and secondary schools.” The funding would flow directly to state education agencies, such as the Texas Education Agency (TEA) here in our state, without any requirement that the state agency send the funding on to local school districts. This raises the distinct possibility of CARES Act relief funds being allowed to flow from states to private schools or vendors.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

Because this is a new program, DeVos has applied a waiver to the REM grants that allows the department to avoid the need for a national public comment period on the grant proposal. The REM grant application package explains that state education agencies must use the grant money for implementation of “microgrant” voucher programs, statewide virtual learning, or other models of remote learning. Each state must also have the written approval of its governor, but it appears that no public comment will be gathered at the state level either.

Congress clearly intended CARES Act funding to be funneled to states that have faced the greatest challenges as a result of the pandemic. However, ED has announced that in awarding funds under this new competitive grant program, only 40% of an applying state’s score will be based upon its “coronavirus burden,” which takes into consideration factors such as the number of COVID-19 cases per capita. In a table provided by ED to quantify the coronavirus burden for each state, Texas ranks in the 41st to 60th percentile, behind 22 other states that could apply for the $180 million in REM grants.

Some members of Congress, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle, have been quick to criticize DeVos for using the coronavirus relief act to fund, without direct congressional approval, other priorities of the secretary and the Trump administration, such as vouchers. Through our federal lobby team in Washington, D.C., ATPE has reached out to our congressional allies to express our concern and opposition to this coronavirus relief program being used for funding either traditional voucher programs or virtual voucher programs. We will be closely monitoring Texas’ actions with regard to seeking this money either as a way to fund a statewide voucher program or statewide virtual schools, which have had a dubious track record on fostering student academic achievement. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates as developments unfold.

Are “microgrants” a new name for Devos’ same old voucher proposal?

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at a White House briefing, March 27, 2020

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is asking Congress to fund “microgrants” to provide money for online learning during the coronavirus outbreak. Appearing with President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020, during a White House briefing by the national coronavirus task force, DeVos said, “I’ve always believed education funding should be tied to students, not systems, and that necessity has never been more evident.” Microgrants, as envisioned by Devos, would provide funding directly to students in a manner akin to numerous voucher proposals in the past.

Here on our Teach the Vote blog, ATPE has written about efforts by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), with high-profile support from DeVos, to pass legislation that would fund a federal voucher program. Thus far, the federal voucher proposal has gained little traction in Congress. But the recent changes to learning environments compelled by the COVID-19 crisis appear to have given Secretary DeVos a new angle to pursue funding streams for private individuals and families as an alternative to providing federal dollars directly to public schools. As reported by Education Week, DeVos announced her desires for the microgrant program last week using the same talking points she has used to argue in favor of a tax credit scholarship voucher program. The microgrant program would purportedly focus on students eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and those with an individualized education program (IEP). According to a Department of Education spokesperson cited by the article:

“The grants could be used to fund materials needed for home-based learning, like computers or software, internet access, or instructional materials. They could also support educational services like therapies for students with disabilities, tuition and fees for a public or private online learning course or program, and educational services provided by a private or public school, or tutoring, spokesperson Angela Morabito said in an email.”

The federal government is asking schools to continue to educate students while they are at home as a result of school closures or stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has made relief funding for school districts contingent upon their promise to continue instruction and provide distance learning.

Many voucher programs have attempted to provide funding for online learning as an alternative to  classroom settings with the intent of diverting students and funding away from the traditional public education system. The $5 billion voucher program DeVos has been promoting in Congress since long before the coronavirus outbreak overlaps with parts of her new microgrant proposal. According to Chalkbeat:

“The idea — especially the grants for students that could pay tuition — is a glimpse at how DeVos will use the upheaval to advance her ideas about education. A proponent of private-school vouchers and school choice, DeVos has long downplayed the role of the federal government and scoffed at those who see school buildings or school districts as education’s key organizing principle.”

So far, the Democratically controlled U.S. House of Representatives has served as a firewall against DeVos’s and the Trump administration’s voucher proposals. The microgrant program would need funding with the approval of Congress to move forward. With assistance from our Washington-based lobby team, ATPE has been and will continue to be communicating with the Texas congressional delegation about the need to maximize funding for public schools during this crisis without diluting those funds through an opportunistic voucher program with a catchy new name.

As a founding member of the Coalition for Public Schools, ATPE has long opposed vouchers and the privatization of public education. Due to the current crisis, many Americans across the nation are experiencing a renewed understanding of, and appreciation for, the importance of public schools and public school educators. Now is the time to bolster the nation’s system of public schools and the teachers who work in them, rather than finding ways to divert funding and dismantle our community schools.


4/30/20 UPDATE:
During her White House press conference appearance on March 27, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stated, “We will propose Congress provide microgrants to help students continue to learn.” This statement  was interpreted as an indication that DeVos believed funding for the microgrant program was not yet approved by Congress and available under existing law. Despite initially signaling that she would seek congressional action to provide for future funding of microgrants, Secretary DeVos has since announced that she intends to use existing funding provided by the CARES Act, which had already been passed at the time of the statement above, to fund at least a limited version of the microgrant voucher program. Whether or not the secretary actually has the authority to use CARES Act funding for this purpose is a developing story. Stay tuned to our Teach the Vote blog for updates.

Pres. Trump to pitch vouchers in SOTU speech

President Donald Trump is expected to voice his support for a federal voucher bill filed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in tonight’s State of the Union (SOTU) address, according to the Houston Chronicle.

U.S. Secretary of Education and Trump appointee Betsy DeVos, whose past privatization efforts wrought havoc on public schools in Michigan, has backed Cruz’s voucher legislation. The proposal would allow individuals and businesses to divert public tax dollars that could otherwise go toward public schools, using them to subsidize private and for-profit academies instead. President Trump touted the bill himself during his 2019 SOTU address, and he is expected to delve deeper into the subject during this year’s speech.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is also an important backer of Cruz’s voucher bill. Some privatization supporters hope Trump’s remarks tonight will renew the voucher debate in Texas, where a majority of voters oppose spending public money on private schools that are unaccountable to taxpayers and can refuse to serve many Texas children. Opposing private school vouchers has long been an ATPE priority and a component of the ATPE Legislative Program which is approved annually by our members. In most cases, a voucher would not adequately cover a child’s tuition or transportation for private schooling. Such a program would divert money away from local public schools to provide a tax break to parents, many of whom likely plan to send their children to a private school already, with or without a voucher.

Democratic and Republican voters alike issued a scalding rebuke of voucher legislation in the 2018 Texas elections, when several pro-voucher legislators were swept out of office and replaced with a bipartisan class of pro-public education lawmakers.

“I think most legislators in Texas have gotten the message that parents don’t want a dollar-off coupon to a private school across town. They want their neighborhood schools to be the best they can be, and that means giving resources to schools so they can be the best they can be,” ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins told the Houston Chronicle.

Cruz’s bill is unlikely to go far in the Democratically-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, but the Houston Chronicle reports that 10 Republican members of the Texas congressional delegation have signed on, including Reps. Brian Babin, Michael Burgess, Michael Cloud, Dan Crenshaw, Bill Flores, Kenny Marchant, Pete Olson, Randy Weber, Roger Williams, and Ron Wright.

The State of the Union address is scheduled to air at 8 p.m. tonight, Feb. 4, 2020, on all major networks.

Embed from Getty Images

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 24, 2020

There is just over one week left to ensure you are registered to vote! After you have your voting plan ready, sit back, relax, and check out this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting for the special election runoffs has been going on this week and continues through today with the election wrapping up next Tuesday, January 28.  So far turnout for most of these elections has been low. In House District (HD) 148, for example, fewer than 500 people had voted either in person or by mail through the first three days of early voting. Even in the race to represent HD 28, the most hotly contested of the races, only about 2000 votes had been cast, a small minority of the districts total registered voters. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins looks at more of the trends in the HD 28 race in this week’s Election Roundup.

With such low turnout in this sort of election, every vote cast is hugely important. We encourage all educators and public education supporters to vote in every election for which they are eligible. For more information on the special election candidates see our recent blog post by ATPE Government Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.

As soon as the special elections wrap up next week all eyes will turn to the Texas primary elections. Early voting for the primary starts in just over three weeks, February 18, 2020, with election day two weeks later on March 3, 2020.

Remember that the deadline to register to vote in the primaries is Feb. 3. You can verify your voter registration status here.

As the primaries get closer, here are some helpful resources for educators and the general public:

  • Learn more about the candidates by checking out their profiles here on Teach the Vote. All candidates running in 2020 for the Texas House or Senate or the State Board of Education are featured on our website, with their answers to the ATPE Candidate Survey (where available) and existing legislators’ voting records on education issues.
  • TexasEducatorsVote.com is another great source for election-related resources, advice, and voting reminders.
  • Additionally, check out the upcoming candidate forums around the state, kicking off next Friday January 29, being sponsored by the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation. Click here for details and the full list of their “For the Future” town hall events beginning this month.

 


The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue this week. The case centers on a voucher proposal passed by the Montana legislature that was subsequently stuck down by Montana’s supreme court for violating that state’s constitutional provisions against the use of public funding for religious schools. Check out this post on SCOTUSblog.com for more insights on the oral arguments. A decision in the case is expected by this summer.


Thank you to all ATPE members who answered our first “Your Voice” survey this winter on Advocacy Central. The results provided valuable insight into which policy issues our members want lawmakers to work on in the future. For a closer look at the issues ranked highest, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.