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What will a Biden presidency mean for education?

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On November 7, the Associated Press and numerous other news outlets called the 2020 Presidential Election for former Vice President Joe Biden. Since then, much speculation has surfaced on what a Biden presidency will mean for education, especially in light of a Congress that will likely be divided. Let’s take a look at what a Biden presidency may mean for education.

Highlights:



Biden’s education platform: Early childhood, teachers, equity, and CTE

The cornerstone of President-Elect Biden’s education platform during the 2020 election was a promise to triple Title I funding and require the increase to first be used for pre-K, teacher pay, and ensuring a robust curriculum across campuses in a district. Related to funding, Biden’s policy advisor Stef Feldman told the Education Writers Association (EWA) in a recent interview that Biden would ban for-profit charter schools from receiving federal dollars. “No one should be getting rich by taking advantage of our kids,” Feldman stated during the campaign.

Biden ran on a platform that included providing teachers with competitive wages and benefits, investing in teacher mentoring, leadership, and continuing education, and helping educators pay off their student loans. Additionally, Biden proposed doubling the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in schools, which is aimed at addressing student mental health while freeing up teachers to focus their time on teaching.

President-Elect Biden’s focus on equity included supporting grow-your-own educator preparation programs and working with historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) and minority-serving institutions to diversify the teacher pipeline. Biden also proposed supporting schools with wraparound services and efforts to desegregate and diversify schools. The president-elect promised to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) over the next 10 years, citing that current funding levels only cover 14% of the extra costs for providing special education services rather than the law’s original intent of subsidizing 40%.

The Biden education platform heavily emphasized the concept of “investing in all children from birth,” which included providing high-quality universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds and placing early childhood development experts in community health centers. Biden also proposed expanding home visiting so families can receive coaching from specialists on preventative health and prenatal practices.

Biden’s plan also covered career and technical education, namely making sure middle and high school students have access to meaningful vocational training by investing in this area. For a detailed overview of the Biden plan, see a breakdown of Feldman’s interview with EWA.

In terms of higher education, the Biden plan touts relieving student debt, making college affordable, eliminating controversial Title IX policies, reversing course on the previous administration’s treatment of DREAMERs, and renewing regulations on for-profit colleges. Biden has proposed making community college free and providing additional funding and incentives to help vulnerable students graduate. Additionally, Biden wants to double funding for Pell Grants.

Most items on the president-elect’s wish list will require the approval of Congress. These proposals will face an uncertain partisan makeup in the U.S. Senate, where two seats in Georgia remain undecided pending a runoff election in January.



Addressing education during a pandemic and school reopening

Over the summer, Biden rolled out a plan to reopen schools that focuses on getting the virus under control and providing enough funding and resources for schools to reopen safely. Biden supported the HEROES Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year, which the Senate has not acted upon; and he said he would work with Congress to provide funding for ventilation, custodial and health services, and reducing class sizes.

Biden’s plan tasks the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with developing metrics such as the level of community spread and risk to guide schools through reopening. His plan aims to work against politics-driven reopening plans that have been based on ultimatums, such as withholding funding until schools return to in-person instruction.

President-Elect Biden wants to ensure high-quality learning during the pandemic by initiating a U.S. Department of Education effort to share best practices. He plans to create a White House initiative to work towards combating equity gaps exacerbated by the pandemic and launch a grant program to help fund efforts in this area.

When asked whether Biden would waive federal testing requirements due to the pandemic, Feldman didn’t promise anything. She said the answer “depends on how much progress we can make in supporting our schools and getting them back up and running.”



An educator as U.S. Secretary of Education

This week we saw the first names released as Biden’s cabinet picks. An announcement could be made soon regarding the important post of U.S. Secretary of Education. In her EWA interview back during the campaign, Feldman confirmed that Biden would nominate a public school educator to be his Education Secretary, but she did not clarify whether this meant a K-12 educator or one from higher education. The U.S. Senate must confirm the president’s cabinet nominees, and with two Georgia Senate races not set to be decided until January, it is too soon to know the partisan makeup of the upper chamber and how that might have an impact. According to this Education Week article, some potential picks could include national labor union leaders (who would have a tough, if not unsuccessful confirmation process in a Republican-led Senate), high-profile school district leaders, state education chiefs, or even U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), who was the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.

Those in the higher education community argue that a community college-level expert would fit the bill and potentially alleviate problems with Senate confirmation. Dr. Jill Biden is a community college expert herself, having completed a dissertation in the subject and being a longtime community college professor. Other potential picks could be HBCU leaders, especially since Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), is an HBCU graduate.

One thing we do know is that President-Elect Biden’s education transition team is being led by former public school teacher Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, a legend in the education policy and research world and a leader for equity in education. She is a professor at Stanford University, president of the Learning Policy Institute, and president of the California State Board of Education. Darling-Hammond also led President Obama’s education transition team in 2008.



Dr. Jill Biden: A veteran educator

Dr. Jill Biden (credit)

In his acceptance speech November 8, President-Elect Biden said, “Jill’s a mom — a military mom — and an educator. She has dedicated her life to education, but teaching isn’t just what she does — it’s who she is. For America’s educators, this is a great day: You’re going to have one of your own in the White House, and Jill is going to make a great First Lady.” Biden’s reverence for his wife may mean she will have a meaningful influence on education policy during his tenure.

Dr. Biden has been an educator for over three decades. While earning her two master’s degrees, she taught English to adolescents with emotional disabilities at a psychiatric hospital. She also taught at the high school and community college levels. Biden has a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware. Her dissertation focused on maximizing student retention in community colleges and her work as former Second Lady focused heavily on community colleges. This background may influence the president to pick a higher education educator for U.S. Secretary of Education.

Also of note, Dr. Biden has announced her intent to continue teaching while serving as First Lady. She reportedly will have the distinction of being the first woman to maintain outside employment while holding that role. Dr. Biden teaches courses at a community college in nearby Virginia.

Texas schools may access federal funds to reimburse remote learning costs

Earlier this year Congress passed the CARES Act to provide pandemic relief funds to individuals, as well as K-12 schools. Texas has received more than $1.5 billion of the federal allocation targeting education. There have been attempts this year by some policymakers to divert the federal funds earmarked for public schools to private individuals or entities, but ATPE has consistently maintained that these funds should flow directly to the public schools that need them to address the challenges of COVID-19. This week state officials shared more information about how they are spending the federal dollars.

Texas received $29.2 million through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) and $1.28 billion through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, both funded by the CARES Act. In June, Texas notified the federal government that it intended to use its GEER funds to support remote learning through Operation Connectivity, provide virtual interventions for students with dyslexia, and create online instructional materials. Similarly, the state indicated that it would spend its ESSER funds on a summer bridge program to help graduating seniors, mental and behavioral health supports, remote instructional platforms and materials, and assistance for school districts adapting to remote learning environments.

On Wednesday, November 18, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that $420 million of the CARES Act funds sent to Texas will be made available to school districts for reimbursement of COVID-19 expenses. Specifically, schools may request the funding to offset prior purchases of Wi-Fi hotspots and other technology devices.

The Dallas Morning News reported on the development last night, sharing ATPE’s comment that the announcement is a significant step in the right direction but only the beginning, as districts’ funding needs related to COVID-19 will persist. ATPE has also urged the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to make it easier for schools to access the funds. School leaders have reported many bureaucratic hurdles involved in the process of applying for the reimbursements. Similarly, in response to ATPE’s surveys, educators have expressed frustration over burdensome paperwork and reporting requirements imposed by the state since the pandemic began disrupting the school environment.

The state has already used a smaller portion of CARES Act funds to reimburse some of the expenses incurred by schools during the latter part of the 2019-20 school year, to fund “hold harmless” agreements to prevent schools from losing funding due to enrollment drops, to subsidize broadband access through Operation Connectivity, and to create instructional materials for its TexasHomeLearning.com online platform launched earlier this year. More controversially, Gov. Abbott has allocated approximately $30 million of the CARES Act funding he oversees to a new voucher program for students with disabilities, a move ATPE and other organizations have opposed.

TEA announced Thursday, November 19, that the agency is adding new instructional materials to the latest iteration of Texas Home Learning (THL 3.0) geared toward Pre-Kindergarten students. The THL initiative began as an effort to give families direct access to instructional materials, including summer reading assistance, but has since grown to include the provision of an optional Learning Management System (LMS) for school districts through the acquisition of a statewide license with the education vendor Schoology. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath told members of the State Board of Education this week that $64 million of the CARES Act funds have been spent on THL.

It appears that only about one-quarter of the state’s school districts have opted to use the new LMS, and ATPE members’ reviews of the Schoology platform and THL instructional materials have been mixed, at best. Although the allocation of CARES Act funding for THL has been relative small, educators tell us that they would rather see those pandemic relief funds sent directly to school districts to help them hire additional staff and give teachers more time for planning and develop their own innovative curriculum that meets the needs of their students.

A bill to eliminate TRS healthcare plans: Crazy genius or just plain crazy?

On Tuesday, November 10, Representative Ken King (R – Hemphill) pre-filed House Bill (HB) 430, a bill that aims to eliminate the healthcare plans currently administered by the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) for active and retired educators in Texas. Three days later, King released a letter addressed to “all school personnel both active and retired” that seeks to explain his vision related to HB 430.

Rep. Ken King

“As a legislator I cannot in good faith continue to put a cash band aid on a broken system,” writes King in his letter. The representative describes the TRS healthcare programs as losing members who are opting for better coverage, which results in a smaller risk pool. King contends that this fairly small change in the size of the TRS risk pool results in higher premiums for the remaining participants. However, past information provided by TRS  suggests that such fluctuations in the very large TRS risk pool are unlikely to have a dramatic impact on cost.

In his letter to the education community, Rep. King lays out the following four goals, or “broad strokes” as he puts it, that make up his plan to address active and retired teachers’ health insurance needs in the future as TRS-Care and TRS-ActiveCare are phased out:

  1. The Legislature would provide a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that is “large enough” to allow retired educators who are age 65 or older to afford Medicare Part A and Part B.
  2. The Legislature would “create a runway for our 55-65 year-old participants to get to Medicare age.”
  3. The Legislature would allow active teachers to join the Employee Retirement System (ERS), which King says would increase the risk pool and lower premiums “dramatically.”
  4. The resulting lowered premiums would be considered “a teacher pay raise that is truly sustainable,” according to King.

Also in his letter, Rep. King asks stakeholders to “understand that HB 430 cannot, on its own, accomplish the plan above.” Taking a closer look at HB 430 as filed, that is certainly true. In fact, as it presently stands, HB 430 addresses none of the author’s stated goals.

First, HB 430 would close TRS-Care and TRS-ActiveCare to new participants. The bill would move Care participants off the plan as they reach age 65, which would result in most retirees being off the plan within five to seven years. Next, HB 430 would close Care and ActiveCare to any remaining participants after 10 years, and it would disperse the excess funds. In short, HB 430 would shut down both the active and retiree healthcare plans that currently exist through TRS, and at least for now, that is all the bill would do. In other words, the bill repeals, but does not replace anything.

What about Rep King’s four goals? He writes in his letter that he intends to file additional legislation that would work in concert with HB 430 to achieve those goals and his vision for reforming educator healthcare. As of our writing this post, these additional bills have not yet been filed.

As the 2021 legislative session approaches, ATPE will be monitoring and engaging in discussions about this bill and any other related legislation that is filed. We will be watching, in particular, to see if such legislation attempts to address the following challenges related to healthcare for Texas educators:

  • First, the Legislature needs to create a mechanism for providing automatic and ongoing COLAs as opposed to merely a one-time increase in retirees’ benefits.
  • A comprehensive plan must recognize that the need to provide healthcare for retirees who have not yet reached age 65 will persist indefinitely into the future — not merely over the course of the next decade.
  • Any plan to allow active educators to access the ERS health insurance plan would need to provide many more details, for example on its cost and viability.
  • Perhaps most importantly, an overhaul of the state’s system for providing healthcare to educators must include a plan for sustainable, long-term, formula-based funding. The funding plan should be written into statute, at a minimum, and preferably would trigger a constitutional amendment. Simply funding such a program through a budget rider would make it too susceptible to cuts from session to session.

Until his follow-up legislation is filed, the jury will remain out on whether Rep. King’s proposal to reform the state’s system of providing health insurance for over one million active and retired educators is crazy genius or just plain crazy. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for additional information on this and other bills that may be considered in the upcoming legislative session.

Senate Education Committee discusses virtual schools, special education, and COVID-19

The Senate Education Committee met Friday, November 13, at the Texas Capitol to discuss an agenda including digital learning, special education, House Bill (HB) 3, and state assessments. Like the committee’s last interim hearing, senators met in person and sat separated by clear plexiglass dividers. The committee only accepted invited testimony, which was delivered virtually.

Most of Friday’s witnesses were school superintendents who testified about their various experiences with virtual learning. The brunt of the testimony was geared toward expanding virtual schools, which ATPE has long cautioned against. Research has consistently found that full-time virtual schools are a poor substitute for in-person instruction. ATPE submitted testimony to the committee warning that although educators have adapted to virtual learning for now in order to protect public health, it is unwise to expand full-time virtual schools on a permanent basis. ATPE recognizes that the pandemic has necessitated widespread virtual instruction this year in the short term, but it will be important in the long run for students to resume in-person instruction as soon as it is safe in order to minimize learning loss.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath presented the committee with an update on the implementation of HB 3, the school finance bill legislators passed in 2019. According to the Texas Education Agency (TEA), HB 3 added $4.9 billion in state funds while decreasing local funding by $2.2 billion in Fiscal Year 2020, for a net increase in total funding of $2.7 billion.

Thus far, 26 school districts are part of the first cohort of the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA), which is the performance pay program established under HB 3. Through the September settle-up process, TEA reported distributing $40 million to districts on the behalf of 3,650 teachers participating in that program. A handful of superintendents testified regarding implementation of the program. The bill also established a Teacher Mentor Program Allotment (TMPA), which had 67 districts approved as of August to provide stipends for mentor teachers in the 2020-21 school year.

The agency is also charged with tracking the unintended consequences of HB 3. Morath said one item for consideration by lawmakers next session is a quirk in the funding formulas whereby a district with 700 or fewer students may paradoxically lose net funding when adding CTE students who should qualify for additional funding.

Josh Sanderson from the Equity Center urged the state to use any additional federal stimulus money to ensure districts receive their anticipated funding. Sanderson pointed out that districts need consistent, reliable funding and face additional unanticipated costs as a result of COVID-19, including an increased need for transportation services. ATPE’s testimony urged the state to fully fund the commitments made under HB 3, including protecting gains to school funding and educator compensation.

The committee also heard updates on the implementation of HB 3906, which made significant changes to STAAR implementation. Most notably, the bill required TEA to transition to fully electronic administration of the STAAR by the 2022-23 school year. The agency is scheduled to report on its progress toward this objective at next week’s State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting. Sen. Beverly Powell (D-Burleson) cautioned that online testing could disadvantage students who are less comfortable with technology or have learning disabilities. A number of school administrators asked the committee to extend the timeline for the transition. ATPE’s testimony recommended that the state waive STAAR administration for the 2020-21 school year.

COVID-19 was another topic discussed in the hearing. TEA touted its response to the pandemic, including its extension of funding flexibility for remote instruction, providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to districts, and launching Operation Connectivity to provide technology and internet access to underserved areas. Morath suggested that determining how remote instruction will be funded in the long term will be a challenge for the legislature.

Morath also highlighted the challenge of tackling learning loss as a result of the disruption to the educational environment due to COVID-19. ATPE has consistently pointed out that this need for remediation should serve as a warning to those looking to expand full-time virtual schools outside of a pandemic setting. In written testimony, ATPE highlighted the resolutions ATPE members passed during the 2020 ATPE Summit urging the state to prioritize the health of educators and students.

Special education was the final topic of the day. TEA staff testified that the state has increased special education spending by 27% over the past four years. A 2016 investigation found that Texas had under-identified students who are eligible for special education services, and the U.S. Department of Education notified TEA in 2018 that it had violated federal law in doing so. According to TEA, special education enrollment went from 8.7 percent in the 2015-16 school year to 10.7% in the 2019-20 school year.

The Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education (TCASE) testified that Texas must change the way special education services are funded so as to correspond to the costs of specific services provided. Disability Rights Texas noted that schools have lost contact with many students in special education over the course of the pandemic and echoed the need for special education funding reform.

Today’s hearing is expected to be the last for the Senate Education Committee before the legislative session begins January 12, 2021.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Nov. 6, 2020

It’s been a long week, but the election isn’t the only thing happening. Catch up with these news highlights from ATPE Governmental Relations:


ELECTION UPDATE: This week, we celebrated a long-awaited Election Day for the 2020 general election. Despite record turnout, Texas ended up seeing less of a “blue wave” than many polls had anticipated. Republicans maintained control of the Texas House and Senate, the State Board of Education and statewide offices on the ballot such as Texas Supreme Court seats.

While results are still up in the air nationally for the presidential race, we know more about what the election results mean here at home in Texas. Read this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins for a preliminary analysis of the election, including what the results mean for the election of a new House Speaker. ATPE will provide additional analysis of the election results in Texas once ballot counts are more complete.

ATPE is grateful to all who turned out to vote in this historic election!


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Education Agency (TEA) made several updates to its Coronavirus Support and Guidance page this week. TEA’s public health guidance was updated to include instructions for when asymptomatic, test-positive individuals can return to school and a clarification that close contact can be 15 minutes over the course of the day rather than 15 consecutive minutes. This is a consequential change for teachers and students who are in intermittent close contact throughout the day.

TEA also updated its attendance and enrollment FAQs to allow districts to require a student to come back for in-person instruction (e.g., a remote student who is falling behind), following certain protocols. Additionally, as has been the case in TEA’s guidance on STAAR testing, students must be on-campus for STAAR testing. The agency has noted that the paper-testing window cannot be extended due to processing requirements. ATPE has been urging state and federal officials to waive testing requirements this year due to the pandemic.

ATPE also wrote a letter to Commissioner of Education Mike Morath this week asking the agency for more local help for schools that are struggling during the pandemic. Read more in in the next section.

Updates to the Texas Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard show that for the week ending October 25, the number of positive cases increased 10.8% among students and 7.7% among staff. We are not reporting on the data for the week ending in November 1 because the most recent week’s data has consistently been incomplete, typically showing a marked increase the following week as districts input new information. Positive test results are only included for students and staff who participate in on-campus instruction and activities. It is unclear whether these trends are reflective of upward trends in the state or an increase in students participating in on-campus instruction as the school year progresses.

Check out ATPE’s frequently updated COVID-19 FAQs and Resources for answers to common questions asked by educators. Find additional ATPE resources related to the pandemic on our professional learning portal, and don’t forget to visit Advocacy Central where ATPE members can contact their legislators and other state and federal officials to share concerns about the coronavirus response or other issues.


This week ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes wrote a letter to Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to complain about the state’s recent handling of local COVID-19 issues. “As the pandemic continues to affect all aspects of life, educators are disappointed with what they perceive as a lack of leadership shown by state officials and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) as school districts across the state grapple with very real challenges,” wrote Holmes.

The letter cites two examples of local challenges stemming from the pandemic that TEA has failed to adequately address. The first example is in El Paso, where soaring COVID-19 cases prompted local superintendents to ask the state for additional time for remote instruction. TEA released revised guidance in a Region 19 School Safe Zones plan that would allow El Paso school districts to have fewer students on their campuses. ATPE lauded the agency’s decision use objective, virus-related metrics at the local level in determining when it is safe to reopen campuses, which we have long recommended, but we also shared recommendations on making the Region 19 plan more effective and expanding it for statewide use. ATPE’s letter also criticized TEA for failing to enforce its own COVID-19 guidance when some school districts have refused to implement health and safety precautions or neglected to report COVID-19 case numbers on their campuses. TEA has declined to take any enforcement action, saying instead that local school boards should decide what to do in those cases.

Read more in this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell, and read ATPE’s November 2 letter to Commissioner Morath here.


With the election now (mostly) in the rear-view mirror, more attention is turning toward the upcoming 2021 legislative session and the outlook for public education funding. With a Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, the fate of funding and education policy will rest in the same hands (albeit with some new members and a new Speaker of the House) as during the 2019 legislative session.

The last legislative session saw major school finance reforms and an increase in public education funding that enabled a pay raise for many Texas teachers. But with the state facing a deficit, many have wondered if lawmakers will allocate resources to preserve the gains made last session. ATPE State Treasurer Jayne Serna and ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter spoke with KXAN news this week about school funding and the anxiety many educators feel about their pay.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins also spoke to the media this week about the need for increased resources to help public schools deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Mark spoke about the anticipated need for remediation of students as a result of learning losses during the time that the pandemic has disrupted the school environment. Extra help for struggling students will necessitate additional financial resources. Watch Mark’s Thursday interview with Fox 7 Austin here.

For more on the funding needs for public education, keep reading below.


The Legislative Budget Board (LBB) held joint hearings this week regarding legislative appropriations requests (LARs) that have been submitted recently by multiple state agencies, including the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Education Commissioner Mike Morath briefly outlined his agency’s LAR on Thursday, which he said seeks to maintain current funding levels with the exception of two new “exceptional” items aimed at addressing COVID-19 issues. The first exceptional item is meant to alleviate learning loss that has disproportionately impacted students from low-income backgrounds, through targeted teacher and student-focused interventions. The second exceptional item would restore the 5% budget cuts made to the Windham School District.

Officials with the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) also addressed the LBB at this week’s hearing. Executive Director Brian Guthrie testified that the TRS pension trust fund values decreased early in the pandemic, but they have since rebounded. TRS expects a 7.24% rate of return for this year. Guthrie also outlined his agency’s LAR, which includes requests for funding to hire additional TRS staff and open a regional office in El Paso.


 

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 30, 2020

From ATPE Governmental Relations, here are this week’s spooky news highlights in the education world:


ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting ends today, October 30, and Election Day is Tuesday, November 3. As our three-week early voting period comes to a close, Texas continues to break turnout records and is now considered a “toss-up” for which presidential candidate will win the Lone Star state. Read more election news in this week’s Texas election roundup blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

***IMPORTANT: If you requested a mail-in ballot, you may deposit your ballot at your county’s designated drop-off location by Election Day, November 3. With concerns about mail delays and the possibility of mailed ballots not being counted if they arrive too late, your best option is to drop off your ballot or vote in person. If you received a mail-in ballot but decide to vote in person, you must surrender your mail-in ballot at the polling place or risk being stuck with a provisional ballot that may not be counted.

Please continue to post your “I Voted” selfies on social media. Let us know why voting is important to you by sharing your own photo or video on social media using #WhyIVoteTXEd and tag @OfficialATPE and @Teach the Vote. Find additional voting tips here, and don’t forget to check out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: After piloting rapid testing in several school systems for two weeks, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM) announced this week that supplies and resources for COVID-19 testing will be expanded statewide to public and private school systems that opt in and meet certain requirements. To be eligible, the school system must provide in-person instruction to all students whose families request it within the next two weeks. The amount of supplies provided will depend on the COVID-19 conditions in the surrounding area and the population of the school system. Read more about the project here.

Since last week, updates to the Texas Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard show an increase in the number of positive cases reported for the week ending in October 18 for both students and staff. Previously, the data for the week ending in October 18 showed a decline, but new numbers from districts have since been added. The updated data show that between the weeks ending October 11 and October 18, the number of positive cases rose by 7.3% among students and 8.2% among staff. Positive test results are only included for students and staff who participate in on-campus instruction and activities. TEA has indicated that viral spread almost always occurs outside of the school.

Check out ATPE’s frequently updated COVID-19 FAQs and Resources for answers to common questions asked by educators. Here are some additional ATPE resources related to the pandemic:

  • Hear tips to manage pandemic anxiety in this ATPE-hosted webinar with therapist Kathryn Gates, available on demand.
  • Get answers to legal questions about COVID-19 and earn CPE by watching ATPE’s other webcasts on demand through our professional learning portal.
  • Use ATPE’s Advocacy Central website, exclusively for our members, to share your coronavirus-related concerns with state officials, including the governor and commissioner of education. Write your own message or customize one of the sample messages provided for you on the site.
  • Take a look at the public resources available in our Parent-Teacher Toolkit.

FEDERAL UPDATE: This week the two top members of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee filed a major bipartisan bill aimed at helping Americans save more for retirement. Unfortunately, the “Securing a Strong Retirement Act of 2020” authored by U.S. Congressmen Richard Neal (D–Mass.) and Kevin Brady (R –TX) contains no provision to address the Windfall Elimination Provision that reduces many public employees’ Social Security benefits. Read more about the new bill in this blog post from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.


ATPE and 19 other pro-public education organizations sent feedback to TEA recommending 37 changes to the charter school application process to increase fairness, rigor, and transparency. Among the top recommendations were to have charter applicants include a zip code where the charter plans to locate, and to limit the charter approval process to once every two years in order to sync up with the legislative session and state budget. Read more about the recommendations in this blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.


Governor Greg Abbott and TEA released a new 2019-20 compensation report this week showing the pay increases many teachers, counselors, librarians, and nurses received as a result of last session’s House Bill 3. Across the state, teachers with 0-5 years of experience received an average raise of $3,839, and teachers with more than 5 years of experience received an average raise of $5,215. Read more about the report in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


Happy Halloween from the ATPE lobby team! It’s been a scary year, and even though this year’s festivities may not be quite the same as in the past, we hope you can still enjoy a few spooky-themed classroom activities and seeing your students and colleagues in fun costumes. We wish you a not-so-scary weekend filled with candy, classic Halloween movies, and pleasant fall weather.

State issues report on educator compensation increases under HB 3

Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released a new 2019-20 compensation report this week showing the pay increases teachers, counselors, librarians, and nurses received as a result of last session’s House Bill (HB) 3.

HB 3, authored in 2019 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), increased the funding for public schools through a variety of provisions, such as raising the Basic Allotment and increasing the state’s Minimum Salary Schedule (MSS). The bill required that at least 30% of a district’s funding increase go toward improving compensation, with 75% of that amount dedicated to raising the salaries of teachers, counselors, librarians, and nurses, prioritizing those with more than five years of experience.

HB 3 also increased the formulas used to calculate the MSS. While this change has not been talked about as much, it was for many educators as big, or even bigger, a driver of any compensation increase they saw as a result of the bill. Increases to the MSS also shifted some of the state’s costs associated with payroll, freeing up additional dollars in all districts that could be spent on compensation increases. It is not yet clear based on the information released in this week’s new report how much each of these provisions of HB 3 contributed to the overall increases in teacher compensation.

Across the state, teachers with 0-5 years of experience received an average raise of $3,839, and teachers with more than five years of experience received an average raise of $5,215. The report indicates higher average raises in rural regions and in smaller districts across the state.

Read the governor’s press release here and find individual district compensation data here. A more detailed analysis of the compensation increases will be forthcoming here on Teach the Vote.

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. 2, 2020

Here is this week’s recap of the latest education news from your ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATEATPE released a response to a press statement sent out by The Texas Education Agency (TEA) this week stating that the agency would extend the “hold harmless” funding period for school districts by six weeks to help mitigate the effects of enrollment drops across public schools in Texas. However, in a move that seems contradictory to the TEA’s acknowledgement last week of COVID-19 hotspots, the agency has tied a district’s access to the additional “protected” funding to whether a district offers in-person instruction. Read more about the development in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier, or in this article, quoting ATPE, by Aliyya Swaby of the Texas Tribune.

ATPE is here for educators. Be sure to check out our COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page and other resources:


ELECTION UPDATE: Are you registered to vote in the county you live in? Has your name recently changed? Have you been purged from the voter rolls? The deadline to register to vote is October 5, this coming Monday! Be sure to check your registration and learn how to register. Early voting begins October 13 and lasts for three weeks through October 30. Find more voting dates and reminders here.

The Texas Senate District 30 special election ended this week in a runoff. The date of the face-off between salon owner Shelley Luther and current state Representative Drew Springer (R-Muenster) has not yet been set by Gov. Greg Abbott. For more on this week’s election news, including the recent straight-ticket voting court battle and Gov. Abbott’s proclamation Thursday limiting mail-in ballot drop-off locations, read this informative blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

October is Voter Education Month, so let’s get learned! To learn about who makes education decisions (and which of these positions you can vote for), check out this post by our partners at the Texas Educators Vote coalition. Also, click here to learn about candidate forums being sponsored by Raise Your Hand Texas starting next week.


Sec. DeVos at a Feb. 2020 House Approp. subcommittee hearing

FEDERAL UPDATE: Remember when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asked public schools to spend an unheard-of amount of their Title-I-based federal emergency dollars on all students in all private non-profit schools within their boundaries? With DeVos’s decision last Friday to not appeal a recent court case that vacated her inequitable interpretation of the CARES Act, it seems the “equitable services” saga has come to an end. Read more about the saga, from start to finish, in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

 


After data discrepancies, this week the state adjusted numbers on the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Department of State Health Services (DSHS) dashboard that tracks COVID-19 cases in public schools. Updated every Wednesday, this week’s numbers show 1,490 new student cases and 819 new staff cases reported for the week ending in September 27. Compared to the previous week’s numbers for students and staff, both have changed slightly (2% decrease for students, 2.5% increase for staff). Read about the adjusted numbers in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


This week, ATPE responded to formal requests for information from both the House Public Education committee and the House Appropriations Article III subcommittee, which focuses on public K-12 and higher education. ATPE’s submissions covered educators’ concerns with COVID-19, STAAR testing and accountability, educator and student mental health and well-being, and ways the state can prioritize funding to maintain the public education gains made by the 86th Texas Legislature. Read more about ATPE’s submissions and our contribution to these committee’s interim work in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.


Are you retired or considering retiring? Be sure to check out these upcoming events to be in the know.

  1. The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) has opened registration for its 2020 TRS-Care virtual information sessions. These webinars are intended to help retired public education employees, or those considering retirement, learn more about the TRS-Care Standard and TRS-Care Medicare Advantage plans for 2021. They will also introduce the new providers that will administer TRS health plans starting Jan. 1, 2021. You can register for these webinars at trs.texas.gov/trs-care-events.
  2. This week, the Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) hosted a virtual townhall on teacher retirement issues with incumbent U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). The second TRTA townhall will feature Cornyn’s challenger, retired U.S. Air Force combat veteran M.J. Hegar on October 3 at 2:15 pm. Find more details on Cornyn’s townhall and register for Hegar’s townhall here.
  3. ATPE is partnering with RBFCU and the RBFCU retirement program on a webinar on October 7 at 5 pm about retirement planning for educators. Find the sign up information here.

ATPE submits interim testimony to House committees on COVID-19, school funding, and more

As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, several Texas legislative committees have solicited written feedback from stakeholders this year in lieu of taking public testimony at in-person hearings this year. House and Senate committees have been tasked by Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, respectively, with studying interim charges on a host of issues and offering recommendations to the 87th Texas Legislature that will convene in January 2021.

The House Public Education Committee recently issued formal requests for information on a handful of its interim charges. Today ATPE submitted the following responses, sharing our members’ feedback on these issues:

  • Interim Charge 1[A] asks the committee to monitor implementation of House Bill (HB) 3, the comprehensive school finance bill passed in 2019 that resulted in compensation increases for many teachers. In response to this charge, the committee is focusing specifically on “pay raises districts have provided to staff and the various approaches adopted to differentiate these salary increases according to experience.” ATPE’s submission highlights the importance of elevating educators’ pay as a means of raising the prestige of the profession. We are recommending that lawmakers ensure funding is in place to maintain educator salary increases under HB 3 and encourage districts to distribute any additional funding in the form of permanent raises. ATPE also shares our feedback on ongoing implementation of the bill’s merit pay program known as the Teacher Incentive Allotment.
  • With Interim Charge 1[B], the committee seeks feedback on school accountability, assessment, interventions, and school district-charter partnerships. ATPE’s submission includes general observations about the state’s A-F accountability rating system and various bills passed in recent years that have affected student testing and the manner in which school districts and campuses are rated. We highlight our concerns about the use of data derived from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) and other tests during the 2020-21 school year while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the educational environment.
  • Interim Charges 1[C], 1[D], 1[E], and 1[F] all sought input on school safety and mental health initiatives spurred by legislation in recent years. ATPE submitted feedback on these charges emphasizing the heightened importance of health and safety measures being prioritized amid the pandemic, the need for continued funding of these initiatives, the vital role of school counselors and other mental health professionals employed in public schools, and the recommendation that classroom teachers be involved in task forces that are studying mental health issues for students.
  • The committee solicited information about digital learning with its Interim Charge 2. ATPE’s response answers the committee’s questions about barriers to providing a digital learning environment for all students and determining where gaps exist in internet coverage.
  • The committee also sought information for an interim study of COVID-19. ATPE’s submission for this interim charge addresses very specific question posed by the committee: “Are Texas public schools ensuring the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff during the 2020 Fall Semester? ATPE shares insights gleaned from a member survey we conducted last week through the Advocacy Central section of our website on this topic, along with concerns we have heard from educators dealing with the pandemic. Safety protocols, workload impacts, educator retention, and the difficulty of adhering to rigid high-stakes testing requirements amid the pandemic are some of the concerns highlighted in our written input.

The House Appropriations Committee similarly solicited written input from stakeholders regarding its interim charges. ATPE submitted comments today to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Article III, which oversees the state budget for public education. Our input focused on the costs of implementing HB 3 and areas where the state could save money during the COVID-19 pandemic, including halting charter expansions and pursuing a second-year waiver of federal testing and accountability requirements.