Tag Archives: federal funding

Abbott, TEA launch voucher program for students with disabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 9, 2020

Education supporters celebrated World Teachers’ Day on Monday. We at ATPE believe every day should be Teachers’ Day, and we thank you for your hard work each and every day! Here are this week’s other education news highlights, brought to you by ATPE Governmental Relations:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Governor Greg Abbott announced this week that he is relaxing restrictions on bars this week, allowing those in counties with low hospitalization rates to open at a capacity of 50%, so long as their county judge opts in.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated its COVID-19 resource page this week to reflect new guidance on attendance and enrollment, stating that school systems choosing to offer only remote instruction for a given day (such as Election Day) must ensure they meet the 75,600-minute requirement for the year and must still offer in-person instruction to families who want it. If the district remains in an approved transition period by Election Day and wants to offer remote-only instruction that day, it would be subject to TEA requirements that some students are present for on-campus instruction. Additionally, TEA noted that although school districts can adopt their own mask restrictions at school for students and staff, they cannot enforce mask requirements for voters on Election Day.

Also, the Texas Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard housed on the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) website was updated this week. The site uses data that school districts report to TEA on the number of test-confirmed cases among students and staff who engage in on-campus activities and instruction. Compared to last week’s reported numbers, the number of positive cases rose by 2.3% among students and 7.8% among staff.

Be sure to check out ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page and these other resources:

  • Get answers to common legal questions about COVID-19 and earn CPE by watching ATPE’s webcasts on our professional learning portal.
  • Use our Parent-Teacher Toolkit, featuring our latest video on giving each other grace.
  • See the pandemic and ATPE’s response evolve through our updated, interactive timeline.
  • Send messages to your government officials through Advocacy Central (for ATPE members only).

ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting begins Tuesday, October 13, and lasts three weeks through October 30. The Texas Supreme Court this week upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to expand early voting by a week with the aim of easing crowding at polling locations. Meanwhile, federal election money is pouring into Texas — a sign that both parties see a competitive presidential race in our state for the first time in years. That means Texans will see many more campaign ads in the final weeks before November 3, but they may not see another presidential debate. Read the latest in this week’s Texas election roundup post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

The League of Women Voters hosted a virtual event this week on the importance of learning about down-ballot races and how they impact you. Panelists for the event included ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, who described how education is on the ballot from your choice of president, who appoints the U.S. Secretary or Education, all the way down to your school board. Watch the event here.

Raise Your Hand Texas has additional “For the Future” candidate forums taking place next week, where you can learn more about candidates’ stances on public education issues. Click here for details.

Find additional general election voting dates and reminders here, and don’t forget to check out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote.


FEDERAL UPDATE: Congressional negotiations on a comprehensive COVID-19 relief bill came to an abrupt halt Tuesday afternoon when President Trump tweeted out, “I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election…” The following day, after sharp declines in the stock market caused by his initial tweet, the President reversed course in part by calling for a handful of piecemeal bills. None of these standalone measures favored by the president and Senate Republicans would include relief funding for public education. Stay tuned for updates as the back-and-forth in Washington continues.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continues to advance a pro-private school voucher agenda in meetings and events around the country. Voucher provisions have also been included in some of the Senate’s recent proposals for additional COVID-19 relief funding. At an event in Wisconsin yesterday moderated by the DeVos-associated “American Federation of Children,” parents complained that their income levels were too high to take advantage of voucher program in that state and argued that income caps should be abolished. Wisconsin already has 43,000 students enrolled in private schools with the assistance of vouchers, and 16,000 students in that state attend charter schools. DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education have also been pushing for the expansion of charter schools, with $33 million in grants announced last Friday for the state of Texas to grow its network of charter schools. Read more in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) met today, Oct. 9, 2020, voting to allow lifetime Legacy Master Teacher certificates. ATPE initiated the action on the Legacy Master Teacher issue by bringing it to SBEC members after hearing concerns from the field. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier also testified against a proposal to allow email notifications of disciplinary investigations against educators, rather than certified and registered mail that is currently required. Read more about the meeting in this post by Chevalier.


 

 

 

Equitable services saga ends following court decision against DeVos rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betsy DeVos

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

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

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

Census workers are knocking

U.S. Census Bureau

Recently, my family has encountered census workers who are trying to make sure our neighbors are counted by the September 30 census deadline. During a pandemic and an era of misinformation and distrust, you may find yourself cautious during such meetings. This feeling is completely understandable. However, armed with information and a commitment to helping others get counted in the 2020 Census, we can all work together to make sure Texas receives its fair share of federal funding for roads, schools, healthcare, representation in Congress, and much more.

A few weeks ago, I was playing in the front yard with my toddler when a census worker (who had been sitting in a running car for quite some time) asked if a “Nicole” lived in our house. I recognized the U.S. Census badge and other materials he had marked with the “2020 Census” logo. I replied, “No,” and he said that maybe they were at our neighbor’s house. I knew, however, that our neighbor had already filled out their census because we talked about it months ago. He talked to my neighbor, got the information he needed, yelled across the yard to me to tell me about how he hadn’t gotten to see his newly-born grandchild yet, and drove off.

The U.S. Census Bureau has detailed information on what to expect from census takers in your neighborhood and what to look for to verify their identity. And, here are some common reasons why those who have already responded to the 2020 Census may be visited by a census worker.

In another instance, my husband opened the door one evening to a woman who held up her badge and informed him she worked for the U.S. Census Bureau. She asked my husband how many people lived in the house across the street, if the house was rented or owned, and whether they were Hispanic. Soon, the neighbor in question pulled in to their driveway. The census worker rushed to their house, but, according to my husband, the neighbors quickly got back into their car and drove off. My husband felt uncomfortable about the encounter with the census worker, but the practice of using “proxy sources” to get basic information about non-responsive households is not uncommon.

According to a U.S. Census Bureau press release on door-to-door non-response follow-ups from the:

Census takers will go to great lengths to ensure that no one is missed in the census. After exhausting their efforts to do an in-person interview with a resident of an occupied housing unit, they will seek out proxy sources — a neighbor, a rental agent, a building manager or some other knowledgeable person familiar with the housing unit — to obtain as much basic information about the occupants as they can.

Some are concerned with the safety of participating in the 2020 Census. How will the information be used? Will it be used against me? This “Fighting Rumors” page provides information useful for educating yourself (and others) on how census data is used and not used. Most importantly, without an accurate count, especially of children, Texas risks adequate funding for essential funding streams that impact public schools, school nutrition programs, child care, special education, and much more.

One-third of households in Texas (roughly 31%) have been counted through the “boots-on-the-ground” efforts of census takers during the non-response follow-up (NRFU) process. Through these efforts, Texas is now just under the national average of enumerated households, at 92.4% compared to 93.0%.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commissioner discusses COVID-19 issues at the June SBOE meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DeVos issues rule on sending stimulus funds to private schools

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

David Pore

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

 


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


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