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.

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

Educators won’t see their classrooms filled with students anytime soon, so “emergency remote learning” and teacher parades will have to suffice in the meantime. Here is a look at this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: As we reported on our blog last week, Gov. Greg Abbott is slowly rolling out plans for a gradual reopening of Texas businesses, with more information expected to come from the governor on April 27. Abbott has ordered schools to remain physically closed through the end of the school year, while allowing educators to access school buildings to carry out their duties. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has shared guidance on entering school buildings, which states that teachers should self-screen, maintain social distancing, and wear a face covering, among other things.

TEA has also added to its website a COVID-19 Support page for Texas educators. This resource page has a more limited scope than TEA’s main coronavirus resource section, focusing on topics of interest to educators, such as certification and evaluation.

The educator support page features new guidance this week for individuals pursuing educator certification, including details on a waiver from Gov. Abbott that allows certain educator certification candidates to apply for a one-year probationary certificate. These candidates will have to complete the fingerprinting process, which – while safer for students – will also cause some hiccups as many fingerprinting locations are closed or have limited appointments. TEA announced last week that out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension. Next Friday, the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) is set to discuss other COVID-19-related educator issues, stay tuned to Teach the Vote and @TeachtheVote on Twitter for coverage. Find the May 1 SBEC agenda here.

As we previously reported, the State Board of Education (SBOE) briefly discussed funding concerns associated with COVID-19, a thought that is on the minds of many educators. ATPE is monitoring the Texas economy and has taken action by sending a joint letter to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath requesting the suspension of charter school expansions during this pandemic. Current charter expansions could cost the state $90 million dollars at a time when state agencies and other public institutions foresee budget cuts on the horizon. ATPE has not received a reply to this request, though there was affirmation at the SBOE meeting that TEA would provide a response.

ATPE also hopes to hear back from the commissioner on our request for statewide action in the application of educator appraisals. Several other states have suspended appraisals, while others, like Texas, have left the decision up to individual school districts. Many educators have expressed that they feel like first-year teachers again and some say they haven’t heard from certain students since they last saw them in school. While feedback is essential for professional growth, this unique situation is likely to yield unfair and invalid appraisal results.

For more resources related to the pandemic, visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for frequently updated information for educators, and follow the ATPE lobby team via @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest legislative and regulatory news. Also, keep reading below for updates on federal developments pertaining to COVID-19.


FEDERAL UPDATE: More COVID-19 developments at the federal level occurred this week as the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released the long-awaited application for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act funding. The CARES Act provides waivers of various federal laws and $13.5 billion in education-dedicated funding, 90% of which is divvied up through Title I formulas. According to the Learning Policy Institute, Texas is expected to receive on average $264 per pupil for a total of over $1.4 billion dollars from the CARES Act. This amount includes the Texas portion of the $13.5 billion and assumes half of the Texas portion of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, which could send over $307 million to Texas, will go to PK-12 with the other half going to higher education. Without any additional federal funding, a statewide cut to education of just 6% would zap the boost from the CARES Act. Texas has also been approved for federal spending waivers, which will allow districts to move federal funds around more freely to address new expenditures and potential shortfalls in the future (though this will not solve overall cuts).

Congress also passed a fourth coronavirus aid package this week, which sends hundreds of billions of dollars to small businesses and provides assistance for hospitals and COVID-19 testing needs. For more information about how the other coronavirus aid packages impact you, including paid family/sick leave and cash rebates, visit ATPE’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) page here and the CARES Act page here.


ELECTION UPDATE: With Texas’ July 14 primary runoff elections on the horizon, many Texans are contemplating the safety of voting in person. The option of mail-in voting, while recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has become a partisan issue. Ruling on one of two lawsuits filed by the Texas Democratic Party, a Texas district judge sided with voters last week by effectively allowing all Texans to vote by mail. This decision is expected to be appealed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has already refuted the arguments used by the district judge. Do you think all Texans should be allowed to vote by mail? Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

Related: This year’s state legislative elections have even more significance with redistricting on the horizon. The 87th Texas Legislature is set to redraw district boundaries during the 2021 legislative session that begins in January. That’s why it’s important for Texans to respond to the 2020 U.S. Census. Talk to everyone you can about completing the census online, especially if they have small children. The census is crucial for funding public schools and informing redistricting decisions next year. Learn more about the 2020 Census and find FAQs here.


Master Teacher certification was eliminated last year as part of House Bill (HB) 3 passed by the 86th Texas legislature, reportedly to avoid avoid naming confusion with the “master teacher” designation in the new Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) program. This has left Master Teachers wondering if they can keep their current teaching assignments once their certificates expire. The ATPE lobby team has been working on this issue with state leaders to find a solution and has made significant progress. Read more in this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


ATPE member and award-winning, 17-year teaching veteran Amy McKee of Leander ISD planned to have her annual show week for her dance students this week. McKee’s spring show is the culmination of months of hard work, growth, and team spirit, and is an emotional capstone for seniors who ceremoniously hang up their uniform hats at the end of the show. Not about to let her students miss out on the joys of show week, McKee put her creative skills to work and curated a series of special, “socially-distanced” events to honor her students.

Thank you to all educators who are transitioning to 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.

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Texas election roundup: Texans could face serious decision whether to vote during pandemic

Texas voters may have a difficult decision ahead of them when it comes to casting their ballot in the upcoming runoff elections. It’s one that could have serious implications concerning their health and that of their families.

As Americans continue to practice social distancing to combat the spread of COVID-19, election administrators are looking ahead to how to maintain the democratic process while safeguarding citizens from a disease that has become the second leading cause of death in America. The disease has now killed more Americans in a single month than all flu deaths in the previous year — even with most of the country shut down.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended voting jurisdictions increase the use of mail-in methods of voting in order to minimize the potential for voters to be exposed to the deadly virus, but the expansion of ballot-by-mail to protect voters appears to have become somewhat of a partisan debate.

State law currently allows a voter to mail in an absentee ballot if they are 65 years or older, are disabled, are out of the county on election day and during the period of early voting, or are confined in jail but otherwise eligible. While many states — including those run by Republican governors — have expanded the availability of mail-in voting in order to protect voters, some leaders in Texas are fighting attempts to expand ballot-by-mail and instructing local officials to move forward with in-person voting for the July 14 runoff elections.

The Texas Democratic Party has filed suit in state and federal court arguing that all Texas voters should be allowed to fill out an absentee ballot in order to avoid the potential for infection at a physical polling site. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, responded by fighting the lawsuit and threatening voters with criminal penalties, including potential felony charges, if they cast an absentee ballot without meeting the current legal requirements. Last week, a state district judge issued an injunction expanding the use of mail-in ballots to all voters who risk exposure to the coronavirus by voting in person. Paxton is expected to appeal the decision on behalf of the state.

President Donald Trump has led the opposition to his own administration’s recommendations regarding mail-in voting by warning of the potential for fraud. While there are slightly higher rates of mail-in ballot fraud than in-person voter fraud, election experts say both are “extremely rare” and can be prevented. A commission launched by Trump to investigate the president’s allegations of fraud in the 2016 elections disbanded in 2018 after finding “no evidence to support claims of widespread voter fraud.”

The consequences of holding in-person elections during a pandemic have already been demonstrated. In Wisconsin, at least 19 people tested positive for COVID-19 and have linked their exposure to the disease to having voted in person during that state’s April 9 elections.

It’s still unclear how long the COVID-19 threat will linger. While some states appear to be nearing a decline, social distancing guidelines likely will continue to be necessary to ensure progress is not lost. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that a second, “more difficult” wave of COVID-19 could be ahead.

Despite the partisan split among political leaders, popular support behind voting by mail is overwhelming. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 67% of Americans support mail-in ballots for the November elections. Some 58% support changing laws to permanently expand voting by mail.

While Texas’ July 14 primary runoff elections are quickly approaching, Gov. Greg Abbott has remained relatively quiet on the issue of expanding mail-in ballots. If the normal rules remain in effect, Texas voters will face the same choice voters in Wisconsin faced earlier this month: Whether to exercise your right to vote or to protect your health and that of your family.

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ATPE continues advocacy for Master Teacher fix

While it is not uncommon for Texas teaching certificates to come and go as they keep up with the needs of an evolving education system, the legislature’s abrupt decision in 2019 to eliminate prestigious Master Teacher certificates caught many by surprise. To address this issue, ATPE’s lobbyists have been working diligently with state leaders and officials to ensure that the expertise and value of Master Teacher certificate holders is upheld.

Under House Bill (HB) 3 passed by the 86th Texas legislature in 2019, Master Teacher certificates can no longer be issued or renewed, effective September 1, 2019. The bill also repealed the authorizing statutes for those Master Teacher certificates, which were offered in Reading, Mathematics, Science, and Technology, essentially wiping them from existence. Master Teacher certificate holders will now find their certificates marked with a “legacy” notation, as designated by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC).

This change has left many of our state’s nearly 5,000 Master Teachers perplexed as to the status of their certificates and their teaching assignment prospects. Once their Master Teacher certificate expires, will they be able to continue teaching in their current position? Take the popular Master Reading Teacher certificate as an example (82% of Master Teachers hold this certificate). First issued in 2001, this certificate was designed for those who wanted to go above and beyond – only obtainable by educators who had already been teaching on a standard certificate. Because the certificate is EC-12, in some cases it allows an educator to obtain a teaching assignment for which they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible if they held only their underlying standard certificate. Teachers in this situation who want to maintain their current assignments must either pay to take a test for earning an appropriate credential, request permission to remain in their assignment on an expired certificate, or find another job.

ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier testifies before SBEC, Dec. 6, 2019

ATPE has been working with SBEC, the Texas Education Agency (TEA), members of the legislature, and state leaders to remedy this issue for several months. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier submitted written testimony at an SBEC meeting on October 4, 2019, written and oral testimony at the December 6, 2019 SBEC meeting, and written and oral testimony at the February 21, 2020 SBEC meeting. ATPE also submitted public comments on the rule review of Chapter 239, Student Services Certificates, which is where the original Master Teacher certificates were housed in the Texas Administrative Code.

These efforts have led to important developments, including a letter of intent being shared by House Public Education Committee chairman and HB 3 author Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) and a decision to add a discussion item to the agenda for an upcoming SBEC meeting on May 1, 2020, aimed at finding solutions to the Master Teacher issue. (The May 1 SBEC meeting starts at 8:30 a.m. and will be broadcast here. ATPE will also provide updates on the meeting here on our Teach the Vote blog.)

In unexpectedly dramatic fashion, Chairman Huberty’s letter in response to ATPE’s advocacy was delivered into SBEC members’ hands as ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier was delivering her testimony on the Master Teachers issue during the February SBEC meeting. The letter stated that the intent of the elimination of the Master Teacher certificates was to avoid naming confusion with the newly created “master teacher” designations under the state’s new Teacher Incentive Allotment, also included in HB 3.

“Our intent was never to abandon the expertise of these highly trained educators,” Huberty wrote in the letter. “Holders of legacy master teacher certificates should be entitled to maintain their existing assignments without interruption, additional cost, or the need to seek additional certifications.”

Responding to the requests from ATPE and the letter from Chairman Huberty, SBEC members voted to create a separate agenda item for the May SBEC meeting to discuss options for Master Teacher certificate holders. ATPE has also sent a letter letter to Gov. Greg Abbott expressing our appreciation for his interest in the issue.

Master Teacher certificate holders underwent time-intensive, rigorous, and often costly educator preparation programs in order to receive this extra credential. Their roles are content-specific and include teacher mentoring duties as they support the other professionals on their campus. Master Teachers are also highly educated, with 67% having either a master’s or doctorate degree. In many cases, the Master Teacher certificates (especially the Master Reading Teacher certificate) are highly prized, and at least in the early days of the certificate, were accompanied by stipends. Furthermore, Master Reading Teachers’ focus on literacy is crucial to the reading success of the state and is directly related to many of the aims of HB 3.

As this issue progresses, ATPE will continue to work carefully to preserve the hard work and expertise of Master Teacher certificate holders and share updates here on our advocacy blog.

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 17, 2020

Across Texas and the nation, educators are rising to the occasion to provide distance learning for their students. It is no easy feat to keep students engaged from afar, especially with absenteeism on the rise (including a crop of high school seniors with severe senioritis). Hang in there because this won’t last forever! Here is a look at this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Today, Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference to announce several executive orders related to strategically reopening Texas in gradual phases. While sharing a plan to open businesses, Abbott stated that schools are to remain physically closed through the remainder of the school year, although teachers can still access school buildings in order to carry out their duties (including facilitating distance learning). Gov. Abbott’s executive orders issued today follow President Trump’s release of guidelines for a state-led, phased reopening of the country. For more detail, read today’s breaking news post on Teach the Vote here.

Gov. Abbott gives a press conference at the Texas State Capitol, April 17, 2020.

In the new Executive Order EO-GA-16 issued today, Gov. Abbott writes, “Public education teachers and staff are encouraged to continue to work remotely from home if possible, but may return to schools to conduct remote video instruction, as well as perform administrative duties, under the strict terms required by the Texas Education Agency.” This afternoon, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) swiftly released new guidance on entering school buildings following today’s press conference.

Gov. Abbott added that he will issuing updated guidance for the state on April 27, 2020.

COVID-19 continues to impact educators’ work lives. As we reported last week, educator preparation and certification procedures stand in limbo with certification tests suspended through April 30, 2020. This week TEA posted updated information about certification testing. TEA also announced this week that out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension. Solving this issue for those in other situations will likely require rulemaking by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) and potential legislation during the next legislative session. Meanwhile, ATPE awaits a response from the commissioner of education to our request for statewide action in the application of educator appraisals, which are unlikely to yield fair and valid results under current conditions, as well as the recent request by a consortium of education groups including ATPE to suspend the expansion of charter schools during this pandemic.

As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, recent congressional action is making emergency funding available to individuals, businesses, and state governments during the pandemic. Read ATPE’s information about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) here and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act here. The CARES Act provided flexibility in the form of waivers of various federal laws, such as student testing and accountability requirements. CARES also provides $3 billion in relief through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund. Read more about the new funding available to Texas under this provision in this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

Here are some additional resources to help educators dealing with the pandemic:

  • The TEA coronavirus resource page offers a plethora of resources. New guidance added to the site this week includes information on instructional continuity, special populations, accountability, English language learner guidance, waivers and funding, educator and staff issues, remote counseling, and more.
  • Also, TEA is assisting in the promotion of a meal finder tool and a home-learning website with resources for parents, educators, and school districts.
  • Visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for frequently updated information for educators dealing with the pandemic.
  • Follow the ATPE lobbyists and @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest legislative and regulatory news related to this crisis.

ELECTION UPDATE: This week, a Texas district judge expanded the eligibility criteria for absentee ballots to include those who risk exposure to the coronavirus if they vote in person. The ruling effectively allows all Texans to vote by mail, but it is expected to be appealed. This is a temporary win for the Texas Democratic Party, which has filed two lawsuits against the state and the governor seeking expanded opportunities for mail-in ballots amid the risks associated with in-person voting during the pandemic.

According to a report in the Texas Tribune, Texas Democrats were concerned by the party-line decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that resulted in Wisconsin voters being forced to vote in person in contradiction to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey has voiced opposition to expanding mail-in ballots, suggesting that mail handlers could also risk COVID-19 infection. Gov. Greg Abbott stated in March that “everything’s on the table,” but has been relatively quiet on the subject since then.


SBOE conducted its April meeting by video conference.

This week, the State Board of Education (SBOE) met virtually to consider an abbreviated agenda. The board added a May 2020 meeting to its calendar to take up postponed items, including a discussion of the health and physical education TEKS.

The SBOE gave final formal approval this week to the new African American Ethnic Studies course after lengthy discussion over the past year. Additionally, members of the board’s standing committees discussed concerns about charter school expansion and the health of the Permanent School Fund (PSF) during the pandemic.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins has reported on this week’s SBOE meetings for our blog: read his Thursday blog post and Friday blog post for more.


The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) Board of Trustees also met virtually this week, covering a wide range of topics during its truncated meeting on Friday, April 17, 2020. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that the board adopted TRS-ActiveCare rates and benefits, as well as plans to improve ActiveCare in response to information gleaned from outreach to employers and stakeholders.  Also of note, the board received a report on the TRS pension trust fund’s remarkable resilience during the current economic downturn.

TRS staff shared steps the agency has taken to protect the health of its employees while remaining  open and able to serve members during the COVID-19 Pandemic. On a related note, TRS has hit the pause button on resolving it leasing and sub-leasing plans surrounding the need to house the TRS investment division until markets stabilize. While rents at their current location, which they plan to release after a change of course, may come down, the ability to sublease the space at the Indeed Tower location may be greatly reduced. Additionally, TRS will reevaluate its broader plan to ensure it has adequate space in light of lessons learned throughout this period of forced telecommuting.

For more on today’s hearing, view this Twitter thread by Exter who live-tweeted today’s hearing. You can also review the TRS board meeting materials or watch an archived video of today’s hearing.


As of yesterday, the 2020 U.S. Census national self-response rate was tracking close to 50%. There was a slight bump in responses after Census Day (April 1), and responses have been slowly increasing since then but appear to be leveling off now. Though Texas’ response rate is up to 45.1%, it is still under the national count. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is more important than ever to push online/phone/mail census completion options.

This week, the Trump administration proposed delaying the date that census counts would be delivered to the states, which would push redistricting decisions in Texas into the 2023 legislative session. The proposed 120-day extension would have to be requested of Congress by the U.S. Census Bureau. While having conversations about the census, it is important to not politicize the intent of the counts, which are meant to ensure a fair and representative democracy, plus funding for public benefits such as schools and roads. Learn more about the 2020 Census, including timeline delays already in place, in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and find census FAQs here.


ATPE member James Butler of Austin was featured during the last two weeks in news stories by KUT and KXAN for his daily “Mindful Moment” postings on social media. Butler is the social emotional learning mindfulness specialist for Austin ISD. He works with children (and adults) to instill a routine that includes breathing, journaling, naming your feelings, and showing gratitude in order to be mindful and present. Check out his post today, shown below, for a quick reset and some good feelings.

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.


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SBOE formally approves African American studies course

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) met today to conclude its April meeting, which was conducted virtually over Zoom and covered a pared-down agenda.

The 15 members spent the majority of their time Friday morning adopting final amendments to the state’s first African American studies ethnic studies course. Members approved the new course by a unanimous vote and shared their excitement after completing months of work by the board and stakeholders. Freshman Member Aicha Davis (D-Dallas) was singled out by her colleagues for her role in shepherding the course to completion.

“It’s so rich and it’s something I wish I could have taken when I was young,” said Davis, who thanked Chairman Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) and former Chair Donna Bahorich (R-Houston) for getting the ball rolling, as well as the rest of the board members for each taking an active interest in the course. Davis reserved her most heartfelt thanks for her mother and for Member Georgina Perez (D-El Paso), who has served as a mentor.

“Y’all have made me a stronger woman,” said Davis. “I just want more kids to have that strength and that empowerment, and I think that’s what this course will do.”

The course will award a half credit for completion, although some board members expressed their wish for a full credit course. Member Pat Hardy (R-Fort Worth) explained that a half credit course would allow more students to enroll.

In other actions, the board assessed liquidated damages worth $113,494 against Origo Education for persistent failure to comply with the rules of a contract to provide math instructional materials. Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff said the noncompliance issue, which involved a failure to provide matching large print and braille materials, did not result in a cost to districts. Staff indicated this is the first time the board has assessed damages against a publisher in this manner.

The company is operating under a six-year contract worth about $10.7 million. The board debated whether to assess the fine from the date the company was originally notified of noncompliance in 2016, which at the $1,000 contractual daily rate for liquidated damages would have increased the fine to $1.3 million. Staff voiced concern over defending the larger fine in court and argued that the more lenient fine would reduce the potential for a court to deem the fine unreasonable.

Member Sue Melton-Malone (R-Waco), who chairs the Committee on Instruction, said the company’s president promised members in Thursday’s committee meeting that the company would pay the $113,494 fine immediately upon receiving an invoice from TEA. The board set a payment deadline of June 1, 2020.

Committee on School Finance/Permanent School Fund (PSF) Chair Tom Maynard (R-Florence) updated the board on the impact of market volatility due to COVID-19. The fund went from $35.9 billion at the beginning of the year to $31 billion in March. Maynard said 29% of the fund is in a defensive allocation and the portion of the PSF managed by the SBOE is not reliant on energy to the same degree as funds controlled by the School Land Board (SLB). Both of these factors insulated the PSF from some of the shock of the combined market and oil crashes recently. Maynard noted that reporting for real estate and private equity is delayed, so the picture will continue to take shape as more recent data becomes available.

Members ended the meeting by praising educators across the state who continue to work hard to educate Texas students while at home caring for their own families. Member Sue Melton-Malone said she was “blown away” by the job teachers have been doing. Member Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) noted that many districts, including her own, lack access to the internet. Perez noted the limitations of virtual learning and asked members to remember the needs of homeless and incarcerated students.

The board is expected to convene again in May to take up items that were originally on this week’s agenda but were postponed. No dates for that meeting have been set, but Chairman Ellis said a timeline could be hammered out by next week. ATPE will keep you updated here on Teach the Vote as soon as that information is announced.

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BREAKING: Abbott says schools to remain closed, offers early plan to open other Texas businesses

Today, Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference at the Texas State Capitol in which he outlined early plans for reopening the state to commerce. While additional businesses and services will be authorized beginning next week, Texas schools will remain physically closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year due to safety concerns. In his press conference today, Abbott added that the commissioners of education and higher education each will provide guidance to schools on how they may conduct graduations this spring. Distance learning will continue, and educators will be allowed access to school buildings in order to facilitate this.

Gov. Abbott’s April 17 announcement and issuance of new executive order come on the heels of a consequential press briefing by President Donald Trump yesterday. Trump detailed a phased re-opening of the country and shared new federal guidelines that include three phases of progressive opening. In phase one, schools that are already closed should remain closed. In order to move from one phase to the next, states must pass “gating” criteria to prove that there has not been any rebound in viral outbreak. For instance, with adequate testing in place, states must show that confirmed cases and cases with flu-like and COVID-like symptoms have declined over a 14-day period.

Similarly, the governor announced plans today for a phased re-opening of the state, starting today. Businesses that present little to no impact on the spread of the virus are being allowed to open first, with appropriate safety measures as prescribed by the state in place, followed by a second phase on April 27 for additional businesses to open, and a third phase in May. Under the state’s plan, existing restrictions on surgeries and other medical protocols are being eased next week and additional retail businesses will be allowed to re-open next Friday as long as they operate using a “to go” or delivery-based model only, as many restaurants are already doing. Abbott announced that state parks will re-open on Monday, April 20, but six-foot distancing, limits on the size of groups, and facial covering requirements will remain in effect. During today’s press conference, the governor also named a long list of business leaders and current and former elected officials who will serve on a “strike force” to oversee the re-opening process.

Gov. Abbott said that revised guidelines for the state will be shared on April 27, 2020, including an update on the statewide stay-at-home order that is set to expire April 30. ATPE’s lobby team will provide additional updates on the new executive orders this afternoon in our Week in Review blog post here on Teach the Vote.

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SBOE hosts April meeting via videoconference

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) met virtually Thursday for its scheduled April meeting. In compliance with the governor’s social distancing executive order, the 15 members of the board met via Zoom videoconference to consider an abbreviated agenda spread over Thursday and Friday of this week.

The SBOE’s April 16, 2020, Zoom meeting was livestreamed to the public.

The board began Thursday by consolidating career and technology education courses as required by the legislature, which includes aligning graduation requirements and Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards.

Members then turned their attention to second reading and final adoption of TEKS for a new African American studies ethnic studies course. The board has been working on this course over the last few meetings and has expressed great interest in this project. Several witnesses offered written and video testimony with suggestions for this course, such as including authors James Baldwin and Toni Morrison as additional examples of important figures. This led to a debate over the appropriate balance of providing enough examples versus being overly prescriptive, as well as the process through which the currently proposed standards were developed. After spending several hours debating and amending the TEKS, the board voted to tentatively approve the course with an effective date of August 1, 2020.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff updated the board on federal Perkins funding, which the U.S. Department of Education has allowed the state to extend during the COVID-19 outbreak. The state’s application will be submitted by April 29.

SBOE Chair Keven Ellis speaks during the April 16, 2020, Zoom meeting

Members concluded the morning session with an update on current TEKS standards under review. The brunt of testimony focused on health education standards. The board’s discussion of health and physical education TEKS scheduled for this week has been postponed to May due to logistical hurdles presented by COVID-19 social distancing requirements. Board Chairman Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) said the agency is tentatively targeting the end of the second full week of May (May 14-15) or the beginning of the third week (May 18-19) for discussion, but acknowledged that it’s difficult to predict when the agency will have the educator feedback necessary to present to the board. The review of high school biology, chemistry, IPC, and physics TEKS scheduled for March and April has also been postponed. This will in turn delay the review of the remaining high school science courses, as well as K-5 and CTE courses for science credit. Agency staff acknowledged that the transition to having TEKS review work groups meet virtually has posed a significant challenge and further delayed the process.

The board separated into its three standing committees for the remainder of the day. The Committee on School Initiatives discussed updates on the Generation 25 application for charter schools. A total of 96 entities showed up for this year’s initial informational meetings. Of those, 22 submitted applications by the January 21 deadline, which is 11 fewer than the previous year. TEA advanced 16 applications to the review stage. The commissioner will propose applications to the SBOE in August for the board to either approve to disapprove in September.

Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) questioned the need for creating additional charter schools — which are funded 100% by the state and reduce the money available to local independent school districts — at a time when the state faces significant funding challenges as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Cortez asked TEA staff if the commissioner had yet to respond to a letter from education organizations including ATPE calling for a moratorium on new charter schools. TEA staff indicated they would follow up and share the commissioner’s response with the board.

The committee also reviewed board rules determining the criteria for the board’s veto of new applications and its ability to revoke a charter or place it on probation. Members discussed whether to amend its rules to place additional requirements on new charter applications, and whether it could do so without handcuffing its authority.

Members of the Committee on School Finance/Permanent School Fund (PSF) discussed the health of the PSF in the wake of market disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The PSF is the state’s investment account that helps fund public education and is managed by TEA under the oversight of the SBOE. The fund lost $2.7 billion in March, dropping to $31.7 billion from $34.4 billion. Despite this loss, agency staff reassured the board that the fund will be able to recover due to the long-term nature of its investment strategy. The agency said it will likely be another month before numbers will be available to compare the performance of the PSF to that of other peer funds.

The full board will gather virtually at 9:00 a.m. Friday to conclude its April agenda.

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U.S. Dept. of Education releases first K-12 coronavirus dollars

Ever since the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law on on March 27, 2020, education stakeholders have anxiously awaited the release of billions of federal dollars for education in the states. Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that governors can apply for the $3 billion in relief allocated by the CARES Act as the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund.

The funds can be used for both K-12 and higher education and are designed to be “highly flexible,” according to DeVos. Additionally, the very short, 15-page application for the funds is incredibly streamlined. It is essentially an agree-to-the-terms, sign, and submit format with a short questionnaire on how the state intends to use the funds for remote learning and technology.

Second only to California, Texas is set to receive one of the largest sums of money from this specific allocation – over $307 million. Sixty percent of that amount is based on our state’s population of individuals aged 5 through 24, and 40% of the funding is based on Texas students counted under the Title I, Part A formula. Gov. Greg Abbott can use the funds to provide emergency grants to school districts, institutions of higher education, or any other educational entities deemed essential for carrying out services to students to support continued instruction and operation. There are other provisions in the CARES Act, including $13.5 billion solely dedicated to K-12 education, that states are still waiting for more information on from the U.S. Department of Education.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and follow us on Twitter for updates. Also, educators can find up-to-date resources and information on the novel coronavirus, including more about the CARES Act, on the ATPE Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page.

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 10, 2020

For many Texas educators, this week marked the beginning of an uncharted journey into distance learning. Our ATPE Governmental Relations team applauds all the educators who are rising to the unprecedented challenge. As always, we are here to provide the latest in education news. The ATPE state office is closed today, April 10, but our staff will be back in action next week and ready to help you find your way through these uncertain times. We hope you get to enjoy the weekend and this edition of Teach the Vote’s Week in Review.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The worlds of the novel coronavirus and education were a bit quieter this week, but many questions remain on the long-term impact of the pandemic. Texas educators are facilitating distance learning and conducting other essential work even though Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the closure of Texas school buildings until at least May 4th, and some localities and districts have extended their closures beyond that date or even for the rest of the school year. Abbott held two press conferences this week, but neither provided further updates regarding education.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has been issuing and updating its guidance for public schools on a daily basis, but numerous questions remain, especially for educators and those working to become educators who are concerned about job security. This week, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier summarized what we know so far about changes to educator preparation and certification procedures in this blog post for Teach the Vote. We also await a response to ATPE’s call for accommodations regarding educator evaluations, on which so many compensation and job-related decisions are based. As we reported last week, ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes sent a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to request statewide action regarding educator appraisals, which are unlikely to yield fair and valid results under current conditions. Read more in this ATPE press release.

For a quick recap of where we stand, here are other notable state-level developments pertaining to the pandemic:

  • After Gov. Abbott cancelled this year’s STAAR tests, Texas sought and was approved by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to waive statewide testing and accountability. All districts will be “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster” for 2019-20.
  • If you’ve seen a graphic circulating on social media with what looks like “Woody” from Toy Story, it is probably TEA’s “Stay Well, Texas” public health campaign, which school districts are helping to roll-out.
  • Parents can use TEA’s “meal finder” tool and pick up meals without their children being present, thanks to an waiver granted to Texas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • The TEA coronavirus resource page is chock-full of resources (mainly geared towards district leaders) relating to instructional continuity, special education, testing, graduation, and more. New guidance added to the TEA site this week includes FAQs on FERPA, the SAT, ACT, TSIA, and AP/IB tests, FEMA assistance, and Information Technology, plus child care support sample documents, a list of available waivers, and TELPAS and LPAC Guidance.
  • TEA has launched a partially-complete website that includes home learning resources for families, districts, and teachers.

At the federal level, Congress has approved substantial federal aid packages, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act, which provide billions in funding for individuals and businesses, along with waivers from various federal laws to facilitate relief. Attempts to advance another piece of coronavirus relief legislation stalled this week in Congress after partisan disagreements. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced this week new spending flexibility waivers under the CARES Act that would purportedly allow school officials to dedicate funds to distance learning and virtual classrooms. As we reported last week, DeVos has also floated the idea of “microgrants” for students and teachers, which are essentially vouchers and have not yet been approved by Congress.

  • ATPE has helpful information about the CARES Act here, including more on the direct cash payments to individuals that are expected to be distributed soon by the U.S. Treasurer.
  • Read ATPE’s information about the FFCRA’s expanded paid leave benefits here.

For guidance on dealing with COVID-19, we encourage educators to visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page.  Also, follow the ATPE lobbyists here on Teach the Vote and on Twitter for related legislative and regulatory news.


ELECTION UPDATE: The Texas Democratic Party filed a second lawsuit against the state this week over mail-in ballots, this time in federal court. According to a report in the Texas Tribune, Texas Democrats were concerned by Monday’s party-line decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that resulted in Wisconsin voters being forced to vote in person this week in contradiction to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Texas Democrats are asking the state to expand eligibility for mail-in ballots so that voters are not forced to expose themselves to COVID-19 in order to cast a ballot. Current Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey has voiced opposition to expanding mail-in ballots, suggesting that mail handlers could also risk COVID-19 infection. Gov. Greg Abbott stated in March that “everything’s on the table,” but has been relatively quiet on the subject since then.


We reported last week that the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission has released its sunset staff recommendations for the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS). While TRS can’t be abolished through the sunset review process unlike other agencies, the commission staff have identified several issues that the legislature will likely address during the next legislative session in 2021. Check out this new blog post from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, which takes a deeper look at one of the major issues raised by the sunset report: a recommendation that TRS should “repair its relationship with its members by focusing on their needs.”


ATPE joined 17 other organizations calling on Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to place a moratorium on charter expansion during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Because charters cannot levy taxes, the state picks up the tab in order to fully fund every charter school student. ATPE believes the expansion of charter enrollment during a pandemic with extremely uncertain financial outcomes would be fiscally irresponsible. In fact, the 94 charter expansion amendments currently on file with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) could cost the state an additional $90 million per year if approved, money that may be sorely needed to shore up budgets of existing public schools across the state. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins


This week, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar sat down for a virtual conversation with the Texas Tribune to discuss what the novel coronavirus means for our state’s economy. Hegar said that Texas is in a recession but will be able to meet current budget obligations through August 31, 2021. In the summer, Hegar will release an updated revenue estimate that will likely be several billion dollars less. Since the state pumped billions into education during the last legislative session, educators worry that continued funding commitment might be hard to maintain. Read a full rundown in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Census 2020 self-response rates as of March 8, 2020. (Source)

The 2020 U.S. Census is still underway, and everyone’s response is critical for many important streams of funding, including for public education. Texas’ response rate has increased from 36% last week to over 41% this week, but we are still behind the current national rate of 46%. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, some census work has been delayed, making it more important to push online/phone/mail census completion options that can reduce the need for interpersonal interaction. Learn more about the 2020 Census in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and find census FAQs here.


ATPE member Michelle Bish of Pasadena was featured this week in a news story by KHOU 11 news in Houston. While taking care of her own three children, Bish is also implementing distance learning for her third graders and staying in contact with her students’ parents. Bish says it is overwhelming but that we will all get through this together. In the article, she says:

“I cannot wait for this to be over,” she said. “This is not why I signed up to be a teacher. I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to be present. Like, physically be in the presence of my students. You know, at school and being a part of them and teaching.”

We can’t wait for this to end either! In the meantime, we can help each other stay positive. 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.


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