Tag Archives: CARES Act

Abbott, TEA launch voucher program for students with disabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equitable services saga ends following court decision against DeVos rule

As we reported here on Teach the Vote a couple weeks ago, a federal court nullified a controversial federal rule that would have funneled additional public dollars to private schools under an “equitable services” provision of the CARES Act. With a statement that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will not appeal that decision, it seems as though the equitable services saga has finally come to an end. Here’s the story from start to finish:

On March 27, 2020, the CARES Act was signed into law. It provided Texas public schools with federal aid meant to combat extra costs associated with COVID-19. The CARES Act requires public school districts to use a portion of their emergency funds to provide equitable services to certain private schools, following long-standing federal education law practices.

Leave it to DeVos to disregard Congressional intent and interpret the equitable services provision in the CARES Act to send an unprecedented amount of public school emergency funds to private schools. Deviating from the prior practice, DeVos issued April 30 guidance directing school districts to calculate their equitable services allocation using ALL students at ALL private non-profit schools in their bounds. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) held districts to this questionable guidance while other states chose to ignore it.

Two main points make this interpretation egregious: Number one, equitable services allocations are typically calculated based on eligible students (low-income, English learners, etc.) who live in the district’s bounds but who attend a private school. Number two, CARES Act funds were 90% based on Title I formula-funding. Under DeVos’s interpretation, a student who lives in a wealthy neighborhood but attends a private school in another part of town would now get the benefit of federal emergency dollars that were calculated based on low-income children. The “poor must share with the rich” is not equitable.

After much consternation from the education community, the department issued an interim final rule (IFR) on July 1 that gave three options to school districts. On the one hand, the rule gave districts an option to follow the long-standing interpretation of equitable services, which was good. However, the rule meant that the DeVos interpretation now held the effect of law, which was bad. ATPE submitted formal comments opposing the new rule in July, but the department did not change any of its practices. Meanwhile, TEA conducted new trainings to inform districts of the changes.

A slew of court cases and a final summary judgement leads us to the beginning of September. The September 4 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Dabney L. Friedrich vacated the IFR nationwide. TEA updated its equitable services guidance the following week but cautioned districts that DeVos had 60 days to appeal the decision.

On September 25, DeVos issued a letter to all chief state school officers stating that the department would not appeal the decision. TEA held a new training this week instructing districts to revert to the original interpretation of equitable services, as intended by Congress.

Betsy DeVos

While DeVos argues, “all schools and all students have borne the pandemic’s burden and need support,” Congress has provided small business assistance that private schools and even some public charter schools have taken advantage of already. Should Congress wish to specifically fund private schools, they could consider a separate piece of legislation that is not tied to Title I formula-funding.

The back-and-forth over the equitable services issue this year reminds us of the power struggles that can arise at the state and federal level between elected lawmakers, agency heads appointed by a governor or the president, and the courts that provide much-needed checks and balances in our democracy. The Secretary of Education is appointed by the President of the United States and is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Not only are there many state and federal legislative races being decided this year, but the presidential election in 2020 will shape the next four years of education policymaking at the federal level.

ATPE encourages you to make sure you are registered to vote by October 5 and research your ENTIRE ballot using resources such as the candidate profiles on Teach the Vote (for Texas House, Texas Senate, and State Board of Education races on the ballot this year) and vote411.org, where you can build and print out a sample ballot of your own. Early voting for the general election begins October 13.

TEA updates its COVID-19 resources to include case reporting instructions and educator wellness guidance

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced yesterday two new resources that educators and parents have been requesting: guidance on promoting educator well-being that actually emphasizes educator input and information about reporting on the number of COVID-19 cases in Texas public schools.

First, TEA has posted a guide promoting staff support and well-being in a COVID-19 environment, entitled “SY 20-21 Educator Wellness: Equipping Staff to Return to School.” The introductory paragraph of the new guide has this to say:

“Throughout this tool you will find practical guidance, suggestions, and key action steps for the topics addressed in the chart below to promote staff wellness, resiliency, and overall well-being. The first step in preparing for the reentry of staff is to plan. Campus leaders should convene a team of mental health and well-being champions. It is vital that this team is supported by the senior leadership team in a district, school, or open-enrollment charter school. This team should be charged with developing a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) plan using reputable resources that are trauma-informed for school mental and behavioral health, starting with a focus on promoting staff wellness. Next, assessing the well-being of staff is an essential step for prescriptive planning. After initiating the assessment and evaluating the results from the adaptable assessment options sample below, it will be important to build a school culture that promotes wellness and resiliency throughout the school year. Finally, equipping staff with the most relevant professional development and training will lead to a strong and safe start for the 2020-2021 school year.”

Of course, this guidance would have been more helpful six to eight weeks ago when districts still had ample time for planning and convening new committees, and when organizations such as ATPE were imploring the agency and state leaders to pay attention to the largely-ignored concerns of our state’s educators. Thankfully, the new guidance is pro-educator and finally recognizes that supporting students requires first supporting those adults who teach them. On that basis, this thoughtful guidance can be filed under the category of better late than never.

The agency is still working out final details on the public reporting of lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Texas public school students and staff. The new reporting requirement will be in addition to long-standing required reporting to local health agencies for infectious diseases. Through a joint effort between TEA and the state health agency, data will be reported out by the Department of State Health Services on at least a district-by-district basis. Districts are expected to start submitting data in early September, with a group of pilot districts beginning to submit data this week.

Other updates to TEA’s COVID-19 site since last Thursday include the following:

ATPE survey, TEA data show pandemic-related decline in student engagement

This spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic sent our educational system into triage mode, Texas educators were asked by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to document “student engagement” using crisis codes in the state’s Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS). The data collected by the agency was released yesterday, but take it with a big grain of salt. The term “engagement” might be a misnomer based on TEA’s definitions, and ATPE’s own survey of Texas educators indicates we have a lot of work to do on re-engaging students.

Student engagement as we familiarly know it typically refers to factors such as attendance, participation in lessons, timely completion of assignments, and students’ attitudes toward learning. For reporting purposes during the crisis, TEA defined an engaged student as one who was responsive and completing assignments, which is rather vague. For example, secondary students in multiple classes were considered engaged if they were completing assignments in any core content area. Therefore, an “engaged” middle school student could have completed some assignments in an ELA course but in no other courses. An “unengaged” student was defined as responsive but not completing assignments, regardless of the underlying reason for the student’s lack of engagement. An “uncontactable” student was defined as not responsive at all.

As defined, the TEA crisis codes seemed to measure whether students were present as opposed to their true engagement. Additionally, these definitions leave out students who may not regularly complete assignments as part of their schooling, such as those who receive special education services.

The student engagement data newly released by TEA, which is still being updated by districts through July 16, showed that 88.72% of students were “engaged.” The agency reported that approximately 11% of students either were not engaged for some time or their school districts lost or had no contact with them. For context, this amounts to approximately 609,000 Texas students who severely lacked the emotional, academic, and social stability traditionally afforded by schools and educators this spring. That’s a disturbing number, even under TEA’s rudimentary definitions of engagement, but input we’ve solicited from ATPE members suggests a much larger number of students became less engaged once schools were forced to shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The recent ATPE Membership Survey conducted June 5-19, 2020, included a question on student engagement that we believe provides much more insight about how students were participating and learning during remote instruction this spring. When asked how engaged their students were during remote instruction, just over 65% of ATPE members surveyed said their students were “slightly less engaged” or “much less engaged” on average as compared to their level of engagement during previous in-person instruction. This information was provided by 3,250 survey respondents.

ATPE 2020 Membership Survey results on student engagement during the pandemic-related school shutdown

The misnomer of “engagement” as loosely defined by TEA is even more problematic when applied to the agency’s disaggregated PEIMS data, which are presented in such a way that suggests students of color, low-income students, and students in younger grades were not as “fully engaged” in school this spring as other students. Whether or not these subpopulations of students were engaged is more accurately framed, we believe, by the barriers students may have faced both in accessing school materials and having the necessary instructional support at home. (Having a stable home setting and parents or caregivers who are present make a difference.) Through TEA’s “Strong Start” resources, districts are being encouraged to collect some survey data from families and educators related to barriers as they plan for the upcoming school year.

Where do we go from here? Evidence is mounting that the “COVID slide” will be steep and likely even steeper for students of color, low-income students, and younger students who may not be developmentally ready for remote instruction. With an upcoming school year that will include an even greater emphasis on remote instruction and no plans as of yet from TEA to halt state testing and accountability mandates, it is more important than ever to gather information on the barriers students face and make concrete plans to address them. TEA has said the state intends to use federal emergency dollars to improve connectivity and access to digital devices for students, but these will be of little use if a child has inadequate instructional support at home or no place to call home at all.

Including teacher voices to gather their experiences with students during remote learning and their take on how to improve access to education during a crisis is crucial. ATPE has urged the state and school districts to solicit feedback from educators, including classroom teachers, as they develop plans for the next school year.

An ATPE member told a story of sitting with their student (virtually) to talk through their parents’ loss of income, their fears about the pandemic, and adjusted assignment expectations since the student was now working at a job, too. This is not necessarily “completing an assignment,” but it is engagement and it is at the core of the work that educators do. If you can’t engage a student and have a meaningful relationship, their basic needs will not be met (remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?), and they will never get to a place of learning .

Read this reporting by the Texas Tribune to learn more about the “COVID slide” and the engagement data recently released by TEA.

Commissioner discusses COVID-19 issues at the June SBOE meeting

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is holding its June meeting this week. On Monday, the board heard over 12 hours of testimony from more than 250 people on the review of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for physical education and health TEKS. The board’s discussion of these TEKS was pushed to Tuesday’s meeting.

On Tuesday, the board began with an appearance by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, whose comments were primarily related to education issues stemming from the current coronavirus pandemic. Because Texas lacks end-of-year student learning data, Morath pointed to an outside study on the blended learning tool “Zearn,” which showed disparate outcomes in learning between students with different wealth measures. Morath did note that data will likely be released today on Texas public school student engagement, which was gathered by teachers in the spring. Morath stressed that we cannot allow the public health crisis to become an educational crisis and discussed transitioning from crisis-mode instructional support to instruction, in order to minimize learning loss.

As we previously reported here on Teach the Vote, Morath explained that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has used its waiver authority to set up two new school finance mechanisms, which will allow districts to receive funding for either a synchronous or asynchronous remote instructional model next school year. In a later answer to a question by board member Marisa Perez-Diaz (D-Converse), Morath explained that attendance (tied to schools’ ability to receive funding) in the asynchronous method of remote learning will be specifically determined through a district’s definition of progress and engagement, which must abide by an already established framework defined by TEA. Morath stressed that it is essential to get as many children back in school as possible and as quickly as possible, but the commissioner said he understands that it may not be safe for some children to return to school.

Morath stated that the risk of COVID-19 infection, transmission, and complications in children is much lower than for adults and expressed confidence that districts can implement enough strategies and protocols so that parents feel safe sending their kids to school. This appeared to leave some board members wondering, “What about the teachers?”

Board member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) later asked the commissioner to address how the agency is prepared to protect educators and deal with infected school employees who have to miss school or quarantine. Morath pointed to the agency’s provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face shields, plus guidance the agency has provided to districts suggesting screening protocols and considerations for higher levels of distancing. Similarly, member Aicha Davis (D-Dallas) later asked Morath if there was going to be any state support for teachers who are pregnant or have asthma, to which Morath responded that it will be left up to school districts to address this issue, and TEA has provided them guidance regarding staff who fall into a high-risk category. Morath suggested that there would not be any additional state financial support for districts in dealing with this issue of accommodating staff around such COVID-19 concerns.

During his presentation, the commissioner commented on the financial situation facing Texas public schools. He stated that while negative downturns in the economy will impact tax revenue, Texas has not announced cuts to public education funding and does not plan to cut funding in the coming years. Morath explained that the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund created as part of the federal CARES Act will be used to execute the “hold harmless” provision for Average Daily Attendance (ADA) that the agency recently announced. This means that cuts to funding in the coming year will not be necessary, according to the commissioner. In addition to the ESSER funds, half a billion dollars will be allocated through the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), also part of the CARES Act, which will fund 75% of schools’ coronavirus-related expenses incurred during the 2019-20 school year. Morath said the state also plans to provide PPE to every school district, fund access to broadband and digital devices through Operation Connectivity, and offer the free, optional Texas Home Learning platform and resources for districts that do not already have a learning management system (LMS) in place. The commissioner added that 24% of Texas students needed paper learning resources this spring, which is likely why connectivity and access to devices are a large focus of how the state plans to spend its emergency funds provided by Congress.

When board member Davis asked the commissioner how racial equity would be addressed in his agency’s efforts, Morath referenced the increases in funding that resulted from the legislature’s passage of House Bill 3, Operation Connectivity, and the Texas Home Learning network. Similar to his previous positions, the commissioner suggested that each district is responsible for closing the gaps and that TEA can only provide robust resources within the limits of the agency’s own funding. Member Barbara Cargill (R-Conroe) asked Morath how the Texas Home Learning network was being vetted and what was being done to ensure that it will not become the next CSCOPE. Morath responded that the new home learning resources were meant to be extremely transparent and available to the public, but the commissioner added that he would like those resources eventually to be vetted by the SBOE .

Before taking questions, Morath also commented on the reading academy requirements included in House Bill 3, stating that all requirements are still on schedule. Reading academies will be offered mostly in a blended learning form. Providers may begin offering cohorts in July. More information on reading academies can be found here.

Board member Tom Maynard (R-Florence) asked about TEA’s future plans for administering the STAAR test. Morath answered with a long-winded explanation of why assessments are important for measuring learning for diagnostic purposes and emphasizing the correlation between STAAR test scores and future outcomes for students. To provide districts some flexibility, the commissioner stated that the agency has extended the testing window for the coming school year and that there will likely be future adjustments to the A-F accountability system to compensate for not being able to calculate growth. In response to a question by board member Georgina Pérez (D-El Paso), Morath said he isn’t sure if Texas will be requesting another testing waiver from the federal government in the upcoming academic year.

Lastly, Pérez asked the commissioner to comment on charter school expansion requests and if TEA could improve its process for notifying SBOE members of charter school expansion amendment requests. (ATPE was among a coalition of education groups that asked the commissioner to impose a moratorium on granting charter school expansion requests during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to save the state money.) Morath replied that expansion requests are being processed as normal. With regard to notice requirement, Morath did not have an answer.

The SBOE will continue to meet through Thursday of this week. Find the full agenda here.

For all information and guidance that TEA has provided to districts during the pandemic, visit the TEA COVID-19 Support page. Be sure also to check out ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources for frequently updated information for educators about issues related to COVID-19.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 26, 2020

The education community saw a whirlwind of news this week as multiple pieces of guidance were released from the Texas Education Agency regarding the return to school in the fall, including a draft public health document that was posted online and promptly taken down. In this week’s wrap-up, the ATPE Governmental Relations team will fill you in on the latest happenings.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: It was gone in the blink of an eye. On Tuesday of this week, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) posted a draft public health guidance document, seemingly by mistake. By the time it was taken down, the guidance had been widely circulated in the education community, and many were not happy with the lack of attention it paid to the worsening coronavirus numbers in Texas. Featured in a story by ABC affiliate KLTV-7 in East Texas, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter said, “…while we would like for the state to give teachers and districts guidance in an expedient fashion, we’re glad that the draft put up yesterday is not the final product.”

As reported by the Texas Tribune, the guidance largely focused on suggesting health and safety practices to districts rather than mandating them, reflecting Commissioner of Education Mike Morath’s statement last week that it “will be safe” to return to in-person classes in the fall. Morath has since appeared to walk back that sentiment as the state’s coronavirus numbers have worsened, and the agency has said it is still soliciting feedback and developing the final guidelines. Unfortunately, this week’s developments provide little solace to educators feeling anxiety about returning to school since Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement last week that in-person classes will resume this fall.

ATPE continues to meet with legislators, other stakeholder groups, and policymakers at the local, state, and federal level to share our members’ feedback about the return to school. We released a statement on TEA’s draft health guidance document this week, in which we strongly urge the state to require stronger actions to ensure the safety of school employees and Texas students. ATPE also asks school districts to listen to their employees and the recommendations of medical experts regarding the impact of the pandemic in their area as they implement their back-to-school safety protocols. In the statement, ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes says, “Elected school boards and superintendents now face a difficult balancing act between preventing COVID-19 outbreaks and ensuring children are in the most productive learning environment possible—a physical classroom with an in-person teacher. They deserve to have support and actionable guidance from the state of Texas.” Read more about ATPE’s response in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.

Gov. Abbott gives a COVID-19 update on June 22, 2020

At the gubernatorial level, Gov. Abbott took several actions this week in response to a growing positivity rate for the coronavirus. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported here on Teach the Vote, Abbott strongly encouraged (but did not mandate) wearing masks in his press conference on Monday. By Thursday, the governor had decided to halt the state’s reopening plans, calling for cancellation of elective surgeries and by Friday, closing bars and reducing restaurant capacity to 50%.

Be sure to check the ATPE Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page, which offers answers to common educator questions related to returning to school in the fall, health and safety concerns, laws governing sick leave, and more. ATPE is continuing to update this page on a daily basis as new developments occur.


ELECTION UPDATE: Are you ready to vote? Get your hand sanitizer, stylus (a pencil with an eraser works), and mask ready! Early voting for the primary runoffs and the Texas Senate District 14 special election begins this coming Monday, June 29, and continues through July 10. Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughes reiterated this week that voters should aim to vote early to avoid election day crowds, utilize curbside voting if possible, and follow  minimum safety guidelines released by her office in May. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

ATPE reminds voters that a decrease in election poll workers has reduced the availability of polling sites in some areas. Click here to find early voting sites near you, and check your county’s election website for wait times during voting hours. The League of Women Voters vote411.org site has a personalized sample ballot generator and more! Lastly, check out candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. Thank you for your commitment to voting, and stay safe!


This week TEA (intentionally) posted guidance on remote learning and attendance/enrollment for the 2020-21 school year, which gave districts a better idea of how they may operate this fall and how they will be funded. The agency gave districts two main options for remote learning that are differentiated by whether or not a student receives real-time, teacher-lead instruction. Additionally, the models have different ways of documenting student engagement for purposes of taking attendance. The agency plans to hold districts harmless for attendance for the first two six weeks, but this may not be enough to provide stability to districts in such an uncertain situation. Read more on the remote learning guidance in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

TEA also updated several other coronavirus resources this week, including personal protective equipment (PPE) updates, updates to general support (family mental health flyers and new child care emergency rules), “Strong Start” planning and survey tools, several updates to waivers, finance, and grants (new answers to equitable services FAQ, remote learning, attendance, missed school days, and more), and school nutrition (new letter to families on the P-EBT application).


Betsy DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education will release a final interim rule on how public school districts must spend their federal emergency dollars under the CARES Act for equitable services provided to private schools. The rule, which is unofficially published for now, gives districts more flexibility than what was originally indicated by the department; but the new rule still misses the mark in its obvious intent to expand private school access to public school resources, using the department’s strained interpretation of the CARES act. Read more about what the new rule entails in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


Texas 2020 Census response rates by county as of June 25, 2020

The decennial U.S. Census is crucial to ensuring adequate funding and programming for roads, infrastructure, our public schools, and so much more. The current national response rate for the 2020 Census shows that 61.7% of households have responded to their census. At 56.3%, Texas doesn’t have the lowest response rate in the country, but we still have a long way to go.

The update/leave process is now underway, so you might see census workers in your neighborhood visiting households that have not responded yet. Find upcoming events, training, tool kits, and other resources at Texas Counts. Here are two things you can do to help Texas shine on the 2020 Census:

  1. Text or call your family (even those great aunts) and friends and ask them if they have filled out the census. Walk them through the process if not. We have until October 31 to self-respond!
  2. Pop a census reminder in student materials and family communications or staple to school lunch bags on a regular basis and make sure parents count even their youngest babies on the census.

DeVos issues rule on sending stimulus funds to private schools

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) issued a final interim rule today to address disdain over its previous guidance directing public school districts to share an unprecedented amount of their federal emergency relief funds with private schools. As we previously reported here on Teach the Vote, after Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos interpreted language in the Act to require public school districts to use a proportional share of their federal emergency funds to provide equitable services to all students in private nonprofit (PNP) schools within their district bounds.

The new rule provides flexibility to school districts by giving them options – either spend the CARES Act funds only on Title I schools in the district and be held to normal proportional share and operating standards of equitable services under Title I; or spend CARES Act funds on all students in the district and be held to the department’s controversial interpretation of equitable services that requires districts to set aside more money for private school services. Under this clarification by ED, if a school district only has Title I schools, equitable services would be business as usual. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) recently conducted webinars on how districts should implement the CARES Act, including information on equitable services, and TEA will likely share more information in the coming weeks related to this new rule.

The Trump administration’s broader interpretation as announced by DeVos in April differed from the conventional interpretation of equitable services under Title I of federal education law (which is what the CARES Act references), which only requires equitable services to be provided to eligible students (such as low-income students) who reside in the district’s bounds. DeVos’s interpretation, which turns the intent of equitable services into something inequitable, was met with consternation from education stakeholders and push-back from top members of Congress in both parties.

The new interim rule will become effective immediately once it is officially published and will be much more forceful than simple guidance, so states will have no choice but to follow it. There will be a public comment period of 30 days once the rule is published, and lawsuits and injunctions against the rule are likely. ATPE has been lobbying members of the Texas congressional delegation to guard against unintended uses of the federal stimulus funds, and we will also share our input on the interim final rule with federal officials. Stay tuned for updates here on Teach the Vote.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 19, 2020

Today is Juneteenth, the day that notice of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves finally reached Texas (two and a half years later). Celebrations like Juneteenth help educate future generation about our shared past and are a perfect way to continue conversations and action about the current issues facing our nation. For what happened in education this week, read the update below from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Yesterday, Gov. Greg Abbott made a surprise announcement during a call to lawmakers that he intends for Texas schools to reopen for in-person classes in the fall, with flexibility offered for those who have health concerns. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) confirmed the plan in a brief statement, promising that more information will be forthcoming next week.

As reported by the Texas Tribune, TEA has said that the state will not require districts to mandate that students wear masks or be tested for COVID-19 symptoms. However, TEA has also said that the state plans to distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) to districts. Overall, the ambiguity in both the governor’s and TEA’s messaging and the delay in providing additional guidance to school districts have spurred confusion and anxiety among educators, who fear for the health and safety of students in addition to their own personal safety, as shown by a recent ATPE survey.

In response to the state officials’ remarks yesterday, ATPE released a statement that highlights our commitment to fighting for safe learning environments and our members’ respect for local control, allowing decision-making by locally elected school boards with the input of their local educators and community. We know that school districts around the state are working to make informed decisions about when and how to start the new school year, including deciding on necessary safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even without state-level orders on wearing masks, for example, some districts have already indicated that they will require their students and staff to wear masks when school resumes. Other safety measures being implemented by some districts include temperature checks, limiting classroom occupancy, staggering the days that students and staff are on the campus, and providing for distance learning options. To make these difficult decisions at the local level, school districts need additional support and comprehensive guidance from the state, and ATPE is urging TEA to provide this information as soon as possible.

In the meantime, ATPE has updated our Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page to address new questions about the developments this week. We will provide updated information as soon as TEA shares additional guidance to school districts next week.


Here’s more on the recent ATPE survey of educators about COVID-19. More than 4,200 educators and other school employees answered our poll on how COVID-19 has impacted education. No surprises here, educators responding to the survey cited student health and safety as their top concern, even more so than their own health and safety. Read this week’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins for a full rundown.


The U.S. Department of Education has shared information about Texas’ plans for using federal COVID-19 relief funds for education. The newly posted certification and agreement documents are part of the state’s applications for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds included in the CARES Act.

According to the application, the K-12 portion of the $29.2 million in Texas GEER funds will be used as follows:

  • to support remote learning for all students, including ensuring connectivity (Operation Connectivity);
  • to create a comprehensive set of online instructional materials, which we presume will be hosted on the existing TexasHomeLearning.com website operated by the Texas Education Agency (TEA); and
  • to provide a virtual dyslexia intervention service.

Of the $1.28 billion in ESSER funds going to Texas, TEA plans to reserve 9.5%, the maximum amount allowed under the law, to use for discretionary projects, which are mostly focused on supporting remote and online learning. The agency plans to implement the following:

  • an online summer bridge program to assist graduating seniors;
  • a support and monitoring program for districts that are adapting to remote learning settings;
  • a “turnkey” remote instructional support and content delivery service (likely what TexasHomeLearning.com will become);
  • a program in which select districts redesign their models for online learning;
  • mental and behavioral supports; and
  • a remote dyslexia instruction platform.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated its coronavirus-related web resources this week. TEA’s closure support and guidance page includes updates on allotments for personal protective equipment. The general support page features new FAQs for school boards and charter schools. The Texas Home Learning resources have been updated on the instructional continuity page, which also includes new information about changing school start dates. New federal funding and CARES Act reimbursement information is on the waivers, finance, and grants page. Lastly, the agency has posted new information on its assessment page related to the optional extended online testing windows for the 2020-21 school year.

Check out ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for the latest information on COVID-19 issues facing educators.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 12, 2020

You have until Monday, June 15, to register to vote in the July 14 primary runoff election (and a special election if you happen to live in Texas Senate District 14). While you are making your voting plan for the July election, check out this week’s education news from ATPE Governmental Relations.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Phase three to reopen Texas is well underway, with restaurants allowed to expand capacity to 75% starting today. By next Friday, amusement parks and carnivals in counties with more than 1,000 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 may open at 50% capacity. Gov. Greg Abbott spoke with CBS Austin this week and noted that, with cases on the rise, his contingency plan should there be a resurgence will be to first roll back non-essential surgeries and other medical procedures.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated quite a few coronavirus-related web resources this week. TEA’s closure support and guidance page includes updates on personal protective equipment and other safety guidance for summer school, graduation, and UIL. Information on residential programs has been updated on the special education page. TEA also provided an updated COVID-19 waivers document.

Changes were also announced this week that will impact educator certification candidates who are beginning internship requirements but have not taken their test and candidates who are required to complete otherwise face-to-face educator preparation program (EPP) requirements in the 2020-21 school year. Specifically, eligible candidates who are beginning internships will be able to obtain an intern certificate upon recommendation of their EPP, without having to meet testing requirements first. (Fingerprinting requirements remain in place.) This is similar to a previous waiver that allowed certification candidates who had completed all EPP requirements except their test to obtain a probationary certificate. Candidates who would otherwise be expected to complete face-to-face requirements such as clinical teaching will be able to meet these in a virtual setting. Read more here and find more information below about similar developments at the State Board for Educator Certification this week.

As always, ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page is being frequently updated with the latest information on COVID-19 issues for educators.


ELECTION UPDATE: It’s almost election time again! The deadline to register to vote in the July 14 runoff election (and a Texas Senate District 14 special election happening the same day) is Monday, June 15, 2020. For more on registration and why this election is important, check out this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

Make sure you’re registered and learn what’s on your ballot here. View candidate profiles, including their ATPE survey responses and voting records, on Teach the Vote here. If you feel you meet the eligibility criteria to vote by mail, your application for a mail-in ballot must be received by your local election administration (not postmarked) no later than July 2. Find additional information about voter registration from the League of Women Voters here, plus get election reminders and other resources from the Texas Educators Vote coalition here. Early voting begins June 29!


FEDERAL UPDATE: Facing the unprecedented threat of the deadly novel coronavirus, Congress entered the spring of 2020 with what has become an extremely rare sense of bipartisan purpose, passing four large legislative packages to provide funding for hospitals and health care workers fighting the virus, as well as for businesses and individuals affected by the closures and stay-at-home orders implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The federal CARES Act provided $30 billion for the U.S. Department of Education, including $13.5 billion for elementary and secondary education formula funding to be provided directly to states.

David Pore

ATPE has been tirelessly lobbying Congress to enact laws and policies that protect your ability to effectively educate students and retire with financial security. That includes fighting to repeal the arbitrary Social Security offsets that unfairly reduce the retirement benefits of educators. Read more about how ATPE is advocating for you in Washington, D.C. in this update from ATPE’s federal lobbyist, David Pore, as published in the ATPE News Summer 2020 edition.

 


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) held a special meeting this week to consider a new rule that will allow more flexibility for educator certification candidates undergoing face-to-face requirements such as internships, field experiences, clinical experiences, practicums, and observations. The changes will be limited to the 2020-21 school year and will allow for at least partial completion of these requirements in a virtual setting. Read more about yesterday’s SBEC meeting and the proposed rule language in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


A recent study by researchers at Princeton and Tufts Universities finds that “teachers are people too,” when it comes to racial biases. In the peer-reviewed study published in the prestigious journal Educational Researcher in April 2020, the authors found that teachers, while surely well-intentioned, are no different in their levels of implicit and explicit biases from non-teachers of the same race, level of education, age, gender, and political affiliation. This finding highlights the need for training and supports to help teachers work toward recognizing and combating biases that may negatively impact students. The study authors also point out that due to the progress we must make with respect to teacher racial bias, schools are not likely to be the great societal equalizers that so many conclude they are. Read more about the study here.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 29, 2020

These are the strangest last days of school. No bustling students, smiling and excited for summer. No hugs goodbye or “Have a great summer” notes. Socially-distanced graduation ceremonies. Rest assured, students and teachers will be reunited in the coming future, more grateful than ever for the bond that is created during learning. As you start your summer, relax and enjoy some reading on this week’s education news from the ATPE lobby team.


Abbott press conference in Amarillo, May 27, 2020.

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation to expand services and activities that can be reopened in Texas, including water parks, driver education programs, and food courts in shopping malls (with limited occupancy). As previously announced, zoos can reopen today, and on Sunday, youth camps and sports can resume activity. Abbott also held a press conference Wednesday in Amarillo to share positive updates on the progress of testing and containment of the outbreak in the panhandle.

On Monday, schools have been authorized to reopen to students with special safety measures in place, such as taking students’ temperatures every day and separating desks by six feet (among many others). Citing logistical concerns with the feasibility of implementing such requirements, Houston ISD and other districts in the area have chosen to implement online-only summer school. Other districts may only offer statutorily-required summer school to rising kindergarten and first grade English learners. Midland ISD is collecting data from parents and teachers on how to proceed with learning in the upcoming school year. Ft. Bend ISD announced this week that it plans to offer a full-time virtual learning option for its students who are not comfortable returning to school in-person in the fall.

As more districts gather input from their communities and make decisions regarding summer and fall learning, we expect to see a variety of approaches emerge. To help educators navigate these changes, ATPE continues to update our Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page. The Texas Education Agency also has updated nearly every topic on its coronavirus-related webpage, including new year-round calendar examples and guidance pertaining to special education, special populations (English language learner summer school guidance), academics (dyslexia screening requirements), student assessment, and funding (CARES Act guidance).


ELECTION UPDATE: This week, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that lack of immunity to the novel coronavirus does not constitute a disability, overturning a lower court decision that would have effectively expanded who can vote by mail in Texas. The court did not, however, side with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in forcing local election officials to check the disability status of those who apply for a ballot by mail. A separate case in the U.S. Fifth Circuit is still pending.

In light of the health risks associated with voting in person, Gov. Abbott said this week in an interview (see the 4:30 mark) with Lubbock news station KCBD that he will extend the two-week early voting period for the November 2020 election.

Secretary of State Ruth Hughes this week announced a minimum health and safety protocol for voters and poll workers, which includes bringing your own ballot-marking device and curbside voting if you have COVID-19 symptoms and meet other eligibility requirements. Read more in this week’s election roundup post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


FEDERAL UPDATE: This week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education (ED) would begin rulemaking to solidify its guidance directing public school districts to spend federal stimulus funds on private schools. This follows Texas’s issuance of its own CARES Act guidance, which instructs districts to heed ED’s interpretation of the “equitable services” provision within the law.

Betsy DeVos

Many argue that DeVos’s interpretation of how “equitable services” funds should be distributed under the CARES Act is actually inequitable. Her department’s direction could send an unprecedented amount of Title I-based federal emergency dollars to private schools, regardless of their students’ income, language status, or other eligibility criteria typically required by federal education law. Read more about the dispute over CARES Act funding in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

ATPE’s federal lobby team continues to discuss our concerns with lawmakers, and we will provide formal input on any new rules that are proposed by the department. However, it’s been reported that ED may use a “good cause” exception under federal administrative procedures to try to make the rule change effective immediately upon its publication, even before the public comment period expires. The U.S. House passed a new coronavirus relief bill earlier this month that would limit Secretary DeVos’s power to steer federal coronavirus relief funds to private schools, but the Senate has not been willing to consider the measure.


ATPE recently submitted formal comments on proposed rules for the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) established through last year’s House Bill 3. The proposed commissioner’s rules outline key aspects of the TIA’s local optional designation systems, such as data sharing requirements, teacher eligibility, and the district plan approval process. ATPE’s comments to the agency highlight the need to maintain confidentiality in data sharing and recommend other changes to improve the rules. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.


Recent surveys on education during the COVID-19 pandemic show parents and educators are worried about their students, mainly with learning loss and children’s ability to follow social distancing guidelines if they go back to school. They also appear to agree with the general public  in not wanting an extended school year calendar, instead preferring summer school options. Read more about the Learning Heroes Parent 2020 survey and the USA Today/Ipsos polls of parents and teachers in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

Do YOU want to take a survey and share your thoughts, too? Until June 3, ATPE invites educators  to share your concerns about returning to campus for the 2020-21 school year in ATPE’s short, confidential survey. You don’t have to be an ATPE member to participate, so please share the survey with your colleagues, too. Help us develop resources and support Texas educators and students during these uncertain times.