Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Betsy DeVos tells states not to expect student testing waivers

Betsy DeVos

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

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

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

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

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

“School choice” in the spotlight as presidential election approaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another round of federal stimulus inching closer to reality

Another round of federal relief money is one step closer to becoming a reality, as Republicans in the U.S. Senate on Monday presented their proposal two months after Democrats passed theirs out of the U.S. House of Representatives. With substantial differences between these latest two COVID-19 relief proposals, however, there is much work to be done to negotiate a plan that can pass out of both chambers.

The $1 trillion Republican proposal, dubbed the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act, includes $105 billion for education, $70 billion of which would go to K-12 schools specifically. However, two-thirds of that funding, roughly $47 billion, would only flow to schools that reopen for in-person instruction and would not be available to schools that only offer virtual instruction in response to high levels of local COVID-19 infections. Schools that delay in-person instruction for safety reasons could receive some of the remaining one-third of the funding that would be split among all schools, regardless of whether they open in-person or through distance methods. Similar to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed by President Trump on March 27, the new proposal also includes $5 billion for state governors to spend on K-12 and higher education.

Even though states would receive funds under the Republican HEALS Act proposal based proportionately on their previous school year’s Title I funding, states would have to reserve a proportional portion of the federal funding for private schools. Private schools receiving federal funds would not be subject to the same requirements under the GOP proposal as public schools. The new proposal does not include a requirement to provide “equitable services” to private schools under the new funding as was included in the CARES Act.

The Republican proposal also includes immunity from liability intended to shield school districts and businesses that reopen amid the pandemic from lawsuits by employees or customers who are exposed to the virus or become infected as a result.

Another major headline of the Senate plan includes lower monthly unemployment payments. Payments would decrease from the current $600 per week down to $200, which could be combined with state unemployment benefits for up to 70% of a person’s wages before losing their job due to the pandemic. Those unemployment payments, created by the CARES Act in March, are scheduled to expire this weekend unless extended by Congress. The GOP plan would extend the moratorium on evictions, a provision from the first CARES Act that has already lapsed, and would provide another round of stimulus checks using the same criteria as under the CARES Act. Each individual earning up to $75,000 per year would receive $1,200, and decreasing amounts would be paid to those earning up to $99,000.

The Republican plan is part of a larger package of legislation that includes a stand-alone voucher bill filed by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and cosponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would create a permanent program providing up to $5 billion in tax credits for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations (SGO) that transfer public school dollars to private institutions. This is a perennial proposal advocated by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in her quest to privatize education. The new voucher bill would also direct emergency education funding meant for public schools to SGOs for private use. Expansion of these voucher programs remains a top priority of the Trump administration and Secretary DeVos, as they continue using the pandemic to promote these proposals despite repeated failures to pass them through the Congress.

The House, under Democratic leadership, passed the $3 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act back in May. The House bill would provide $90 billion directly to education, including $58 billion for all K-12 schools. Unlike the Senate plan, the House bill provides a separate $950 billion in emergency funding to state and local governments aimed at preventing budget shortfalls that could lead to layoffs of teachers and other public employees.

The HEROES Act would also provide another round of stimulus checks to individuals, and would additionally raise the payout for each dependent to $1,200 up from $500 under the CARES Act. The bill would extend the full $600 weekly unemployment payments into next year, extend the suspension of student loan payments, provide up to $10,000 in student debt relief, and prohibit Secretary DeVos from imposing restrictions on populations of students who receive emergency financial relief under the CARES Act.

Each of these proposals represents the opening bid in negotiations between the two chambers and the Trump administration. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has expressed a desire to vote on the Senate bill before members leave for recess August 7. The Senate bill was originally expected to be unveiled last week, but was reportedly delayed amid ongoing negotiations with the White House, which supports the Senate’s proposal. House Democrats passed their bill in May, but Senate Republicans ignored it and declined to take action on another relief package until recently.

Federal relief for schools would come at a critical time as the 2020-21 school year begins. Regardless of whether instruction is being delivered virtually or in person, school buildings across Texas will once again fill with teachers and staff, necessitating costly safety protocols. Virtual instruction poses added technology costs to districts, which are already looking at potential budget shortfalls due to declining tax revenues caused by the pandemic-induced recession.

Texas is estimated to face a $4.6 billion budget shortfall by the end of 2020, and the 2021 legislative session is already expected to feature drastic cuts in state spending. Federal relief dollars would go a long way in reducing the pressure to cut education spending here in Texas. House Democrats, Senate Republicans, and the president all will have to approve any additional relief package from Congress.

Texas election roundup: Senate special election

Wednesday, May 13, 2020, marked the deadline for candidates to file for the legislative seat recently vacated by former state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin).

The Democrats vying for the reliably blue Senate District (14) seat based in Austin include state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. The two Republicans who have filed are activist and former Austin city council member Don Zimmerman and attorney Waller Burns II, who does not appear to have a campaign website or social media presence. Libertarian Pat Dixon and physician Jeff Ridgeway, running as an independent candidate, have also filed for the seat.

The special election for the SD 14 seat is scheduled for July 14, which is the same day as the primary runoff elections. Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) announced this week that early voting in these elections will be extended to June 29 from July 6. Voters are normally given only one week to vote early in the runoffs, but Abbott’s order will extend that period to two weeks. The governor’s stated reasoning is to enable greater social distancing for in-person voting.

Whether to vote in person or by mail has become a politicized and polarizing issue, unfortunately, with numerous local and state officials along with President Donald Trump weighing in on different sides of the debate. Voters who go to the polls in person may still be exposed to the risk of communicating the deadly COVID-19 infection, the number of confirmed cases of which have continued to increase in Texas at ever higher rates. While several other states, including states such as Kentucky and Alabama with Republican leadership, have expanded voting by mail options in order to protect their voters’ safety, Gov. Abbott and state Attorney General Ken Paxton continue to resist efforts to expand voting by mail in Texas.

A state appeals court ruled Thursday that the state and counties must follow a district judge’s order allowing all Texas voters to vote by mail if they are concerned about contracting COVID-19. Paxton has fought the order and this week asked the Texas Supreme Court to consider the case. Meanwhile, Paxton faces a new criminal complaint alleging he committed election fraud by sending a letter in which he warned counties to ignore the judge’s order.

A coalition of voters and civil rights organizations filed another lawsuit in federal court this week seeking to loosen the restrictions on voting by mail. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) joined a separate federal lawsuit filed last month to expand voting by mail in Texas, arguing that the current laws discriminate against Hispanic voters.

While the political debate over voting by mail continues, polling suggests the overwhelming majority of citizens support expanding access to voting by mail. A Dallas Morning News/University of Texas poll last month found 58% of Texans support allowing any registered voter to mail in a ballot without need for an excuse, compared to 22% who opposed. A 56% majority support extending this ability to all future elections. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 67% of Americans support mail-in ballots for the November elections.

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.

Texas election roundup: More convention and election delays

Like the elections themselves, political party conventions across the country are struggling to make adjustments under the COVID-19 pandemic. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced today it is postponing the presidential convention in Milwaukee to August 17 from July 13. Joe Biden, who will likely be the party’s nominee, had recently called for party officials to delay the convention over coronavirus concerns.

The Texas Democratic Party has already announced it is moving its June 4 state convention onto a digital platform. The party is expected to announce more information in the coming weeks about how the virtual convention will work.

Back in March, the Republican Party of Texas (RPT) postponed its convention until July 13. It was originally scheduled to be held May 11. Currently the RPT convention is still scheduled as in-person event to be held in Houston. The Republican National Convention is scheduled to be held August 24 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Many municipal governments across Texas have followed Gov. Greg Abbott’s request to postpone local elections to November 3 that were originally scheduled for May 2. However, some have yet to do so. According to TXElects.com, the cities of Abilene, Irving, Lufkin, Sugar Land, and Tyler are among those that have not postponed their elections.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Texas election roundup: The long delay

Election politics is pretty much in a holding pattern across most of Texas as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Gov. Greg Abbott announced late Friday that the primary runoff elections for state and federal offices originally scheduled for May 26 will be postponed until July 14. This is the same date as the special runoff election for Senate District (SD) 14 to replace state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), who announced his retirement from the Texas Legislature earlier this year.

Speaking of the SD 14 race, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt announced this week she will push back her resignation in order to focus on the coronavirus response. Eckhardt had announced plans to resign her office, as she is legally required to do, in order to run for the SD 14 seat. Eckhardt is permitted to serve in her current office until a successor is sworn in, which in this case will be former Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) has also filed to run for the SD 14 seat.

Earlier this month, Gov. Abbott gave local political subdivisions (i.e. city councils, county governments, local school boards, etc.) the ability to postpone their elections to November 3 from their original May 2 uniform election date. According to TXElects.com, only a handful have formally delayed their local elections as of yet. While Georgetown and Fort Bend ISD are among those that have gone ahead and moved their elections, Waco and Waco ISD are considering sticking with the May 2 elections as scheduled. This has apparently created somewhat of a standoff in McLennan County, where the county elections administrator reportedly warned the city and school districts that the county would refuse to conduct the elections in May regardless of their decision.

The delays, coupled with local stay-at-home orders, have radically altered the campaign landscape in Texas. Many campaigns are suspending fundraising operations and focusing on community services. Most have put aside in-person campaigning in order to focus their resources online in order to reach people stuck in their homes. But while activity has ground down, it has certainly not stopped.

As candidates and officeholders continue to try shape their messaging in light of the current health crisis, they may be wise to consider the results of a national poll by Ragnar Research. First reported by the Quorum Report, the poll shows that 88% of Americans view the coronavirus outbreak as either “very serious” or “somewhat serious.” When sorted by political parties, 53% of Republicans said the coronavirus outbreak is “very serious,” compared to 83% of Democrats and 70% of independents. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control calls the coronavirus outbreak a “serious public health risk.”

Other political pollsters are also continuing to survey the American public more broadly during this time of national crisis. According to an Economist/YouGov poll released Wednesday, 34% believe the country is headed in the right direction, while 54% believe it is on the wrong track. At the same time, 48% of respondents approve of the president’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, while 46% disapprove. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of recent polls puts President Trump at -2.5% approval, or 47% approve to 49.5% disapprove.

It’s also easy to forget there is still a presidential primary underway to choose the Democrat who will face Donald Trump in the November election. Bernie Sanders won this month’s primary in Utah, while 12 other states and Puerto Rico have postponed their presidential primaries. Connecticut, Indiana, Rhode Island, and Delaware have moved their primary elections to June 2. With Joe Biden building an insurmountable delegate lead in the primary contest, the political forecasters at FiveThirtyEight.com have placed Biden at 98% odds to win the nomination. A Monmouth poll released Tuesday has Biden leading Trump by 3% if the election were held now.

 

From The Texas Tribune: Texas’ coronavirus strategy is a patchwork of different local rules

While other states fighting coronavirus enforce widespread closures, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott goes with a patchwork system

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has employed a mostly decentralized approach, giving cities, counties, school districts and universities the discretion to respond to the new coronavirus however they see fit. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, states across the country are increasingly taking a more heavy-handed approach to contain the new strain of coronavirus — shuttering schools, bars and restaurants and deploying state militaries.

Nearly 30 states have mandated temporary school closures, for example, with some orders applying even to private institutions. In Texas, though, only half of school districts have ordered students to stay home after spring break.

That’s because Gov. Greg Abbott has clung so far to a mostly decentralized approach, giving cities, counties, school districts and universities the discretion to respond to the virus however they see fit. The result has been a patchwork of local policies that differ from county to county, with leaders setting various limits on public gatherings and other putting in place other regulations meant to encourage “social distancing.”

Over the weekend, Abbott said he was confident that cities will make the best decisions for their communities. And he appeared to double down on that approach Monday at a news conference in San Antonio, where he praised Mayor Ron Nirenberg for opening the state’s first drive-through testing facility and choosing to go well beyond almost every other Texas city in banning public gatherings of more than 50 people, following recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Those are smart strategies that will prove effective,” he said.

To be sure, Abbott has taken notable steps to combat the spread of the virus. Last week, he declared a state of disaster — as every state has — and directed state agencies to provide flexible and remote work options to employees. He restricted visitation to high-risk facilities including nursing homes, hospitals, day cares and jails. Amid panic buying, he waived regulations on the trucking industry to streamline the flow of goods to depleted grocery stores. And on Monday, amid bipartisan pressure from state lawmakers, he waived standardized testing requirements for public schools, saying it would be impossible to administer the STAAR tests as planned given the closure of more than 560 districts and charter schools beyond spring break.

Overall, though, Abbott’s cumulative actions stop short of those taken in many other states, including neighboring Arkansas, New Mexico and Louisiana, whose governors shuttered schools across the board, mobilized their militaries and implemented travel restrictions.

According to the National Governors Association, about 20 state leaders have activated their national guards and limited travel of state employees or citizens, and about 17 have passed legislation to divert state funds to the response effort. (Abbott promised Monday that federal money is on the way.) More than a dozen have also ordered restaurants and bars to close to in-house patrons — a policy various cities and counties, including Houston and Dallas, enacted Monday.

Local decision-making

Abbott’s office, asked about the local protocols, said Monday that cities and counties “have done a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities” and nodded to how helpful local decision-making can be in a state as large as Texas. That approach is in stark contrast to Abbott’s recent attitude toward local control. In the past few years, he has routinely sparred with mayors and backed several laws that chipped away at the power of cities and counties.

“Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said. “These cities and counties are following the proper protocol and guidance that they are receiving from their local health departments.”

Abbott’s push for local decision-making comes as the nation’s top infectious disease expert said the most effective way to stop spread of COVID-19 may be a 14-day nationwide shutdown.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of the new coronavirus, said Sunday that “Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.”

On Sunday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told superintendents and lawmakers that decisions on extended school closures would be left up to locals.

That means that policies may differ even among neighboring school districts.

Public-health experts said such a patchwork approach can be confusing and make it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of containment policies. They also said governors have sufficient authority to ensure such consistency during emergencies.

It “makes people feel that they don’t really know what’s going on and that the people who are in charge don’t really know what’s going on,” said Mary Bassett, director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

Leaders should be consistent not only in policy, said Bassett, who was New York City health commissioner during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, but also in messaging, “otherwise people aren’t confident that they’re being given good advice.”

She noted that President Donald Trump has largely deferred to governors on COVID-19 response strategy.

Because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention health care, it’s an authority that largely resides with the states, and some have more decentralized approaches than others, said Claire Standley, a researcher with the Center for Global Health Science and Security and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Georgetown University.

That can be a good thing, particularly when the federal government’s response is inadequate, Standley said, noting that New York was able to expedite COVID-19 testing before federal guidelines were finalized.

But having many different response policies across a state might make it difficult to manage the crisis, too.

“I honestly think it’s more about coordination between central level and peripheral level and having that trust in place,” she said. “If people don’t trust their authorities, they’re not going to comply with regulations, which is largely what we’ve been seeing so far with a few exceptions.”

Elected officials respond

Abbott has also been in frequent contact with members of the Texas Legislature and other local officials since the spread of the virus reached a fever pitch last week. The governor’s office has organized a number of conference calls already in an attempt to get state lawmakers and local players on the same page as new information becomes available.

Many Republicans and some local officials have lauded Abbott’s decentralized strategy so far, thanking his office for his leadership approach, giving local governments the flexibility to operate as they see fit on most matters.

“I have not been one who has been bashful about criticizing Abbott in the past,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who has previously criticized Abbott for micromanaging county spending. “But I think he’s doing a fantastic job and giving us the flexibility to do what’s right for our areas. I don’t see any politics in this deal; I see [Abbott] really trying to tackle a difficult issue and recognizing the importance of the fact that this is a huge state.”

Meanwhile, a number of Democrats have offered muted praise for Abbott’s crisis management, though some have suggested the governor could be doing more to offer guidance for local governments.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, a freshman Democrat from Driftwood, said she thinks clearer guidance at the state and federal levels would better position local governments to respond to the virus.

“I’ve observed confusion from my local decision makers,” Zweiner told The Texas Tribune. “I see my city councils, my city administrators, my county commissioners desperate for answers on what the right thing to do is, and they’re not getting answers; they’re getting general advice.”

Another House Democrat, state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, told the Tribune that the best thing leaders can do is “give to the people of Texas consistency, uniformity and predictability, because that’s not coming from any other direction.”

“To the extent we can give people some normalcy … and whoever has the most authority to do that as swiftly as possible, should do it,” Moody said. “They should do it with an understanding that no one expects them to be perfect right now, but that we expect them to act quickly so that we remain ahead of the virus.”

But Republicans said Abbott has handled the situation appropriately — and that he has rightly shifted certain responsibilities to local governments.

“In terms of a crisis, we don’t need somebody to act like a dictator and push all of that information down to people,” said state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. “We need those empowered local officials to make the detailed decisions, and the governor has empowered local officials to make those judgments.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/03/17/experts-say-texas-patchwork-strategy-coronavirus-problem/.

Primary Colors: Why March 3 Matters (Part II)

In 2020, being a primary election voter is critical. ATPE explains why in Part II of our “Primary Colors” blog feature.

After what many folks have hailed as one of the most productive legislative sessions for public education in recent memory, it may be easy for educators to think, “Great! We fixed it!” After all, legislators increased state spending on public education and ordered districts to use some of that money to increase educator compensation. All good things, right?

But a new fight is imminent.

In statistics, there is a phenomenon called “reversion to the mean.” In broad terms, it states that an extreme event in a sequence will generally be followed by a less extreme event. If we look in the context of the past several legislative sessions in which legislators attacked teachers and tried to defund public schools by passing school vouchers, then the 2019 session was an an extreme outlier. Statistically, we should expect that the 2021 legislative session will revert back to the mean — which until recently has often ranged from indifference to open hostility towards public education. That’s especially relevant regarding politicians who actively fought against public schools and educators before the 2019 session.

If you’re still skeptical, just look at the last couple of weeks. In last Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Donald Trump renewed the push to pass private school vouchers that would defund public schools. The federal voucher legislation the president promoted was filed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas. Consider that and the fact that the chairman of Trump’s reelection campaign in Texas is none other than Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who also attempted to push a voucher bill through the Texas Legislature many times, as recently as 2017. Looking ahead to the next legislative session, the prospect of a renewed fight over vouchers in 2021 appears all but certain.

There’s also new evidence that legislators fully intend next session to attack educators’ right to use payroll deduction to voluntarily support associations that advocate for public schools at the Texas Capitol. This type of legislation, such as the bills pushed by lawmakers in 2017, threatens educators’ ability to have a voice in crafting public education policy in state as large as Texas. This fight will likely be compounded by a major push to restrict the ability of local communities — through their school districts, towns, counties, and first responders — to advocate for local issues at the Texas Capitol. Many capitol watchers point to these moves as part of a plot by certain special interests to ensure their own exclusive access to lawmakers by closing the doors of state government to the viewpoints of working people and communities.

And then there’s House Bill (HB) 3. The school finance bill passed last year added just enough money to the public education system to get the overall level of state funding close to where it was back before the legislature’s drastic budget cuts of 2011. Much more is needed in order to drag Texas out of the bottom of the barrel of U.S. states in terms of per-pupil spending. But before that happens, legislators have to make sure the funding they added through HB 3 in 2019 doesn’t go away. For all its merits, the school finance bill did not include a long-term funding source to ensure that HB 3 funding would be available into the future, and legislators in 2021 will have to decide whether to find permanent funding or cut back school spending, jeopardizing any increases to educator compensation in the process.

Speaking of compensation, did you see a raise in your paycheck this year? School districts were required to pass on some of that additional HB 3 funding to certain educators in the form of increased compensation. However, the rules guiding how that additional money was to be doled out were vague enough to result in educators in different districts experiencing very different results. Cleaning up compensation questions and other unanticipated complications from HB 3 will be an important part of the next legislature’s job.

The successes of the 2019 legislative session came only as a result of the resounding message educators sent by showing up to vote in record numbers in 2018. Because of our state’s extensive political gerrymandering, the majority of the races in 2018 were decided in the March primaries. That means educators who voted in the March 2018 primaries made a pro-public education legislative session possible in 2019.

The only way we will prevent the 2021 legislative session from reverting to the mean is if educators return to the polls this year in the same massive numbers as in 2018, and that begins with making sure everyone is a 2018 primary voter. There are plenty of resources out there to find out how and where to vote, including those provided by ATPE and our other partners in the nonpartisan Texas Educators Vote coalition. You can begin by researching candidates right here at TeachtheVote.org and then sharing the information you find with your friends and family. We made history in 2018, but we will lose all the progress we made if we take our foot off the gas in 2020. This is especially true in races where a single political party dominates the district, as ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell pointed out in Part I of this blog series for Teach the Vote.

It is more important than ever to be a Texas primary voter in 2020. Texas public school students depend on it!