Tag Archives: education

ATPE urges Congress to keep private school vouchers out of COVID-19 relief legislation

On Sept. 8, Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate shared their latest proposal for COVID-19 relief legislation, termed the “Delivering Immediate Relief to America’s Families, Schools and Small Businesses Act.” The Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House have been deadlocked since May on negotiations for additional relief from the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) shared details of the new GOP proposal Tuesday and announced his intent for the Senate to pass the bill by the end of this week. However, amid criticism that the bill does not go far enough to help those affected by the pandemic, the legislation was considered highly unlikely to move forward, and a preliminary vote taken today in the Senate fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to proceed.

The latest Senate bill would shield businesses against lawsuits related to COVID-19 and spend $500 billion on initiatives that would include debt forgiveness for the postal service, additional paycheck protection loans for small businesses, partial continuation of enhanced unemployment benefits, and funding for coronavirus vaccine development and testing. Schools would be eligible for additional funds under the bill, too, but the Senate proposal reserves two-thirds of the K-12 money for schools operating in person. Unlike the most recent U.S. House proposal, states would see no additional direct funding that could be used to offset anticipated budget cuts in public education and other areas.

To the dismay of the education community, the Senate GOP bill also calls for funneling $5 billion in tax dollars toward private school voucher programs favored by the Trump administration and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The proposal would offer federal tax credits to bolster state voucher programs and fund private school tuition “scholarships.” Additionally, the bill would expand access to 529 savings accounts, typically reserved for college costs, to pay for private and home schooling. The voucher language in the McConnell bill mirrors similar legislation filed by U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) to subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling costs with tax credits and other federally funded incentives.

Responding to Tuesday’s announcement, ATPE issued a statement criticizing the inclusion of the controversial private school voucher funding in a bill that purports to provide COVID-19 relief. ““Congress should be focusing on helping our nation’s public schools that are dealing with unprecedented challenges,” said ATPE State President Jimmy Lee. “We cannot afford to divert our limited resources from public schools to private entities  during a global crisis,” Lee added. View ATPE’s full press statement here.

Senate task force includes ATPE recommendations in letter to education commissioner

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Aug. 14, 2020

Whether you started school or not this week, nearly everyone is switching into back-to-school mode. Unwind and stay up-to-date with this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


Gov. Abbott speaks in El Paso, August 13, 2020. (Source)

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Saturday, August 8, Gov. Greg Abbott renewed the COVID-19 disaster declaration for the state of Texas. The declaration continues many of the special provisions, funding mechanisms, and waivers that have helped Texans get through the pandemic. Abbott traveled to Beaumont, Victoria, Lubbock, and El Paso this week to speak about COVID-19. He stressed remaining vigilant in best practices to avoid contracting COVID-19, said that bars were hot-spots and the state would need to meet certain metrics before they could reopen, and added that the state is investigating its high test positivity rate. With regard to schools, Abbott reiterated that it is up to school districts to provide remote, in-person, or hybrid models under the flexibilities (and limitations) offered by the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

ATPE sent a letter to all Texas superintendents this week that included recommendations for how to respond to COVID-19, based on the communications ATPE has received from its membership. These recommendations include implementing a process to consider and make accommodations for staff health concerns; granting requested contract releases or refraining from filing complaints with the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) if a staff member resigns due to health concerns that cannot be accommodated; and providing paid leave for staff members who are ordered to quarantine.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins was featured in an article by the Texas Signal this week on the confusion that has surrounded a safe school reopening. With an order to open schools but details left up to local decision-makers, educators have gotten lost in the mix of constantly changing messages and guidelines. Wiggins said, “It is a tough situation for people who have dedicated their lives to serving children. In some cases, parents will have a choice for their kids to receive remote instruction, but educators don’t get that choice. Confusion doesn’t inspire confidence.”

The ATPE COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page has frequently-updated answers to common questions from educators. Also be sure to check out ATPE’s recent legal webinar on COVID-19 with explanations of many issues facing educators during the pandemic. ATPE members can also use Advocacy Central to communicate with their elected officials regarding concerns about school reopening and other issues.


ELECTION UPDATE: State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) was ceremonially sworn into office this week after formally taking the oath two weeks ago. Eckhardt will serve out the remainder of the term left vacant by former Sen. Kirk Watson through 2022. Meanwhile, a potential shakeup is brewing in Senate District (SD) 30 in North Texas. State Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) is expected to be promoted to the U.S. Congress, creating a vacancy for his Texas Senate seat that is drawing interest from many candidates, including some members of the Texas House of Representatives. This sets up a unique dilemma surrounding the mathematical majority in the chamber and the election of a new House Speaker in January.

In national news this week, Joe Biden selected his former presidential rival and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his running mate. Harris is the first African-American woman and person of Asian-American descent in U.S. history to appear on a major political party’s presidential ticket, and was among the first in the Democratic presidential primary to call for a raise for teachers.

Finally, the U.S. Census is underway and will have a significant impact on how much power Texas holds in Congress. Read more about what’s at stake, as well as the rest of this week’s election news, in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


ATPE Vice President Karen Hames participated in a virtual forum hosted by CBS Austin.

ATPE members have been speaking up for their students and fellow colleagues all over Texas this week! ATPE State Vice President and veteran middle school teacher Karen Hames was featured in a statewide virtual forum hosted by CBS Austin this week. During the Wednesday evening broadcast, Hames detailed how her school is approaching in-service days and the school year. She provided advice to parents as they begin school in a completely different environment, saying that a parent’s encouragement during virtual learning is “incalculable.”

ATPE member Myra Rodriguez-Berrones took part in a Q&A panel hosted by Sen. Zaffirini.

Zapata ISD Special Services Teacher and ATPE Member Myra Rodriguez-Berrones also participated in “Back to School? Your Questions Answered,” a Q&A panel hosted by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) on Wednesday. Berrones has spent 20 years serving children with special needs and the hard of hearing in Zapata ISD, and shared her thoughts on serving children with special needs in the COVID environment. Berrones also shared tips for engaging children at home, as well as increasing participation for parents of English learners. The panel included representatives from the Texas Education Agency, as well as speakers representing administrators, counselors, and school nurses. You can watch the full Q&A session here.


The Texas Senate Finance Committee released its interim report to the 87th legislature last week. The report comes at a time when committees in both chambers of the Texas legislature have not been able to meet for interim hearings due to COVID-19 concerns and closures. Having just received guidance not too long ago on how to conduct interim business amid the pandemic, many Texas House committees have now posted “formal requests for information” on their websites to gain information without holding a formal public hearing in person. Read more about the Senate Finance Committee report and the House requests for information in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Communication is key in every relationship. That’s why ATPE has partnered with several other education organizations to develop a public online toolkit with tips and suggestions that parents and educators can use during the challenges of virtual instruction. Use ATPE’s open submission form to submit tips from either a parent or educator perspective for classroom engagement, parent and student communication, and more!


The Texas Education Agency updated nearly all of its COVID-19 resources this week, just as some school districts across the state opened for in-person and remote instruction. The agency answered new questions regarding full-day pre-K requirements and funding, the optional and extended transition periods in the beginning of the year, and attendance and enrollment. TEA also created a new “Education Rights and Responsibilities” document for families that outlines what options for instruction and reminds parents of attendance requirements. Districts were notified this week of free training provided by OnRamps for those who are teaching in distance or hybrid learning environments. Additionally, as in the spring, districts will be required to report “crisis codes” for students based on whether the student is receiving in-person, remote synchronous, or remote asynchronous instruction. Lastly, the agency’s resources on educator preparation remind  certification candidates that, under the Governor’s disaster declaration, TEA can reduce face-to-face requirements by 20%. Similarly, the agency is advising educator preparation programs to process probationary certificates for candidates who cannot meet testing requirements (under the Governor’s waiver) as quickly as possible.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Aug. 7, 2020

Sales Tax Free Weekend in Texas starts today and ends Sunday, August 9. Enjoy shopping online, by mail, or in-person (be safe!) as you gear up for the school year with some new clothing and supplies. Before you make your shopping list, check out this week’s wrap-up from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


Abbott holds press conference on August 4, 2020. (Source)

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: With congressional negotiations over additional COVID-19 relief legislation at the federal level apparently stalled this week, schools around the country are starting the new school year with lingering concerns about the availability of resources. Here in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott made a few media appearances this week, mostly reinforcing state actions pertaining to the start of the new school year. On Monday, Abbott told KXAN that teachers should not be concerned with the safety of the school setting, claiming teachers have ther option to teach virtually for “months on end.” As ATPE has been reporting on state guidance issued and revised over the past month, school districts are limited to a maximum of eight weeks of primarily remote learning without risking state funding. Districts are adopting varied remote learning models and are not necessarily offering all teachers the option to teach remotely. ATPE Board Member Christie Smith was featured in KXAN’s story, saying that even though she is eligible for retirement, she is staying in her position to maintain health benefits and job security.

At a Tuesday press conference, Gov. Abbott stressed that local school officials are best equipped to make decisions about when and how to return to school, and he ensured PPE will be provided to districts at no cost. While Abbott stated that Texas has distributed more than 59.4 million masks, 24,000 thermometers, 568,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, and 511,000 face shields to Texas schools, many argue that this allocation will not meet the needs of students and staff for an extended period of time. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has also said previously that schools should purchase additional PPE beyond what the state is providing. On Thursday, Gov. Abbott held another press conference to discuss considerations for flu season, mainly noting that COVID-19 preparations, precautions, and heightened hygiene and mask wearing practices should make this the tamest flu season yet. Abbott maintained that although COVID-19 vaccines will not be available this fall, flu vaccines are available and “treatments” for COVID-19 are increasingly available.

ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter participated in a town hall on school reopening this week with Dr. Eliz Markowitz. Exter emphasized the need for creativity and collaboration among district leaders, parents, and educators, as well as the need for consistent and clear state leadership. Other panelists included SBOE member and physician Dr. Matt Robinson and renowned education author Dr. Diane Ravitch.

The ATPE COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page has frequently-updated answers to common questions from educators. Also be sure to check out ATPE’s recent legal webinaron COVID-19 with  explanations of many issues facing educators during the pandemic. ATPE members can also use Advocacy Central to communicate with their elected officials regarding concerns about school reopening and other issues.


ELECTION UPDATE: Former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt formally took office as state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) last Friday, filling the seat in Senate District (SD) 14 left open by former state Sen. Kirk Watson. Eckhardt finished the July special election with the most votes, but just under the 50% threshold needed to win the election outright. She was headed to a runoff with state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin), until Rep. Rodriguez bowed out of the race. Sen. Eckhardt will fill out the remainder of Watson’s term, which is set to expire in 2022.

John Lewis 📷 Library of Congress

As the nation mourned the passing of civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), we were reminded of what the congressman had to say about the power of voting to bring about positive change. “My dear friends,” he told a Charlotte, North Carolina, audience in 2012, “Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.”

It’s never too early to start preparing for the next election, which falls on November 3. Gov. Abbott extended early voting by an additional week, which means the polls now open on October 13 and early voting runs through October 30. That means voting begins in just two months!

Our friends at the Texas Educators Vote coalition have put together a handy checklist to make sure you’re ready. October 5 is the deadline to register in time to vote if you haven’t already, so step one is checking to see if your registration is up to date. If you are eligible and plan to vote by mail, apply as soon as possible and return your completed ballot at the earliest possible opportunity. This will help avoid delays in the mail service like we saw during the runoff elections. Finally, don’t forget to head over to the candidates section here at Teach the Vote and research who’s running in your area. And make sure your friends do the same!


David Pore

FEDERAL UPDATE: ATPE Immediate State Past-President Tonja Gray and new State President Jimmy Lee finished a round of virtual meetings with the Texas congressional delegation last week. Along with the ATPE Governmental Relations team and our federal lobbyist, David Pore, Gray and Lee met with several members of the Texas delegation to talk about current issues of concern to educators. Read more about the meetings in this blog post written by Pore.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) recently posted the adopted Commissioner’s rules for the Local Optional Teacher Designation System under the Teacher Incentive Allotment, which was created by last year’s House Bill 3. The rules incorporated several suggestions made by ATPE during the public comment phase of the rule-making process back in May. These changes include a reference to the statutory definition of educator within the rules, a clarification of the eligible role codes for teachers to earn or receive designations, the requirement of an implementation plan in response to annual surveys about the designation system, and other clarifying language on teacher eligibility and the approval process for district plans.


School nutrition has been one of the many challenges incurred by the public education system since the COVID-19 pandemic began and schools were forced to close their doors. In the spring of 2020, school districts continued to pay nutritional services staff while taking on higher costs associated with food delivery and menu changes to make more hygienic and simple grab-and-go options for families. At the same time, and even with waivers in place, fewer students accessed school meals. This double-whammy created a financial strain for districts, which run a nearly net-zero food operation. Without more waivers or funding, districts could be looking at a tough year for food service in 2020-21, which isn’t good news for students who rely on the school for this basic necessity. Read more about nutrition and COVID-19 in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


The U.S. Census Bureau announced this week that field data collection will end one month early, on September 30 rather than October 31. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham insisted that the remaining weeks of field work, which are crucial to an accurate count of hard-to-count communities, will be handled with diligence in order to provide apportionment counts by the statutory deadline of December 31, 2020. Texas currently ranks #39 in the nation with a self-response rate of 58%. Without a complete count, Texas risks an imbalanced and inaccurate congressional representation, non-representative redistricting, and funding cuts to programs that benefit all Texans, such as roads and public education. Encourage everyone you know to complete their census questionnaire and have their own network complete the census, too. It is easier than ever and can be completed online. Read more about this recent development in this census reporting by the Texas Tribune.


The closure of the Texas State Capitol on account of the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered the ability of state legislative committees to conduct their interim work. On July 16, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen notified House committees of their options for carrying out interim committee business during COVID-19. One of the options is to post “formal requests for information” on the House website so that committees can gather written information from the public and post it publicly in lieu of holding an in-person hearing. Several House committees posted formal requests for information this week, including the House Higher Education Committee, House Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services Committee, and House Appropriations Article III subcommittee.

The Texas Senate has not yet provided notice on planned committee proceedings options during the pandemic. However, the Senate Finance Committee has gone ahead and released its interim report this Friday afternoon. In addition to general finance discussions, the report includes some recommendations for investment strategies of state funds such as the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) pension fund and the Permanent School Fund. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote on Monday for a more detailed look at the interim committee report released today.

ATPE meets virtually with Texas Congressional delegation

Submitted by ATPE Contract Lobbyist David Pore of Hance Scarborough, LLP

Tonja Gray

Jimmy Lee

Newly inaugurated ATPE State President Jimmy Lee and immediate Past President Tonja Gray spent time in July joining me and the ATPE Governmental Relations team for a series of online roundtable policy discussions with key members of the Texas Congressional Delegation and their staffs.  Although perhaps not as effective (nor as much fun) as the annual state officer trip to Washington, DC, we made progress in our federal advocacy efforts and built on existing relationships with the delegation. Our goal was to provide input to the members who sit on the key committees of jurisdiction on the policy issues important to Texas educators, parents, and students. We focused our discussions on safely returning to school, federal COVID-19 relief funding for education, and the GPO/WEP Social Security offsets that continue to reduce the benefits of retired educators and other public servants.

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX 20) sits on the House Education and Labor Committee that has oversight over the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and how they spend the money appropriated for K-12 and higher education by the Congress. The congressman and his Education Legislative Assistant Kaitlyn Montan joined us for a great discussion of the challenges facing Texas educators, administrators, parents, and students as we work to return to the classroom safely. ATPE leaders stressed the importance of local, district-level decision making and the need for flexibility for school districts to be able to return virtually, in-person, or with a hybrid model where appropriate. The congressman agreed that federal money should not be used to incentivize one return model over another and that ED should not divert limited federal taxpayer money appropriated for COVID-19 relief for public schools to private schools or for the virtual voucher pet projects of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Rep. Castro committed to using his role on the committee to conduct robust oversight and make sure the department follows the law as Congress intended.

Rep. Van Taylor (R-TX 3) also sits on the House Education and Labor Committee and represents a North Texas district with over 4,000 ATPE members. The congressman’s Legislative Director Jett Thompson met with us, and while less enthusiastic about the need for strong oversight of ED, he did agree that Secretary DeVos should stick to congressional intent when implementing the COVID-19 relief bills, including in how taxpayer money is distributed to private schools.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX 35) sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and has been a long time cosponsor and champion for legislation completely repealing the WEP and the GPO. The repeal bills have never made it out of committee due to their enormous costs to the Social Security trust fund and the inequities that would be created for private sector beneficiaries. Rep. Doggett’s Legislative Assistant Sarah Jones met with us and informed us that the congressman does not support the more limited bill repealing the WEP that has been authored by Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX) or the version introduced by committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA). Surprisingly, Jones stated that Rep. Doggett did not support the Neal bill because it “is not paid for,” despite his long-time support for the full repeal bill that costs the Social Security trust fund much more than either the Brady or Neal WEP repeal bills. Although she did express support from the congressman on our position regarding how ED is spending COVID-19 relief funds, we let Jones know that Congressman Doggett’s opposition to the WEP repeal bills was inconsistent with his previous positions on the issue and extremely disappointing to Texas public educators, both active and retired.

ATPE state officers and lobbyists met with Rep. Jodey Arrington via Zoom, July 28, 2020, to discuss COVID-19 considerations and Social Security reform.

Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX 19) also sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and has emerged as a champion for legislation to repeal the WEP and replace it with a proportional formula. We discussed with him the partisan breakdown of previously bipartisan legislation authored by committee Chairman Neal and Ranking Member Brady that has now devolved into two separate bills bogged down and unlikely to move before the election in November. Tonja Gray relayed on-the-ground concerns about the return to school from Abilene ISD, which lies in Arrington’s congressional district, while Jimmy Lee spoke from his unique perspective as a retired career educator, statewide leader, and the husband of a superintendent. While we agreed to disagree with the congressman on his position that it is appropriate to use federal relief money to incentivize in-person teaching this fall, regardless of the health and safety concerns of the district, we expressed our sincere appreciation for his open line of communication with ATPE and his strong support in the Ways and Means Committee for addressing the WEP. Arrington also praised ATPE for its professional approach to working with officeholders, expressing his belief that the national union groups “are not winning anyone over” in Washington.

Unfortunately, our senior U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) was unavailable to meet with ATPE’s statewide leadership and the governmental relations team. Although his Legislative Assistant Clair Sanderson met with us, she was unable to commit the senator to a position on how ED is implementing the CARES Act and spending federal taxpayer money appropriated for COVID-19 relief for education. We also discussed the Senate companion to the Brady WEP bill that Senator Ted Cruz has introduced, which to date, Senator Cornyn has not cosponsored.

It is important for our elected officials at every level to hear directly from professional educators about the issues you face, such as returning to school safely, how our tax dollars are spent on education, and how federal Social Security laws affect your retirement. I am grateful to Tonja and Jimmy for taking the time to participate in these roundtable discussions. They both are outstanding ambassadors for ATPE and for public education as a whole. Thank you, Tonja and Jimmy!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 31, 2020

State officials released information this week that sends mixed messages to educators and school leaders, yet again. Read more about this and other developments in this week’s wrap-up from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: School districts around the state continue to discuss and revise plans for starting the new school year amid funding and enrollment uncertainty and with guidance from elected officials that has raised more questions than answers. As we have been reporting here on our blog, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) initially urged school districts to start the 2020-21 school year earlier to allow for extended breaks during the year. With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, TEA walked back that position in early July, suggesting a delayed reopening and offering districts a three-week transition period to move from virtual to on-campus instruction. On July 17, as several of the state’s largest cities were adopting orders that would attempt to delay a return to campus until COVID-19 cases subsided, TEA extended the allowable virtual transition period to four to eight weeks (with school board approval) and also said districts would continue to be funded if they were forced to operate virtually under closure orders from local officials. But this week saw yet another round of guidance from TEA and statements by other elected officials calling into question the validity of such local orders.

A new, non-binding legal opinion voiced by Texas Attorney General (AG) Ken Paxton and updated public health and attendance guidance from TEA on Tuesday only added to the confusion school district leaders, their staffs, and the parents of students are trying to sort through. The AG’s letter to a Texas mayor attempts to nullify local health authorities’ previously assumed ability to issue school closure orders in a preventative fashion. TEA updated its attendance and enrollment guidance the same day to reflect Paxton’s interpretation, warning that schools districts that offer only remote instruction based on local health authority orders (outside of the approved transition window in which instruction can be fully virtual) may risk losing their funding. Read more about Tuesday’s developments in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell, and read ATPE’s press statement here.

On Friday, a joint press release from Governor Abbott, Lt. Governor Patrick, Speaker Bonnen, Chairman Taylor, and Chairman Huberty defended TEA’s updated guidance, saying the agency has provided flexibility through various means and that it is up to local school boards to decide when and how to open schools. ATPE responded to the press release in a statement complaining about the unclear and often contradictory directives and stating, “ATPE reiterates that uniform, science-based metrics guiding reopening or closure decisions based on health and safety are needed right now—not shifting perspectives, platitudes, or power struggles.”

Knowing the frustrations that this back-and-forth causes for educators, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter told News 4 San Antonio this week it would be helpful to have consistent guidance from TEA. While the news about teachers and students returning to campus often takes the spotlight, support staff across Texas are also concerned, as the Texas Tribune reported this week. Cafeteria, custodial, and transportation staff face unique challenges this fall as they tend to be paid hourly, and their jobs, by their nature, cannot be performed remotely. In a recent CNN interview, ATPE’s Mitchell cited the need to add bus routes in order to reduce passenger loads as an example of steps school districts are finding it difficult to implement without additional financial resources from the state and federal government. Unfortunately, the ever-changing regulations communicated by state leadership make creating a safe plan, and sticking to it, difficult. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins sat down with Fox 7 Austin this week to talk about the issue, saying we are past due for local control guided by educators, parents, and public health officials.


This week Gov. Greg Abbott announced he has eliminated the requirement that STAAR test scores be used for fifth and eighth grade promotion decisions, a step in the right direction towards reducing the impact of testing in the 2020-21 school year. Additionally, according to TEA correspondence, only one test administration in fifth and eighth grade will occur this year. The change places educational decisions back in the hands of expert educators, who can easily determine without STAAR if a student is ready for the next grade. Yet more flexibility is needed. In an interview with NBC DFW this week, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier expressed that eliminating the STAAR tests in their entirety for the 2020-21 school year would save valuable time and resources that will be needed for remediation and helping those students who need it the most. Read more about this development in this blog post by Chevalier.


ATPE held a legal webinar on COVID-19 this week that included educators’ questions answered by ATPE Managing Attorney Paul Tapp. In case you missed the live webinar, you may view the recorded version to hear Tapp’s easy-to-understand explanations of the many issues facing educators during the pandemic.

Visit the ATPE COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page for constantly updated answers to common questions from educators. ATPE members can also use Advocacy Central to communicate with their elected officials regarding concerns about school reopening and other issues.


FEDERAL UPDATE: Republicans in the U.S. Senate revealed their new proposal for coronavirus aid and relief this week, which includes an updated education proposal directing two-thirds of $70 billion in K-12 funds to schools that physically reopen for in-person instruction. The remaining one-third would be split among all public schools. The legislative package also includes a separate bill that aims to instate U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s longstanding wish for $5 billion in dollar-for-dollar tax credits for a private school voucher system. The GOP proposal comes months after House Democrats passed theirs. Read more about Congress’s progress in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

The U.S. Department of Education this week announced winners for the “Rethink K-12 Education Models Grant” this week, which includes a nearly $20 million award for Texas. The grants were awarded based on priorities, the first of which was for states that opted to create “microgrant” voucher programs. Texas did not opt for microgrants and instead will use the federal money for its statewide learning management system and framework, announced to districts this week to include a free two-year subscription to Schoology.


ELECTION UPDATE:  President Donald Trump made headlines yesterday when he put out a tweet that suggested postponing the November 3 election. Many experts were quick to point out that the president does not have the legal authority to postpone the election; only Congress has that power. The suggestion drew unanimous criticism even among the president’s Republican supporters, who confirmed that there is no chance of the presidential election being postponed for the first time in American history. It’s also worth noting that mail-in voting is, in fact, a form of absentee voting; and while the primary elections revealed significant processing problems presented by record numbers of people taking advantage of the option to vote by mail, allegations of widespread voting fraud have not been proven.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) announced this week that early voting for the Nov. 3 election will be extended by an additional week. Early voting will now run from October 13 through October 30, 2020. That leaves three full weeks for early voting, which is intended to relieve crowding at polling locations. Gov. Abbott similarly extended the early voting period for the July runoff elections.

In the Senate District 14 special election, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) announced this week that he is withdrawing from the runoff against former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who finished first in the special election held this month. Rodriguez will retain his Texas House seat. Eckhardt will now fill out the remainder of former state Sen. Kirk Watson’s (D-Austin) term, which ends in 2022. Watson retired from the Texas Senate earlier this year.


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) held a special meeting Friday, July 31, to discuss rules relating to educator certification candidates facing challenges during the pandemic. The rules proposed for adoption will allow candidates to complete their educator preparation program (EPP) requirements for the 2020-21 school year in a virtual setting and will allow face-to-face observation requirements to be carried out in a synchronous virtual setting. After hearing testimony from EPP representatives during the past couple of months, the board voted to amend its proposal to include asychronous observations in addition to those carried out synchronously. Read more about the meeting in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

Governor removes STAAR requirements for grade promotion, but state leaders show no intent to waive testing in 2020-21

On Monday, July 27, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced that STAAR scores would not be required factors in determining fifth and eighth grade promotion next year. Additionally, students in fifth and eighth grades will only take their STAAR assessments one time, as re-takes will not be necessary. This is a welcome development for the upcoming school year, providing some relief of both educators’ and parents’ anxiety knowing that student scores will not be accurate indicators of learning due to the pandemic.

The sentiments provided by state leadership in Abbott’s announcement indicate that the state has no intention at this time to fully waive standardized testing, even as calls from stakeholders and state legislators have increased over the past month to suspend this year’s testing cycle. While districts are set to be rated “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster” for the 2019-20 school year, Abbott said in his press release, “The traditional A-F rating system will remain in place, albeit with certain adjustments due to COVID-19.” It is unclear what these adjustments will be.

Other states, such as Georgia and South Carolina, have already taken steps toward requesting a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) from federal standardized testing requirements. Based on the statements of Texas state leaders, who want to maintain testing for diagnostic and accountability purposes, Texas does not seem likely to make such a request from the federal government unless the legislature takes action on the matter in the 2021 session. Furthermore, Jim Blew, an assistant secretary at ED, told reporters last week that assessments provide transparency on school performance and that the department’s “instinct” would be to decline testing waivers.

As previously reported here on our blog, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has touted diagnostic benefits of STAAR when asked by other elected officials about seeking another waiver of federal testing requirements. Morath also highlights the fact that TEA has already extended the online assessment windows for STAAR and STAAR Alternate 2, allowing anywhere from two- to six-week testing windows for the 2020-21 school year. These optional extensions only apply to online test administrations and have not yet been announced for the TELPAS tests. TEA has also stood up optional beginning-of-year assessments that use released STAAR questions to test prior year content.

In accordance with a resolution adopted by our 2020 House of Delegates during the recent ATPE Summit, ATPE has been urging state leaders to suspend 2020-21 STAAR and TELPAS testing requirements. Because it may be left up to state legislators to take action on this issue, it is important that they hear from their constituents who care about this issue. Visit ATPE’s Advocacy Central (member login required) to share your voice with your elected officials on testing or any other education issues.

BREAKING: Schools receive updated TEA guidance on closures, reflecting new advice from attorney general

Earlier today, Texas Attorney General (AG) Ken Paxton issued a press release sharing a letter he penned to Stephenville Mayor Doug Svien about local authorities’ power (or lack thereof) to restrict schools from reopening for on-campus instruction. Though non-binding, Paxton’s letter cautions that local health authorities cannot issue closure orders or other restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic that would conflict with either state law or Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders already in effect. Paxton then argues that orders recently issued by some local health authorities conflict with both.

The AG’s letter notes that a handful of cities and counties — mostly located in urban areas more acutely affected by rising numbers of COVID-19 infections — have recently issued orders to restrict area schools from opening their doors prior to a particular date. Paxton counters with advice that such “blanket quarantine orders” issued as a prophylactic measure are prohibited. Only actual infection on the campus, according to the AG’s reasoning, would warrant the issuance of a local order to close the school to on-campus instruction. “To the extent a local health authority seeks to employ section 81.085 to order closure of a school, the authority would need to demonstrate reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease,” writes Paxton in the letter.

On the heels of the AG’s letter, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated its “SY 20-21 Public Health Planning Guidance” document that was issued July 17, 2020, with a newer version today, along with an “Attendance and Enrollment FAQ” document that is similarly revised.

In the latest guidance, TEA explains that because of the AG’s interpretation, “a blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction.” This differs from prior TEA guidance which assured schools they would continue to receive funding if they were forced to close by a local order. Now those closure orders would have to meet the additional hurdles outlined by AG Paxton, including a vague requirement of being based on “reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease.” Notwithstanding the AG’s letter, TEA also clarifies in the newest documents out today that schools may still be funded while operating remotely if they are doing so under other permissible conditions, such as during the allowed four-week transition period that was announced in the earlier TEA guidance.

Many Texas public schools have already announced plans to operate virtually for the first few weeks of their school year while preparing for a return to on-campus instruction. School districts may also request a one-time extension of the state-sanctioned four-week transition period if voted upon by their board of trustees. It is believed that most of the existing local health orders restricting a return to campus would overlap with the four-to-eight-week transition period already authorized by TEA, making it unlikely that a school district would have to risk a loss of funding because of a delay in returning to campus at the beginning of the school year. Once the transition period expires, however, school districts may find themselves in a precarious position if their local health officials’ recommendations conflict with state orders in effect at the time. TEA also points out that school districts have their power to set their own calendars, which some may find a need to revise.

TEA’s new resources shared today also include a “Guidebook for Public Health Operations,” which includes protocols schools may use in responding to an lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 and recommendations for collaborating with local health officials to discuss and conduct planning exercises ahead of the new school year:

“School systems, local health departments and local health authorities should make contact prior to the start of school and conduct a tabletop exercise (detailed at the end of this document) to determine how they will work together. …  As part of the exercise, these parties will determine how to best work together in the instance of a positive case.”

While ATPE is pleased to see the suggestions for collaborative planning to respond to the COVID-19 infections within a local school community that are likely to occur in the near future, it would have been more helpful for schools to have received this guidance from the state earlier in the summer rather than within days or weeks of starting the new school year. The new TEA guidebook also adds a somewhat perfunctory statement that local “planning efforts should also engage parents and teachers,” which ATPE has urged for months now in our recommendations to local and state officials.

We are aware that many school district leaders are grappling with a maze of differing and even contradictory orders and advice on how to begin the new school year. This is especially true for districts located within the boundaries of multiple city or county jurisdictions that may not agree on how to respond to the pandemic. As noted in a statement issued today, ATPE urges the state to provide clearer direction and leadership to help schools decipher these orders and guidelines.

“ATPE recognizes that COVID-19 has created fluid situations that demand frequent updates and revisions to plans. However, with multiple directives and guidance being issued by different branches and levels of government, it is no surprise that school leaders and educators are frustrated. The state should do everything in its power to protect the lives of Texans and support a safe and productive learning environment, not create needless confusion.”

As additional developments occur and guidance from government officials continues to change, ATPE encourages educators to visit our COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for answers to frequently asked questions, which we will continue to update.

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.