Morath pitches new charters to skeptical SBOE

The State Board of Education (SBOE) is meeting in person this week to tackle a packed scheduled that includes discussion of Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum standards for science, physical education, and health. The board is also discussing whether to approve and spend state tax dollars on eight new charter school systems recommended by the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

The board spent Tuesday hearing from hundreds of people voicing their opinions about the TEKS up for discussion. After a 13-hour day of testimony, the board resumed business Wednesday with its regularly scheduled update from Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath.

Commissioner Morath began Wednesday with a status report on reading academies, which all kindergarten through third grade teachers must complete by the 2022-23 school year. There are 20,000 teachers in more than 500 cohorts currently participating in the academies through 38 authorized providers.

The commissioner focused the majority of his presentation on a preemptive defense of the eight new charter schools he is recommending the SBOE approve this week. The board holds veto authority over all new proposed charter organizations, but that veto does not apply to individual campuses or expansions once an initial charter organization is approved. A bipartisan collection of members sharply questioned Morath over charter policy and the numbers used in his sales pitch Wednesday.

In response to a question by Member Tom Maynard (R-Florence), the commissioner said the total number of charter schools has grown from 484 in 2017 to 553 in 2019. The commissioner downplayed the total cost of charter schools, which Member Matt Robinson (R-Friendswood) pointed out are completely funded by state dollars through the Foundation School Program (FSP). This makes charter schools significantly more expensive to the state than traditional independent school districts (ISD), which are funded by a combination of state, local, and other funds.

The eight new charters the commissioner is proposing are estimated to cost the state $12 million per year once they are operating at capacity. This does not include the additional cost once they expand to additional campuses. Charter schools have submitted more than 90 expansion applications to TEA this year alone, which could cost the state an additional $90 million per year. At least 62 have been approved so far.

Member Robinson also noted that Texas faces an $11 billion decline in state revenue as a result of the economic recession driven by COVID-19. This has placed unprecedented stress on the state budget, prompting state leaders to call for 5% across-the-board cuts at state agencies. Robinson pointed out that despite this fiscal crisis, Commissioner Morath has increased the number of new charter schools he is proposing to open at the state’s expense from five last year to eight this year.

Member Pat Hardy (R-Fort Worth) added that some of the charters currently up for approval are based in California and New York. Member Hardy asked the commissioner, “How do we talk to taxpayers about sending tax dollars out of state?” Morath replied that the economy is globally interconnected. Member Hardy also asked whether only the top-performing schools are approved for expansion, leading the commissioner to state that while D- and F-rated charters were allowed to expand in the past, he believes they are no longer being allowed to grow.

“Is this the right year to be playing Shark Tank?” asked Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville), comparing the proposed spending of state dollars on additional charter school experiments to the well-known TV show where inventors of new products pitch their ideas to investors.

Many of the board members’ concerns about spending state dollars on new charter schools at a time when Texas school districts are needing additional resources to combat the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic mirror those of ATPE and other organizations. Back in April, ATPE joined a coalition of 18 organizations that wrote to Commissioner Morath asking for a moratorium on charter expansions this year.

During today’s discussion, Member Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) echoed previous concerns about the higher state cost of funding charter schools, which the commissioner’s presentation to the board omitted. Perez added, “There’s a lot of good information you could be sharing, but this just isn’t it.”

Member Pam Little (R-Fairview) raised the issue of charters schools sending students with disciplinary issues back to their local ISD, while money stays with the charter. Commissioner Morath disputed Little’s characterization of the process.

Finally, Member Lawrence Allen (D-Houston) asked the commissioner a separate series of questions relating to educators. Asked by Member Allen whether TEA is collecting data on teacher retention under the threat of returning to school during the pandemic, Morath answered that the agency will not have that info until next September or October of 2021. Asked about resignations outside of the no-fault window, Morath suggested there are “a variety of exceptions” that will be handled on a case-by-case basis through the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC).

Following the commissioner’s comments, the board turned its attention to the Permanent School Fund (PSF). The board approved a $300 million one-time payment to the Available School Fund (ASF) via the real estate special fund account (RESFA) in order to support districts and cover the state’s obligations under last year’s House Bill (HB) 3. The board also tentatively approved a 4.0% distribution rate to the ASF for the 2022-23 biennium.

Members then spent the remainder of the day debating changes to the TEKS that were up for discussion on Tuesday. Any unfinished business from Wednesday’s meeting will be taken up following a public hearing scheduled for Thursday morning over the new charter applicants. Stay tuned to ATPE’s Teach the Vote blog for updates on the board’s actions this week.

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Senate task force includes ATPE recommendations in letter to education commissioner

The Texas Senate Democratic Caucus issued a letter signed by all 12 caucus members to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath last week with recommendations to assist Texas schools as the fall semester begins amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The recommendations came from a task force comprised of education organizations and stakeholders that included ATPE. Several of ATPE’s suggestions, such as including “meaningful input from parents, staff and other stakeholders” and using “objective criteria” in making back-to-school operational decisions, as well as, “seek[ing] the appropriate federal waivers to pause the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR),” were included in the senators’ final letter to Commissioner Morath.

The senators also called on the commissioner to provide districts with adequate and reliable funding, plus sufficient flexibility to enable them to meet students’ needs while also protecting health and safety. The full text of the recommendations approved by the task force can be found here. The senators also included a document with detailed rationales for each of the recommendations.

ATPE submitted our own set of recommendations earlier this summer to Morath and other state leaders. View our original July 2 recommendations for the state and school districts here, and our updated July 14 recommendations here. In August, ATPE also sent recommendations on accommodations for staff concerns related to COVID-19, which were sent to all Texas superintendents. Find more COVID-19 resources from ATPE here on our resources page.

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From The Texas Tribune: Many Texas students will return to classrooms Tuesday. Little will be normal.

As students across Texas return to schools for in-person classes, there will be masks, distancing and lunches eaten at desks. Many students will remain at home, joining in on laptops and phones.

Students sit distanced from one another in the lunch room at Jacob’s Well Elementary School in Wimberley. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

On a normal first day of school, Texas children would wake up early to cram into school buses, eager to huddle and chat with their friends in the hallways before streaming toward their classrooms.

On Tuesday, as many of the state’s biggest urban and suburban districts return for their first day of in-person instruction, there is anxiety mingled with that excitement. Many parents will not be allowed to walk their kindergarteners inside for their first day. Teenagers will be shooed away if they congregate around their lockers. Meals will be grab-and-go, often eaten in classrooms instead of raucous cafeterias. Students and teachers will wear masks, trying to stay as far apart from one another as possible even as they come together for the first time in months.

Many kids will not be entering their schools at all. Some of the state’s biggest districts, including Houston and Dallas independent school districts, will not open their classrooms for in-person learning until late September or October, and they may even ask the state for more time if the virus isn’t under control.

In-person instruction will look very different from campus to campus. Some districts will bring students back in phases, starting with those who most need in-person education, like students with disabilities or those learning English. In San Antonio’s North East ISD, no more than five students will be in each classroom this week. Other districts are welcoming back all students who opted for in-person instruction at the same time.

Only about half of Seguin ISD’s students are expected to head into classrooms Tuesday morning for the first day of in-person instruction. They will walk past thermal scanners, which can measure the body temperature of about 30 people at a time and detect fevers that may be signs of illness. Middle and high school students will sit in desks spread apart, in many cases less than 6 feet with dividers, and younger students will be separated by dividers at large round tables.

Most teachers will be simultaneously instructing 12 to 16 students in their classrooms and more at home tuning in from cellphones or laptops. Some teachers will sit in empty classrooms and broadcast lessons to 20 or 30 students. A small number who have health conditions or young children received waivers to teach virtually from their homes.

“Things are ever changing. The one thing I’ve appreciated that stayed constant was the interest in students returning has been at 50%,” Superintendent Matthew Gutierrez said of his 7,200-student district east of San Antonio. “I believe that we can safely social distance at that number in our buildings.”

Parent interest in in-person instruction varies greatly across the state. In some hard-hit parts of the state, like Mercedes ISD in South Texas, the vast majority of parents are opting for virtual learning. In Texarkana’s Bowie County, where coronavirus cases have stayed relatively low, most Maud ISD parents have already sent their kids to school in person.

Local health authorities continue to clash with school districts over whether it’s safe to open, concerned that Labor Day festivities could lead to higher case numbers, as Memorial Day did this spring. Fort Bend County health officials sent Katy ISD a letter in late July urging it not to open classrooms or start extracurricular activities “before late September in the vast majority of cases,” until the “effect of the Labor Day holiday can be determined.”

Katy ISD, which has schools in Fort Bend, Harris and Waller counties, plans to reopen classrooms Tuesday.

When schools were forced by the pandemic to hurriedly switch to virtual learning in the spring, most Texas districts didn’t require teachers to conduct live virtual lessons, but more are attempting that type of instruction this year. That means many teachers will have to simultaneously instruct two groups of students: those in front of them, and those watching from their iPads and laptops.

In Seguin ISD, most of the lessons will also be recorded for students who couldn’t find time to log in and watch live, important in a district with 71% low-income students, Gutierrez said. “You have parents that have multiple jobs. They’re shift workers. To expect that our students are going to go through their entire day at home alongside the face-to-face learners is really unreasonable when they don’t have that support, that structure or that supervision at home. They would be missing out on instruction.”

He acknowledged that those students will be missing out on the benefits of live instruction: having a teacher correct their pronunciation of a challenging word or being able to ask questions about a complex math problem in real time.

Austin ISD starts virtually Tuesday and plans to open classrooms in early October. Eight-year-old Isla Arb will start third grade at Graham Elementary School online Tuesday and will continue virtually to avoid endangering her grandmother, who has cancer, said her mother, Katie Arb. Both Katie Arb and her husband work full time, so they hired another mother to watch Isla and her 4-year-old sibling on weekdays. They’re paying her about $15 per hour, as well as paid sick leave and vacation, replacing some of the pay she had received as a dental hygienist before the pandemic.

“The bulk of her responsibilities are going to be to keep the 4-year-old away from our 8-year-old,” Katie Arb said.

Isla is excited about getting to wear a unicorn onesie to virtual school every day at the messy desk in her bedroom. But she got quiet when she thought about her classmates and teachers returning to campus in October. “I don’t want them to get coronavirus,” she said sadly.

Even students who return to Austin ISD’s campuses will effectively be learning virtually. When she goes back to school in early October, Austin ISD high school theater teacher Rachel Seney will sit in a classroom, with a mask on, leading a virtual class through musical numbers or dramatic exercises. Students spread 6 feet apart will sit in front of her on their laptops, each one completing assignments or watching a different teacher deliver instruction.

Students will spend nearly the entire day, including lunch, in one classroom, a plan intended to reduce the public health risks during a pandemic. If one child or staff member gets infected, it will be easy to trace exactly who they were in contact with — meaning there’s no need to shut down entire campuses or districts.

Seney, who teaches at predominantly white and high-income Anderson High School, said she sees the model as more equitable since all students end up learning virtually in some way. “You’re not teaching equitably if you have some students in front of you and some students online. Now that some schools have started going back and are using that model, I’m already seeing it’s not happening,” she said. “It’s not really effective.”

Her sister Blair Seney will be doing just that at Cypress Falls High School in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, miles away in Harris County’s suburbs. A special education educator, she helps modify assignments or provide extra time on testing for students with disabilities alongside a primary classroom teacher.

“We’re expected to teach at the same time the kids that are in the classroom who don’t have access to technology and the students at home who are on the computer,” Blair Seney said. She has been a constant agitator for more safety requirements in schools and more flexibility for teachers terrified to return in person. In August, she stood in the back of a school board meeting with a sign that said, “Your attendance is required at my funeral,” while her mother, also a teacher at the school, spoke at the public hearing. That month, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD teachers unsuccessfully sued the district, asking not to be required to report to their campuses for training.

About 42% of students have decided to attend school in person, according to a district survey. Often, Blair Seney pulls students into her office, a tiny storage closet with no ventilation, for one-on-one assistance. “I’m not sure how that’s going to work,” she said. “It is definitely a thought that’s keeping me up at night, trying to figure out how we’re going to make all this work.”

Health precautions vary among districts and schools. Under Gov. Greg Abbott’s order, everyone over the age of 10 must wear a mask. But guidance from the Texas Education Agency leaves districts largely on their own to design protections against a virus that spreads undetected in as many as 40% of those who have it. In many districts, maintaining 6 feet of distance among students will simply not be possible.

“It’s very scattershot,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “There’s a huge variation in the policies that are being put in place within districts to protect the health and safety of educators, from physical structures to logistics to access to [personal protective equipment]. Absolutely there have been districts that say, ‘Here’s your two gloves and your mask, that’s all you’re getting.’”

In Houston-area Humble ISD, where kids have been back in classrooms since late August, “it has been surprisingly normal,” said Timbers Elementary School fifth grade teacher Stacey Ward. “Question mark?”

The 10- and 11-year-olds who tramp in for Ward’s science and social studies classes have been surprisingly compliant about wearing their masks, though she sometimes has to remind them, with a single word — “mask!” or “nose” — to ensure the fabric covers their noses, too. Every other student sits behind a plexiglass barrier, spaced out as far apart as possible, but with 18 to 20 students per class, it has not been possible to keep 6 feet among them.

Instruction stops five minutes early so kids can wipe down their desks. Ward collects their books at the end of the day. There is no sharing of supplies.

And Ward has made one more adjustment. Typically, when students enter or exit her classroom, they get three options: high-five, hug or handshake.

This year, she’s pivoted: “Now, it’s an elbow, a knee or a foot,” she said in a phone interview after her fourth day of in-person school. Elbow bumps are the runaway favorite.

Afterward, the students know to take a squirt of hand sanitizer. “It’s normal to them now,” she said.

ProPublica’s Mollie Simon contributed reporting.

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

This article, “Many Texas students will return to classrooms Tuesday. Little will be normal.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 4, 2020

This weekend we celebrate Labor Day in America. The essential work of public education has never been more prominent, and ATPE thanks all educators and staff for their service! Here is a summary of this week’s education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: This week, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) launched “Project Restore”– a six-part webinar series that provides trauma-informed mental health training to teachers. The training is meant to help teachers not only reach their students, but also work out their own COVID-induced stresses. TEA also made several smaller updates to other aspects of its COVID-19 resource page. Read ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier’s blog post for more.

ATPE has been working hard to facilitate information-sharing during the pandemic. Be sure to check out our COVID-19 FAQs and Resources for new answers to commonly asked questions, watch our easy-to-understand webcasts on educator rights and leave options and disability accommodations, and explore our interactive pandemic timeline. For opportunities to take action, ATPE members can use Advocacy Central to communicate with elected officials, and anyone can take our survey on parent-teacher collaboration.


ELECTION UPDATE: H-E-B grocery store owner and public education advocate Charles Butt wrote  to the Texas Supreme Court this week, supporting Harris County’s decision to send vote-by-mail applications to its residents. Butt says in the letter, “It’s always been my impression that the more people who vote, the stronger our democracy will be.” For more on the letter and the Texas Senate District 30 special election on September 29, see this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


States and schools should not expect a federal waiver of testing requirements this year, according to President Trump’s education secretary. Betsy DeVos wrote a letter to chief state school officers on Wednesday with this warning, urging them to demonstrate their “resolve” by continuing to administer standardized tests to students. ATPE is among countless organizations that have called for a waiver of testing requirements this year amid lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more in this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.


With more Texans considering mail-in voting for the November general election, ATPE has developed a set of tips and social media graphics to help voters understand what is required. Check out our new resources on applying for a mail-in ballot in this new blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter. Find out if you meet the eligibility requirements to apply for a mail-in ballot, and submit your application by Sept. 19 to ensure you will have enough time to cast your vote.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) held a virtual meeting this week where they received an update on the performance of the permanent school fund (PSF) and advanced a new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) subchapter on positive character traits, as required by House Bill (HB) 1026 passed by the 86th Texas Legislature in 2019.

According to Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff and outside consultants hired to help monitor the fund’s investments, the PSF is in good health and slowly recovering from the economic recession sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Focus has recently turned to management of the fund, which is split between the SBOE and another state agency. An outside consulting firm delivered a report to the board this week with recommendations aimed at improving management.

The board’s 15 members are scheduled to return to Austin in person on Tuesday for a week-long meeting that will address curriculum standards for science and health education, as well as whether to open more charter schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more about this week’s SBOE meeting in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


ATPE is asking state officials to take a closer look at planned education spending cuts that could unnecessarily hurt at-risk students. An article in the Austin American-Statesman this week revealed a summary from the Legislative Budget Board that shows how state agencies plan to cut their spending by 5% this year, as directed by state leaders back in May. The planned reductions in K-12 education spending for 2020-21 include across-the-board cuts to several state-funded programs and initiatives, although most of the education budget was exempted from the order to withhold funds. The Windham School District and Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs (JJAEPs) would see reduced funding this year, as would Communities in Schools programs that serve at-risk students. ATPE issued a press statement today urging state officials to consider more strategic reductions in this year’s spending that would cause fewer negative impacts on Texas’ most vulnerable students.

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So, you’re thinking about voting by mail?

It might feel like this election season, much like the coronavirus, began roughly 42 years ago, but traditionally the real beginning of the presidential election season is the first week of September—i.e., now. That means there are two things you need to do right away: Make sure you are registered to vote, and decide if you are going to vote by mail.

Because of COVID-19, unprecedented numbers of Americans are considering voting by mail. If you are reading this post, there’s a good chance you might be, too. If you wish to vote by mail in November 2020, you should print or request your application now, fill it out as soon as you have it, and mail it to your election clerk ASAP.

Who can vote by mail in Texas?

Let’s dig into the logistics of voting by mail. If you live in 44 of the other 49 states, or the District of Columbia, you have the unrestricted right to request an absentee ballot, and you may even be sent a mail-in ballot automatically if you are a registered voter. Here in Texas, however, you must jump through some additional hoops. Not everyone is qualified to vote by mail in Texas. To request an absentee ballot by mail, you must otherwise be eligible to vote and fall into at least one of the following categories:

  • 65 years of age or older;
  • disabled;
  • out of the country on election day and the early voting period; or
  • incarcerated but not convicted (as a presently incarcerated convict is not eligible to vote).

Regarding eligibility due to disability, the Texas Supreme Court has said fear of catching a disease (i.e., COVID-19) does not qualify as a disability. The court has also stated that neither an election clerk nor the state is authorized to ask a voter citing disability on an absentee ballot application what that disability is; the election clerk must take the voter at their word when they mark disability on their absentee ballot application. In fact, writing in a specific disability might invalidate your request.

How can I receive a mail-in ballot in in Texas?

If you are eligible to vote by mail, follow these steps to receive your ballot.

  1. Print a ballot-by-mail application at texas.gov/elections/voter/reqabbm.shtml, or order an application online from the Texas Secretary of State or a third-party site such as vote.org.
  2. Complete the application. Again, do not write in a specific disability if that is your qualifying reason to receive an absentee ballot.
  3. Sign and date the application. Be sure to sign your absentee ballot application in the exact same way you will sign your actual absentee ballot. The most common reason absentee ballots are rejected is because the signature on the ballot and the signature on the ballot application do not match.
  4. After you complete your ballot application, affix postage to the application (if it is in postcard form), or place the application inside a stamped envelope.
  5. Mail the application to your county’s election administrator. You can find the mailing address for your county’s election official here. Do NOT mail your completed application back to the Secretary of State’s office. The Secretary of State’s office will throw it away.
  6. Finally, because your county election official is not required to inform you if your application is rejected, you should call your county election office about two weeks after you send in your application to verify you have been placed on the absentee ballot list, assuming you haven’t already received your ballot in the mail.

County election clerks must send mail-in-ballots to voters already on the absentee ballot list at least 30 days prior to the election. This means any eligible voter whose valid application has been received by September 19 (45 days prior to the election) will receive a mail-in ballot by October 4. You can still return an application for ballot by mail after September 19, but the election clerk is not required to send you a mail-in-ballot until seven days after your application has been received, processed, and found to be valid. The closer to the election you send in your application, the more likely you will not receive your absentee ballot before election day. That is especially true this year with expected increases in the number of applications and potential postal delays.

ATPE has created the following graphic you can use or share on social media to help folks easily understand who is eligible to vote by mail in Texas and how to apply for a ballot by mail.

2020 Ballot by Mail Flyer

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TEA adds “Project Restore” trauma training to COVID-19 resources

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has launched a trauma-informed training webinar series called “Project Restore.” The series of videos, only the first of which is posted for now, is meant to help teachers learn about trauma and apply the training in practice with their own students, as well as to combat their own stress. The second video in the series, set to be released September 10, is specifically about helping educators reflect and work through the effects of the pandemic on their lives. The trainings offer Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credits and count for the trauma-informed training requirements of Senate Bill 11 passed by the 86th Texas Legislature in 2019.

Other significant updates to TEA’s COVID-19 Support and Guidance web page this week include minor updates to the agency’s public health guidance document to more clearly define the phrase “on-campus” for purposes of reporting cases; presence on a school bus is included in the definition. The agency also made its regular and continual updates to the Texas Home Learning website. Updates were also made to TEA’s remote instruction guidance and attendance and enrollment FAQ to clarify how asynchronous instruction works for students who do not have access to Internet or devices. Lastly, the federal funding and grants FAQ on the agency’s website newly explains that school districts are allowed to keep migrant students enrolled throughout the year.

As always, please visit ATPE’s frequently-updated COVID-19 FAQs and Resources web page for Texas educators for additional, up-to-date information.

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Texas election roundup: HEB owner advocates for voter safety

Charles Butt, the owner of beloved Texas grocery chain H-E-B, wrote a letter to the Texas Supreme Court this week arguing in support of the ability of Texans to vote by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter comes in response to a fight between Harris County and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over voting by mail, which unfortunately has become a partisan issue.

“We’ve worked hard to give customers the opportunities to buy their food in the safest way. In light of this, I also support efforts to allow voting by mail, which is the safest means for people to exercise this vital right during this time,” wrote Mr. Butt. “It’s always been my impression that the more people who vote, the stronger our democracy will be.”

Houston has become the focal point in the battle over voting by mail. In the latest turn, the Texas Supreme Court has ordered Harris County not to send all voters applications for mail-in ballots. Paxton filed the original lawsuit in response to a decision by the Harris County clerk to send applications to all voters in the county with the aim of ensuring safer voting during the pandemic. The clerk now plans to send applications to all voters over the age of 65, which is just one of the categories of persons eligible to vote by mail.

It’s important to note that applications are not the same as ballots. A voter must meet the requirements for voting by mail and return a completed application for a mail-in ballot to their county election official in order to receive a ballot in the mail. Once the voter receives their actual ballot, they can fill it out and mail it back to the county election department to cast their vote.

The field of candidates is now set for the special election scheduled for September 29 in Senate District (SD) 30 in North Texas. The special election comes after state Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) announced plans to resign the seat in anticipation of his likely election to the U.S. Congress. SD 30 voted to reelect U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) by a margin of more than 44%, making it virtually certain the Senate seat will remain in Republican hands.

Friday marked the deadline to file for the open seat, and several contenders have thrown their hats into the ring. The Republican candidates include state Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster), Denton Mayor Chris Watts, beauty salon owner Shelley Luther, bootmaker Craig Carter, and consultant Andy Hopper. Union activist and electrician Jacob Minter is the lone Democrat to file. Early voting runs Sept. 14 through 25.

The latest Texas poll shows President Donald Trump (R) and former Vice President Joe Biden (D) remain in a statistical tie. A Morning Consult survey conducted after the two party conventions shows Trump leading Biden 48% to 47% in Texas, which is within the poll’s margin of error. The 1% margin is unchanged from before the conventions, in which Trump led Biden by 47% to 46%.

October 4 is the last day to register to vote for the Nov. 3 presidential election. You can check your registration status here and get started on your registration if you are eligible and not already registered.

 

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Betsy DeVos tells states not to expect student testing waivers

Betsy DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sent a letter to the top school official in every state today regarding federal requirements for student testing in the 2020-21 school year. States requested and the secretary granted a waiver of testing mandates for 2019-20 when the novel coronavirus forced schools to abruptly shut down during the spring. However, DeVos makes it clear in her Sept. 3 letter that the Trump administration has no intention of waiving the testing requirements again this year.

Below is an excerpt from the letter in which DeVos claims there is broad support for testing and urges the states to demonstrate their “resolve” in these challenging times by continuing to administer the assessments to students:

“Several of your colleagues recently inquired about the possibility of waivers to relieve states of the requirement to administer standardized tests during School Year (SY) 2020-2021. You will recall that, within a very short time, waivers were granted to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education this past spring following the declaration of a national emergency. That was the right call, given the limited information available about the virus at the time and the need to stop its spread, as well as the practical realities limiting the administration of assessments. However, it is now our expectation that states will, in the interest of students, administer summative assessments during the 2020-2021 school year, consistent with the requirements of the law and following the guidance of local health officials. As a result, you should not anticipate such waivers being granted again.”

A growing number of elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum, parent groups, and education associations including ATPE have called for student testing requirements to be waived in 2020-21. As we have previously reported here on Teach the Vote, Texas Governor Greg Abbott removed a few of the high stakes attached to STAAR test results this year but has not shown interest in a broader waiver of testing requirements, despite the fact that many schools have had to delay the start of the new school year. The ATPE House of Delegates also passed a resolution this summer calling for a waiver of STAAR and TELPAS requirements this year due to the ongoing negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education system.

While there has been widespread bipartisan support for cutting back on student testing, the general election coming up in November will play a large role in determining whether high-stakes tests are actually administered this year and used for such purposes as school accountability grades and determining teachers’ evaluations and compensation. Stay tuned to our Teach the Vote blog for updates.

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SBOE holds abbreviated virtual meeting this week

SBOE virtual meeting, Sept. 1, 2020

On Tuesday, Sept. 1, the State Board of Education (SBOE) met for the first of two virtual meetings this week in order to clear a handful of less controversial items from the board’s agenda before all 15 members meet in person next week. The board discussed the next round of requirements for instructional materials and held separate meetings in their various committees.

The board’s Committee on School Finance/Permanent School Fund (PSF) received a report on management of the PSF by investment consulting firm RVK. The report is a result of House Bill (HB) 4388 which required the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to conduct a study regarding PSF distributions.

The PSF provides the state’s share of funding for public schools in Texas. The majority of the PSF is managed by the SBOE, but a portion of the fund consisting of real estate investments is managed by the School Land Board (SLB) under the General Land Office (GLO). The 86th Texas Legislature in 2019 examined the split management structure of the fund after a dispute arose between the SBOE and SLB over changes the SLB made to the way it has typically distributed funds.

The consultants determined that the sustainable distribution rate from the total PSF is between 3.26% and 3.46% based on current market conditions, current capital markets forecasts, current investment strategies, and a review of other key variables. That breaks down into 3.2% from the portion of the fund managed by the SBOE and between 5.28% and 5.70% from the portion of the fund managed by the SLB.

Since 2003, the PSF has grown at an annual rate of 3.1% on average, while assets per student have increased by 1.3%. Distributions per student on a real basis have fallen 1.4% since 2003 but have grown 3.8% over last 10 years. Total distributions from both the SBOE and SLB have remained largely constant over the last 10 years, at around 3.3%.

The PSF’s stated goal is to achieve intergenerational equity, but the consultants noted, “There is a distinct lack of clarity in precisely how intergenerational equity is to be defined.” The report also concluded that distributions will likely vary year to year because of the unpredictability of distributions from the SLB’s portion of the fund, and suggested the state consider a rules-based methodology for distributing funds, which is common practice in other states.

Agency staff in charge of overseeing the PSF said the fund is recovering from the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. BNY Mellon Asset Servicing presented members a with the fund’s second quarter report, which concurred that markets are improving. That said, the fund underperformed against the PSF benchmark and ranked in the 43rd percentile among peer funds greater than $1 billion for the quarter.

After TEA staff assured members that the fund has met the performance requirements established in law in order to protect the fund’s long-term health, the committee voted to make a distribution of $1.1 billion that will be available to schools for fiscal year 2021.

The board will meet again on Wednesday to discuss and approve items considered in today’s committee meetings. Members are scheduled to meet in person for a more extensive agenda next week.

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Aug. 28, 2020

Back-to-school is in full gear for more districts across Texas, while others will not begin until after Labor Day. Whether you’re back in class or still getting ready to meet your new students,  check out this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released official correspondence this week detailing the new COVID-19 case reporting requirements for on-campus students, staff, and teachers in schools. Weekly public reporting of the data on the Department of State Health Services website is expected to start at the end of September. TEA also updated several of its resources this week, including a language change on how districts should determine confirmed COVID-19 cases. For more detail, read ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier’s blog post.

ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page is always a good resource for educators looking for commonly asked questions and answers that our Member Legal Services team facilitates. Some topics have even been recorded as extremely informative webcasts – catch our educator rights webcast here and our more recent webcast on leave options and disability accommodations here. ATPE members can also use Advocacy Central to communicate with their elected officials . Don’t forget to take our survey on parent-teacher collaboration!


ELECTION UPDATE:  The race to fill Texas Senate District 30 heated up this week with three candidates making announcements that they plan to vie for the seat. The deadline to file is 5 p.m. today, Aug. 28.  If you live in this northeast Texas district, be sure to stay abreast of the news and get ready to vote in the special election on September 29! In other news, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy provided testimony before Congress this week, defending his decisions impacting the speed and reliability of the USPS during a critical election year. Read more about these developments in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


School choice is emerging as a top talking point as the presidential election nears. The Trump campaign and numerous speakers at the Republican National Convention touted school choice this week, some even echoing the dubious statement that school choice is the “civil rights” issue of our time. While Trump says he will push for a national school voucher program, Biden makes clear that he opposes diverting public dollars from public neighborhood schools to private institutions. Read more about ATPE’s stance on the privatization of public education in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


ATPE launched a new COVID-19 timeline this week that includes top events related to the pandemic and Texas education, from the federal level all the way down to certain school districts. The events start in early March and conveniently link to news articles and blog posts here on Teach the Vote. Read more about the timeline in this blog post by ATPE staff.

 


Laura Yeager

Public education advocate and parent Laura Yeager contributed a guest post to Teach the Vote this week on the importance of reliable and consistent funding for public schools. Even with the cost of education rising during the pandemic (think more PPE, cleaning, devices, etc.), districts will only be held harmless for drops in attendance for the first 12 weeks of this school year. A lack of consistent funding after this “COVID-19 cliff” puts our public schools and the communities they serve at great risk.


This week ATPE submitted public comments on proposed rules that would eliminate the expiration date on “Legacy Master Teacher” certificates. The State Board for Educator Certification’s (SBEC) proposed rules would fix the unintended consequences of last year’s House Bill 3, which have put some educators’ teaching assignments in jeopardy. Read more about the issue in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

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