Tag Archives: attorney general

Texas teachers are #blowingthewhistle in the best possible way

With enthusiasm growing within the education community for voting in the upcoming primaries, we’ve been reporting here on Teach the Vote about the efforts of some elected officials and special interest groups to try to quell educators’ momentum by questioning the legality of our nonpartisan get out the vote (GOTV) programs. Now it appears that those efforts, which many believe are aimed at voter suppression, are backfiring as educators continue to rally their colleagues to vote later this month.

We’ve recently reported on an attorney general’s opinion issued at the request of Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) who objected to GOTV initiatives led by the Texas Educators Vote coalition of which ATPE is a proud member. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly issued a nonbinding opinion that school districts should not bus staff and students to the polls, because Paxton questioned the educational value of such an activity.

We’ve also watched as the notorious anti-public education group Empower Texans (ET) and its affiliates have used scare tactics to try to shut down GOTV initiatives in schools and political activism by education employees. Late last year, ET, whose wealthy donors have spent millions to fund the campaigns of Paxton, Bettencourt, and other officeholders like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, bombarded school districts with open records requests demanding copies of employee emails and other documentation that they hoped would show evidence of illegal activities. When the open records requests apparently yielded no bombshells, Empower Texans resorted to the desperate measure of mailing letters to individual educators around the state inviting them to act as “whistleblowers” and report on colleagues who might be violating the attorney general’s “ruling.” Many of you educators who are readers of Teach the Vote have reported receiving one of these letters from ET’s lead attorney, general counsel Tony McDonald.

The letters that ET has spent huge sums of money to mail to teachers are misleading and unethical. First, the text of the letter mischaracterizes AG Paxton’s nonbinding opinion as a “ruling,” implying that it has the force of law when it is merely an advisory expression of Paxton’s views on the law. The letters also irresponsibly fail to mention that Texas’s whistleblower laws would not provide teachers any legal protection for reports made to an outside entity like ET. ATPE Managing Attorney Paul Tapp points out why the letter from ET’s lawyer is problematic and does not reflect how our state’s whistleblower statutes actually work.

“It’s unfortunate that Mr. McDonald has mischaracterized Texas law in a way that he apparently believes would benefit his organization at the expense of those he claims to care about,” says Tapp. “There would be no ‘whistleblower’ protection for any report to Empower Texas. As an attorney, Mr. McDonald should know that a report of suspected illegal activity is only protected if it is made to the appropriate law enforcement entity.”

It is highly unlikely that ET’s intimidation campaign will reveal any evidence of school administrators and trustees unlawfully using school district resources to campaign for specific candidates, and the Texas Educators Vote coalition has always included in its outreach materials guidance for educators on what types of political activities are and are not allowed in schools. In the meantime, educators are reacting to ET’s continuing attacks on the public school community by turning to social media.

Starting yesterday, educators took to Twitter in droves to share their support for public schools. Incorporating the hashtag #blowingthewhistle and tagging ET in many of their tweets. Teachers and other public education supporters used the social media tool not for ratting out colleagues for talking about the election as ET had hoped, but instead for praising educators who go the extra mile every single day to help students.

ATPE member Cristie Plummer, who teaches at Bastrop Middle School, was one of the educators who shared her own #blowingthewhistle tweet yesterday and was featured in this article by the Austin American-StatesmanATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins also tweeted his support for the teachers in his own family by #blowingthewhistle on them via Twitter.

The Twitter backlash from teachers was featured today in a new article from the Texas Tribune about the Texas Educators Vote coalition. Reporter Emma Platoff wrote about how our coalition’s GOTV efforts have rankled ET and Tea Party groups who are also worried about other grassroots movements igniting on social media and encouraging teachers to #blockvote in the Republican Party primary for pro-public education candidates. The #blockvote campaign mentioned in the article is being promoted by the Facebook group known as Texans for Public Education, and not by the nonpartisan Texas Educators Vote coalition. However, both groups share a desire to see higher turnout among educators at the polls this year.

The reaction this week to the ET whistleblower campaign proves, once again, that educators are rising above the baseless threats of the politicians and special interest groups that want to dismantle public education. The billionaires backing candidates and officeholders who refer to hard-working teachers as “educrats” and think that using taxpayer dollars to fund unregulated private schools should be the state’s top education priority are clearly terrified of the potential for high voter turnout in the March 6 primary.

We applaud Texas educators for their classy response to the continuing attacks on their profession. ATPE hopes that our members and their colleagues will keep highlighting the outstanding things happening in our public schools every day and will never weaken their resolve to be active and informed voters in the 2018 primaries and all other Texas elections. Kudos, educators!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 26, 2018

It was a busy week in the world of public education, with your ATPE Governmental Relations team keeping tabs on various business at the state level. Here’s a rundown of this week’s developments:

ELECTION UPDATE: Are you registered to vote? There are just ten days left to register to vote in the upcoming primaries! Texans who are eligible to vote but have not yet registered to do so must sign up on or before February 5 in order to cast their ballot on March 6. Check the status of your registration here.

Also be sure to check out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. All candidates running for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Texas Legislature, and the State Board of Education have been invited to participate in ATPE’s candidate survey and have their views on education issues shared with voters through our website. New survey responses are being added to the site frequently as more candidates take advantage of this opportunity. If the candidates you are interested in learning about have not yet responded, please ask them to participate in our survey. Candidates or their campaign consultants may contact government@atpe.org for additional information about the survey.

Early voting for the March primaries begins Feb. 20. Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos has issued a new proclamation naming the first Friday of early voting period (Feb. 23, 2018) to be “Student Voting Day.”  Secretary Pablos is calling on communities “to urge and encourage all eligible students in Texas to make their voices heard by casting their ballots at ANY polling location in
their county of registration.” The Secretary of State’s office has been an important partner in efforts to promote voter awareness within our public schools, and we appreciate his support.

Since we last reported on Attorney General Ken Paxton’s opinion about Get Out The Vote (GOTV) activities spearheaded by ATPE and other members of the Texas Educators Vote coalition, more Texans are speaking out in support of our coalition and expressing displeasure with the not-so-subtle efforts of some elected officials to try to rein in politically active educators. The Houston Chronicle‘s Lisa Falkenberg wrote an opinion piece on Saturday, Jan. 20, in support of ATPE’s and the coalitions efforts to increase voter turnout and awareness. Falkenberg wrote that voter apathy “doesn’t stop if we do nothing. Some folks in this state are trying to do something. We should let them.” Falkenberg concluded, “No opinion from the Texas AG, or from Bettencourt, has dissuaded me from believing their efforts are vital for the young voters, to the public in general, and to the future of this state we love.” Retired Superintendent Joe Smith also expressed support for Texas Educators Vote on his TexasISD.com website, and educator Danny Noyola, Sr., an ATPE member, similarly wrote an opinion piece for the Corpus Christie Caller-Times defending the coalition’s work. Noyola called AG Paxton’s opinion “an intimidating assault on teachers, administrators, and educational groups to stifle citizenship and voting learning opportunities for all students in a non-partisan, pro-education, creative hands-on way.”

ATPE is pleased that school districts are continuing to support our nonpartisan coalition efforts with additional school boards adopting the coalition’s model resolution on creating a culture of voting, even after the issuance of General Paxton’s opinion. We appreciate the support of school leaders to continue to encourage public school employees and eligible students to be informed and vote in the upcoming primaries.


Texas Commission on Public School Finance meeting, January 23, 2018.

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance held its first meeting Tuesday in Austin following its creation as part of House Bill (HB) 21, which was passed during the 85th Texas Legislature’s first special session. The first meeting quickly established the divide between members of the commission focused on improving public school performance and those solely focused on finding ways to cut taxes. House Public Education Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston) correctly noted that school finance reform and property tax relief go hand-in-hand, and the Texas Senate abandoned a proposal that could have made progress on both fronts in order to pursue voucher legislation.

The meeting was restricted to invited testimony, which included a supporter of school privatization and the heads of a number of state departments, including Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath. Read more about the meeting in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) held a formal hearing today, Jan. 26, to take public testimony on rules pertaining to school district and charter school partnerships. The regulation being considered is Proposed New Commissioners rule 19 TAC Chapter 97, Planning and Accountability, Subchapter EE, Accreditation Status, Standards, and Sanctions, Division 2, Contracting to Partner to Operate a District Campus, §97.1075, Contracting to Partner to Operate a Campus under Texas Education Code, §11.174, and §97.1079, Determining Processes and Criteria for Entity Approval under Texas Education Code, §11.174.

The bulk of the testimony was provided by educators, administrators, and parents. While there were charter advocates in attendance, none offered testimony. All testifiers opposed the rules as currently proposed. Common themes among those who testified included: agency overreach in defining “enhanced authority” that a district must give to a charter in order to enter into a partnership, despite no statutory authority or even implication in the law to do so; a lack of acknowledgment of teacher protections and pre-agreement consultation, which is required under the law; and a general lack of specificity about the approval process, including what factors TEA will consider and the timeline TEA will work under in approving the partnerships.

ATPE has turned in written comments to the proposed rules which you can read here. The text for the new rule can be found on TEA’s website.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) opened its online survey this week to solicit feedback regarding the agency’s initial draft plan to correct inadequacies in special education services. This comes in response to a directive from the U.S. Department of Education that Texas correct systemic denial of special education services due to a de facto “cap” uncovered by a Houston Chronicle investigation. The initial draft plan includes four main actions, with explanations for each.

The agency has been ordered to seek input from stakeholders, including parents and educators, which will be collected through an online survey available on the TEA website since Jan. 23. The agency will accept public comment on this draft plan through Feb. 18, 2018, after which a new Proposed Plan will be released on or around March 1. Public comments on this new plan will be accepted through March 31. The agency expects to submit a Final State Corrective Action Plan to the U.S. Department of Education on or around April 18, 2018. You can read more about the plan and find a link to the survey here.


Texas Attorney General questions voter engagement activities in schools

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a non-binding opinion on Wednesday, Jan. 17, at the request of Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) regarding certain school district and third-party activities to encourage and facilitate voting by school employees and students. Sen. Bettencourt filed the request in response to school district activities being encouraged by the Texas Educators Vote (TEV) coalition, of which ATPE is a member.

ATPE was one of several education groups that weighed in on Sen. Bettencourt’s request through formal correspondence to the Attorney General’s Opinion Committee. General Paxton invited stakeholders involved in the coalition effort to submit their input on the request by Jan. 12, 2018; Paxton’s opinion in response to the senator’s request was issued by the morning of the next business day (following a state holiday and closure of most state offices for one additional day on account of this week’s ice storm).

Jennifer Canaday

“ATPE is disappointed that the Office of the Texas Attorney General spent so little time considering the merits of the request and the ancillary materials that it requested,” said Jennifer Canaday, ATPE Governmental Relations Director. The attorney general’s opinion actually makes no reference to the additional information supplied by ATPE and other coalition partners in response to Sen. Bettencourt’s request. “Nevertheless, there is nothing in today’s opinion that warrants a change in our direction. ATPE intends to continue our non-partisan get-out-the-vote efforts and our work with the Texas Educators Vote (TEV) coalition to encourage voter participation within the education community.”

Much of the attorney general’s opinion focuses on questions about the use of school buses to transport students and school district staff to the polls during voting periods. In a press release yesterday, ATPE said that it disagrees with Paxton’s opinion that a court would likely find school-sponsored transportation of employees to polling places unconstitutional. However, both ATPE and the TEV coalition have always deferred to school district leaders to make decisions about any such transportation services.

“We trust that school boards will continue to make prudent decisions on this matter in light of all the legal advice available to them,” Canaday said.

ATPE stands by the information provided to the AG’s office in our correspondence dated Jan. 12, 2018. In that letter, ATPE pointed out a number of facts that had been overlooked or distorted in the senator’s request for an opinion. For instance, the “culture of voting” model resolution that has been promoted by ATPE and other members of the TEV coalition makes no reference whatsoever to political candidates, parties, or ballot measures. As such, ATPE continues to believe that adoption of such a resolution by school boards does not give rise to any potential violations of political advertising restrictions. We also highlighted the fact that ATPE and other member partners of the TEV coalition have worked to ensure that the coalition’s educational materials include guidance about what educators can and cannot do related to elections, including prohibitions on using school district resources for political advertising, which General Paxton similarly cited in his opinion.

Neither the TEV coalition website nor any other website linked to it as an external resource (such as ATPE’s TeachtheVote.org website and the Secretary of State’s Project V.O.T.E.) is used to promote specific candidates or ballot measures. Thus, ATPE maintains that the coalition’s and ATPE’s web-based GOTV resources, much like the Texas Secretary of State’s online voting resources, do not engender any violations of political advertising laws even in the event that a school district or its employees were to spend public funds to promote such Internet resources.

It’s also noteworthy that General Paxton’s opinion makes no mention of Sen. Bettencourt’s complaints about promotion of the TEV Coalition’s “Educator’s Oath to Vote” and about school district initiatives to encourage educators to vote and wear their “I voted” stickers to school. Sen. Bettencourt complained in his request for a legal opinion that such activities amounted to coercion by school administrators. The attorney general’s silence on these topics reinforces ATPE’s position that these types of nonpartisan GOTV activities are well within the legal rights of educators and school district officials and do not run afoul of any existing laws.

ATPE and our coalition partners are committed to emphasizing the importance of voting to the strength and future of our democracy, and we wholeheartedly support the he rights of educators and eligible students to participate in elections. We will continue to provide resources and suggestions to school districts and respect their administrations’ decisions about how to facilitate voter engagement on their campuses for educators and students.

Guest post: Special education issues facing the 85th legislature


Janna Lilly

by Janna Lilly, Director of Govermental Relations
Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education (TCASE)

Special education issues are once again expected to be hot topics in the upcoming Texas Legislative Session including vouchers, special education identification, and (yes, again) cameras.


The lieutenant governor has been very vocal that passing voucher legislation is one of his key priorities. TCASE opposes subsidizing private schools with public funds through vouchers or voucher-like programs such as taxpayer savings plans or scholarship credits. Vouchers are particularly harmful for students with disabilities. Private schools are not required to accept or even appropriately serve students with disabilities. Private schools are not required provide the legal protections mandated by federal and state laws to protect the rights and interests of students with disabilities.

Special education identification

Currently the state’s Performance Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS) gives districts a grade or performance level based on an 8.5 percent standard that has come under recent scrutiny in the media. As a result, at least one bill has already been filed to prohibit the Texas Education Agency (TEA) from evaluating districts based on their percentage of students with disabilities.

TCASE recommends TEA continue to provide districts with identification data in PBMAS, but remove the 8.5 percent standard and the corresponding performance level assignment. This would provide necessary information to the state and districts without the reality or perception of a punitive system.

While there are a multitude of state systems designed to gather data on special education, minimal statewide data systems exist to identify the often extensive interventions provided with general education supports only. TCASE recommends the agency develop further statewide data systems to acknowledge these efforts and identify the potential impact on student growth and achievement.


Senate Bill (SB) 507 passed last session requiring cameras in certain special education classrooms. The TEA asked the Texas Attorney General (AG) for clarification on several pieces of the law. The AG issued his opinion strictly interpreting the bill, primarily saying one request means cameras must be installed in all eligible classrooms across the district regardless of the bill’s authors stating their intent was that one request applied to one classroom. The AG told lawmakers they would need to change the bill in the next session if they meant something different from what was passed. Lawmakers are drafting bills expected to address some of the concerns including clarifying that one request triggers a camera in a single classroom versus the entire district. Currently, some districts are installing cameras in single classrooms, while some are reporting installing cameras or equipment in all eligible classrooms. Districts are also reporting significant costs associated with the law’s six-month archiving requirement. Community advocates are expected to want some changes of their own, like expanding venues for disagreement beyond the school board including potentially even the ability to file suit. TCASE believes the bill’s current grievance remedies are sufficient, one request should apply to one classroom, and that next legislative session should appropriate funds to cover this unfunded mandate.