Tag Archives: funding

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

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

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

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

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

Morath pitches new charters to skeptical SBOE

The State Board of Education (SBOE) is meeting in person this week to tackle a packed scheduled that includes discussion of Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum standards for science, physical education, and health. The board is also discussing whether to approve and spend state tax dollars on eight new charter school systems recommended by the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

The board spent Tuesday hearing from hundreds of people voicing their opinions about the TEKS up for discussion. After a 13-hour day of testimony, the board resumed business Wednesday with its regularly scheduled update from Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath.

Commissioner Morath began Wednesday with a status report on reading academies, which all kindergarten through third grade teachers must complete by the 2022-23 school year. There are 20,000 teachers in more than 500 cohorts currently participating in the academies through 38 authorized providers.

The commissioner focused the majority of his presentation on a preemptive defense of the eight new charter schools he is recommending the SBOE approve this week. The board holds veto authority over all new proposed charter organizations, but that veto does not apply to individual campuses or expansions once an initial charter organization is approved. A bipartisan collection of members sharply questioned Morath over charter policy and the numbers used in his sales pitch Wednesday.

In response to a question by Member Tom Maynard (R-Florence), the commissioner said the total number of charter schools has grown from 484 in 2017 to 553 in 2019. The commissioner downplayed the total cost of charter schools, which Member Matt Robinson (R-Friendswood) pointed out are completely funded by state dollars through the Foundation School Program (FSP). This makes charter schools significantly more expensive to the state than traditional independent school districts (ISD), which are funded by a combination of state, local, and other funds.

The eight new charters the commissioner is proposing are estimated to cost the state $12 million per year once they are operating at capacity. This does not include the additional cost once they expand to additional campuses. Charter schools have submitted more than 90 expansion applications to TEA this year alone, which could cost the state an additional $90 million per year. At least 62 have been approved so far.

Member Robinson also noted that Texas faces an $11 billion decline in state revenue as a result of the economic recession driven by COVID-19. This has placed unprecedented stress on the state budget, prompting state leaders to call for 5% across-the-board cuts at state agencies. Robinson pointed out that despite this fiscal crisis, Commissioner Morath has increased the number of new charter schools he is proposing to open at the state’s expense from five last year to eight this year.

Member Pat Hardy (R-Fort Worth) added that some of the charters currently up for approval are based in California and New York. Member Hardy asked the commissioner, “How do we talk to taxpayers about sending tax dollars out of state?” Morath replied that the economy is globally interconnected. Member Hardy also asked whether only the top-performing schools are approved for expansion, leading the commissioner to state that while D- and F-rated charters were allowed to expand in the past, he believes they are no longer being allowed to grow.

“Is this the right year to be playing Shark Tank?” asked Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville), comparing the proposed spending of state dollars on additional charter school experiments to the well-known TV show where inventors of new products pitch their ideas to investors.

Many of the board members’ concerns about spending state dollars on new charter schools at a time when Texas school districts are needing additional resources to combat the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic mirror those of ATPE and other organizations. Back in April, ATPE joined a coalition of 18 organizations that wrote to Commissioner Morath asking for a moratorium on charter expansions this year.

During today’s discussion, Member Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) echoed previous concerns about the higher state cost of funding charter schools, which the commissioner’s presentation to the board omitted. Perez added, “There’s a lot of good information you could be sharing, but this just isn’t it.”

Member Pam Little (R-Fairview) raised the issue of charters schools sending students with disciplinary issues back to their local ISD, while money stays with the charter. Commissioner Morath disputed Little’s characterization of the process.

Finally, Member Lawrence Allen (D-Houston) asked the commissioner a separate series of questions relating to educators. Asked by Member Allen whether TEA is collecting data on teacher retention under the threat of returning to school during the pandemic, Morath answered that the agency will not have that info until next September or October of 2021. Asked about resignations outside of the no-fault window, Morath suggested there are “a variety of exceptions” that will be handled on a case-by-case basis through the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC).

Following the commissioner’s comments, the board turned its attention to the Permanent School Fund (PSF). The board approved a $300 million one-time payment to the Available School Fund (ASF) via the real estate special fund account (RESFA) in order to support districts and cover the state’s obligations under last year’s House Bill (HB) 3. The board also tentatively approved a 4.0% distribution rate to the ASF for the 2022-23 biennium.

Members then spent the remainder of the day debating changes to the TEKS that were up for discussion on Tuesday. Any unfinished business from Wednesday’s meeting will be taken up following a public hearing scheduled for Thursday morning over the new charter applicants. Stay tuned to ATPE’s Teach the Vote blog for updates on the board’s actions this week.

Guest post: Schools need reliable and consistent funding

Laura Yeager

COVID-19 has wrought unprecedented challenges on American society including on our public education system. Not least among those challenges is funding. In the following guest post, public education advocate and parent Laura Yeager shares her opinion on why the state needs to do a better job of ensuring that Texas public schools have reliable and consistent funding.

Schools need reliable and consistent funding

By Laura Yeager on behalf of Just Fund It TX

Communities, families, and teachers throughout Texas are having the same conversation: What does back to school look like this year, and how do we balance students’ learning and parents’ need for childcare with health and safety? We know that there are no easy answers. But we do know that every solution, in every part of our state, will require steady and reliable school funding.  We also know that current Texas Education Agency (TEA) policies put that funding at risk. As we talk about the start of the school year, we also need to talk about how the TEA plans to allocate money for our schools. Their current plans threaten that funding. We need to act now to ensure that every Texas school has the money it needs.

In the weeks ahead, 5.4 million Texas students are expected to start the new school year in some form or fashion. Navigating this moment will require flexibility and ingenuity, based on good public health data, thoughtful discussion about what’s best for students and teachers, and enough local control to factor in different rates of disease in different Texas communities. Thoughtful plans are not possible without knowing how much funding is available.

While some might assume that costs will drop if some students will be learning from home, or if kids are in the classroom only part of the year, the opposite is true. A study from the Association of School Business Officials estimates that on average, it will cost districts an additional $485 per student to provide PPE, increase cleaning, transport students safely, and staff new health monitoring systems. This estimate does not include other essentials, like training teachers for effective virtual learning or ensuring that students have the tech needed to connect those virtual classrooms. Everything about education in the age of COVID costs more, not less.

For months, district leaders, teachers, and parents have been following the latest guidance from the Texas Education Agency. Now, with back to school days away, confusion has turned to alarm. Many TEA announcements about how schools will open and how the state will fund districts have been confusing or contradictory. More than once, a key statement made one day is reversed soon after. Most recently, TEA has issued rules that force districts to choose between plans that ensure funding, and plans that ensure the best balance of education for students and safety for students and staff. Districts know that this year, and every year, funding depends on following TEA’s rules. But that’s impossible when some of those rules are contradictory, unclear, and change from day to day. We are asking Governor Greg Abbott to cut through the noise and commit to funding Texas schools at a hold-harmless level based on last year’s pre-COVID attendance levels for the entire school year.

Last spring, TEA recognized that reliable attendance figures would be hard to capture in the midst of a pandemic, and chose a system that would ensure reliable and steady funding for every Texas district – a “hold harmless” plan that guaranteed not to cut funding below the last available attendance numbers. Right now, TEA has committed to holding districts harmless for the first 12 weeks of school – with the caveat that if districts choose to go fully remote for longer than 8 weeks and don’t receive TEA approval for doing so, they would  lose funding. Our schools and communities need to know funding will hold steady all year long.

We urge Governor Abbot to direct his Commissioner of Education, Mike Morath, to commit to funding Texas public schools for the entire 2020-2021 school year at a hold-harmless level, based on last year’s attendance levels. Cutting funding partway through the year based on attendance or task completion risks our students’ health, our teachers’ jobs, and our communities’ safety. More than 5.4 million children are counting on Texas to provide the public education they are promised under the Texas Constitution.

This article is signed by the following Just Fund It TX parent and community leaders:
Laura Yeager, Austin ISD
Alison Alter, Austin ISD
Lynn Boswell, Austin ISD
Anette Carlisle, Amarillo
Jennifer Collins, Denton ISD
Jill Dutton, Van ISD
Jennifer Moren Cross, Frisco ISD
Sharon Dworaczyk, Katy ISD
Heather Eichling, San Antonio ISD
Kim Farbisz, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD
Heather Golden, Houston ISD
Kristi Hassett, Lewisville ISD
Brooke Meabon, Alamo Heights ISD
Cherie Moeller, Keller ISD
Heather Sheffield, Eanes ISD
Anne Smith, Lovejoy ISD
Cameron Vickrey, North East ISD
Lauren White, Lake Travis ISD

Just Fund It TX is a group of parents, students, and citizens from around the state concerned about adequate funding for Texas public schools. A condensed version of this op-ed was previously published Aug. 20, 2020, by the San Antonio Express-News.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

John Lewis 📷 Library of Congress

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

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

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


David Pore

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


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


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


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


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

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

ATPE meets virtually with Texas Congressional delegation

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

Tonja Gray

Jimmy Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought: School nutrition and COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Texas in March, one of our first concerns was how students who normally relied on the school for meals would continue to have access to nutritious food. Public school districts went above and beyond to ensure students continued receiving meals, parking at motels for meal distribution, initiating drive-thrus, and packing different foods that worked better for grab-and-go. These efforts contributed to higher costs for public school nutrition services this spring, which put a financial strain on districts’ ability to continue providing meal service to those who need it the most.

But it isn’t just the higher costs associated with out-of-school meal service that is a concern; it is also the lower numbers of students accessing meals that is straining districts. According to recent reporting by Politico, the National School Lunch Program served 28 percent fewer meals in March 2020 compared to March 2019. North East ISD estimated a $2.6 million shortfall this spring due to increased costs from serving more expensive foods for grab-and-go consumption and decreased revenue from fewer meals served. While census data is used for meal service planning purposes, districts are actually reimbursed for nutrition services based on the number of meals served and whether students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Students who purchase meals at school, or even a la carte food items, help provide extra revenue to districts that enable them to break even in their food operations.

Federal waivers provided in the spring allowed school districts to serve meals at any campus, without students present, and at no cost to all students, regardless of their eligibility for free and reduced-price meals.This flexibility has not been extended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which could inhibit districts’ ability to receive enough reimbursement to maintain operations without needing financial support from other district funds (which are also tight at the moment). Furthermore, the expectation for families to fill out and districts to process free or reduced-price meal eligibility paperwork could create an unnecessary burden for families and schools. It is expected that millions of children have become eligible for free and reduced-price meals due to the economic effects of the pandemic. Pending legislation in Congress could address meal service flexibility in schools, as well as general funding, but negotiations are currently stalled due to debates over unemployment benefits.

Schools are part of larger district systems, which are part of state systems and federal systems. These systems work together to ensure that students’ basic needs are met, such as having a nutritious meal to eat, which allows for learning to occur. When school nutrition services are strained, these basic needs can also become strained. Other benefits such as the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) have provided essential funds to families, but P-EBT does not guarantee the “square meal” nutrition of the school nutrition programs. In order for schools to continue acting in creative and courageous ways to get meals to students, more will have to be done to ensure financial stability for these programs.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another round of federal stimulus inching closer to reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 24, 2020

With the start of school just around the corner, it’s been another busy week for ATPE and the education community. Read about this week’s developments below from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: ATPE’s incoming State Vice President Karen Hames and Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell spoke on CNN’s Chris Cuomo Prime Time show Thursday night, July 23, to contribute their perspectives on school reopening. Hames and Mitchell stressed that teachers care about their kids and want to be in school with them, but that educators have concerns about being exposed to the coronavirus in a classroom setting. Hames shared reasons why school choice would not provide any real solutions to parents’ concerns about COVID-19, and Mitchell emphasized the need for additional federal funding and better guidance at the state level to help school districts prepare for reopening amid the pandemic. Watch video of the CNN segment here.

In other news related to COVID-19, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) released a long-awaited announcement this week that delays the schedules of 5A-6A conferences. Additionally, UIL shares that marching band practice in all conferences may not begin until September 7, 2020. Updates to TEA’s COVID-19 Support and Guidance Page this week included a new summary of the agency’s reopening guidance, several new “Strong Start” resources, and new CARES Act and attendance and enrollment information.

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


This week, ATPE submitted formal public comments on the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) interim final rule directing how districts spend their CARES Act federal emergency dollars on equitable services for students in private schools. The interim final rule, effective July 1, 2020, is estimated to cause public school districts to spend over $44 million of their Title I-derived emergency funds on private school students regardless of poverty — more than $38 million more than they would normally spend under the longstanding interpretation of equitable services in federal law. ATPE’s comments urge the department to rescind its inequitable and distorted interpretation of the CARES Act, which goes against congressional intent. Over 5,200 comments have been submitted, but the department is not required to respond to them because of the emergency rulemaking process. Read more about the new federal rule in this recent Teach the Vote blog post. Read ATPE’s public comments here.


ELECTION UPDATE: Last week saw one of the most unusual elections in recent memory: A runoff postponed due to a global pandemic that proceeded to intensify in Texas as the new election date approached. Early voting was expanded from the usual one week to two weeks in order to reduce the load on polling locations. Some voters also took advantage of alternative methods of casting their ballots to avoid contracting COVID-19 at the polls, although Texas broke ranks with other parts of the country by refusing to expand the ability to vote by mail amid the pandemic. Despite the failure of lawsuits aimed at expanding mail-in ballot options, Texas saw a substantial increase in mail-in voting during this runoff election, which caused official results to be delayed by a few days but did not result in changes to any of the unofficial race outcomes revealed on election night. The July 14 election also exposed troubling voting issues that will have to be corrected before the November election.

With double the time to vote early, this month’s runoffs saw double the turnout over the primary runoff elections in 2018, 6.61% to 3.22%, respectively. After all of the debate over voting by mail, 30% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans who voted early cast their ballots by mail. That’s actually down from 36% of all early voters who cast mail-in ballots in the 2018 runoffs. Democrats had a huge turnout — nearly 956,000 voted in the primary runoffs, but comparable statewide numbers aren’t available for Republican turnout because there wasn’t a statewide GOP runoff like there was on the Democrats’ ballot. Party turnout in primary elections is not always an accurate predictor of turnout in the general election. But based on the turnout for a runoff election in July, in the Texas heat, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, it’s probably safe to assume that overall turnout for the November general election will be enormous. That makes researching candidates and making your voting plan for November more important than ever! See more election results in last week’s recap by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


CONGRESSIONAL UPDATE: The U.S. House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education met Thursday, July 23, for a hearing on the safe reopening of schools. The discussion bounced back and forth between the health risks for children and health risks for teachers and staff, with implications across the board for future funding to get schools on the path to a safe reopening. Get the full rundown on the meeting in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

While a proposal for additional federal emergency aid (dubbed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions or “HEROES” Act) was approved by the U.S. House several weeks ago, the U.S. Senate has now agreed on its own $105 billion aid package for education, which includes $70 billion for K-12 schools. The proposal would tie the K-12 funding to in-person instruction by sending $35 billion to schools that open for in-person instruction and splitting the remaining $35 billion among all schools, regardless of their method of instruction. The $30 billion for colleges will not be tied to in-person instruction, and governors will receive the last $5 billion to spend on either K-12 or higher education. The details of the proposal are expected to be made public on Monday.



After a week-long delay, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released updated guidance for the reopening of public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. The brunt of the new guidance issued last night, July 23, consists of justifying the push to reopen schools for in-person instruction. New items include recommending that schools group students and teachers into isolated cohorts or “pods” meant to limit in-person contact. There is also a checklist intended to assist parents in deciding  whether to send their children to school. A new mask guidance document suggests masks can be worn by anyone older than two years old, though some groups of students may need special adaptations and alternatives. Even as the guidance encourages reopening, it urges caution to those considering to do so in areas of substantial, uncontrolled transmission. Furthermore, the guidance recommends tying operational decisions to local epidemiological conditions. The guidance states as follows:

“Schools should be prepared for COVID-19 cases and exposure to occur in their facilities. Collaborating with local health officials will continue to be important once students are back to school, as they can provide regular updates about the status of COVID-19 in the community and help support and maintain the health and wellbeing of students, teachers, and staff.”

All of the CDC guidance documents, including the latest guidance as well as recommendations dating back to May, can be found here.


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) met today, July 24, to take action on several items implementing the Science of Teaching Reading exam requirements from last year’s House Bill (HB) 3 and to discuss COVID-19 considerations related to certification. Additionally, the board approved a proposal to transition Legacy Master Teacher certificate holders into lifetime certificates, as HB 3 barred the Master Teacher certificate from being issued or renewed. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier testified before SBEC in support of this proposal, continuing our months-long advocacy for a fix for Master Teachers. Read more about today’s SBEC meeting in this blog post from Chevalier and read the written testimony here.


SCHOOL FINANCE UPDATE: Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar created buzz this week with the release of his certification revenue estimate, which shows that the state faces a $4.6 billion deficit due to both COVID-19 and the largest drop in oil prices in decades. While some revenue sources have helped to soften the blow, including federal coronavirus aid and new revenue from online commerce, the uncertainties ahead will make the state budget lawmakers’ top concern in the upcoming 2021 legislative session. Read more about the revenue esimate and Hegar’s interview with the Texas Tribune this week in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.  

In other school finance news, Just Fund It, a non-partisan group of parents, students, and community members across Texas advocating for increased public school funding, has begun a petition aimed at urging Gov. Abbott to ensure stable and predictable school funding. Specifically, the petition asks the governor to extend the 12-week “hold harmless” period for calculating funding based on attendance as recently announced by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for the coming school year. The group presents a compelling argument for extending the hold harmless to cover the entire 2020-21 school year.