Tag Archives: legislature

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

John Lewis 📷 Library of Congress

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

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

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


David Pore

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Wrapping up the July TRS board meeting

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas Board of Trustees met virtually last week on Wednesday through Friday, July 15-17, for its regular board meeting. In addition to other items, the board discussed the current financial market, TRS-Care and ActiveCare, the fiscal year 2021 budget and highlights of the preliminary legislative appropriations request, and updated considerations on TRS office space.

The official numbers for the trust fund through March 31 were presented to the board, but it was noted that those numbers are at this point significantly out of date. Staff went on to report that the market (as gauged by the S&P 500) has rebounded to approximately January 2020 levels, and they indicated that the TRS fund has tracked the market similarly. The benefit of the quick recovery of fund assets is that only a relatively small amount of assets had to be sold while prices were down to cover the cost of pension benefits paid out over that time frame. Longer recovery periods are by comparison much more detrimental to the fund because the period in which assets have to be sold at a reduced price, effectively locking in losses, is much longer.

TRS Board Presentation: S&P 500 chart

While the stock market and the TRS pension fund are relatively unscathed by the coronavirus pandemic for the moment, the state budget that relies largely on sales tax receipts and oil and gas severance taxes is in much worse shape. Due to this reality, state leaders called on all state agencies to cut their fiscal year 2021 budgets. Although the retirement system’s operational expenses are paid out of the pension fund itself and not out of the state’s general revenue, TRS still undertook the budget trimming exercise.

TRS staff presented the board with a proposed operational budget of $211 million for fiscal year (FY) 2021. This represents a 9% decrease from the FY21 target budget and a 6% decrease from the FY20 operational budget, which was $225 million. As part of the cost saving measures, TRS has instituted a hiring freeze through 2020 and a salary freeze through FY21. The agency has also cut the majority of outsourced funding going to vendors previously working on the data systems project dubbed TEAMS. The project will continue with the current number of in-house employees. TRS is also abandoning the effort to set completion dates on TEAMS benchmarks, as those dates have proven to be unrealistic and problematic.

In addition to next year’s budget, TRS staff also updated the board on the draft legislative appropriations request (LAR) the agency will present to lawmakers during the next legislative session. The agency’s request will cover fiscal years 2022 and 2023. The request will ask for specific funding to cover the state’s share of healthcare and pension costs, in addition to approval of the agency’s projected operational budget. TRS plans to ask for funding in the agency’s LAR based on the increased state contributions to pensions and retiree healthcare that legislators ordered during the last session and considering standard payroll growth assumptions for teacher salaries.

The agency’s LAR will also include a request for funding for 25 additional employees, or what are referred to as “Full-Time Equivalents” (FTEs). TRS staff had internally requested an additional 167 FTEs: 57 for the Investment Management Division (IMD) and 110 for the Benefits division. The 25 new FTEs in the agency’s LAR will go to IMD as a part of a “growing the fleet” initiative. This initiative aims to save the pension fund money by reducing outsourced costs in a greater amount than the cost of the new salaries. The Benefits division will have no new FTEs included in the upcoming LAR.

Over the last 18 months, space planning has become a constant conversation at the TRS board level as issues over the short term plans to lease space for housing the IMD staff have transitioned into a broader conversation on longer-term space needs for all staff. TRS continues to move forward with the goal of having a solution for its long-term office space needs in place by 2025. A major priority of that push is to house all TRS employees in the same location and discontinue the practice of housing the IMD staff in separate leased space.

As with everything, the current coronavirus has impacted the discussion around TRS space planning. With declining real estate prices and new potential spaces opening up in downtown Austin, the agency has paused its negotiations to renew its lease at 816 Congress so as to assess if there are better options available. Unfortunately, while the current market may present an opportunity for savings as a tenant, it is creating a more challenging environment in which to sublet the TRS space in Austin’s new Indeed Tower. The COVID-19 pandemic also has forced the agency to utilize remote working for a significant number of its staff for an extended time frame. Due to this change, TRS has revised its assumptions going forward on the percentage of staff who can work from home on a daily basis from 5% up to 25%. This change decreases TRS’s overall space requirements but also highlights a need for more collaborative space for staff who may usually work outside the office to come in and use. This also opens up the possibility that, with significant renovations, the agency’s current Red River location could house all TRS employees on a longer-term basis. Such renovations might not be any less expensive than simply relocating the agency to a new location outside of downtown Austin.

Finally, nominations for an active member seat on the TRS board of trustees are currently underway. The nomination period began June 15 and will continue through January 25, 2021. Assuming there are more than three successful nominees, an election will be held from March 15 to May 5, 2021. The top three vote-earners from that election will be reported to the governor, who will appoint the new board member from among those three candidates. ATPE members interested in running for this TRS board position can contact the ATPE Government Relations team for more information.

Access board documents and archived video of the July meeting here on the TRS website. The next TRS board meeting will be held in September.

Texas election roundup: Runoff results are in!

Numbers are in from Tuesday’s primary runoff elections across the state. On a day that raised serious questions about the state’s ability to hold an effective election during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were a few surprise wins and losses. Some mail ballots had yet to be counted early Wednesday morning. Because of this and issues with reporting by the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which documents election results, these results remain unofficial and subject to change.

U.S. Senate

In the marquee race on the Democratic runoff ballot, U.S. Air Force veteran MJ Hegar defeated state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) 52% to 48%. Hegar will face Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in the November election. Sen. West will continue to serve out his term as a state senator.

State Board of Education (SBOE)

Two SBOE primary races resulted in a runoff that concluded last night. Both races are for open seats where the incumbent is not seeking re-election.

Michelle Palmer defeated Kimberly McCleod in the Democratic runoff for SBOE District 6, which represents Houston. Palmer will face Republican Will Hickman and Libertarian candidate Whitney Bilyeu in November. The seat is currently held by Donna Bahorich (R-Houston), who is not running for reelection.

Republican Lani Popp defeated controversial candidate Robert Morrow in the District 5 GOP runoff. Popp will face Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau and Libertarian candidate Stephanie Berlin in in November. Notably, Popp had been endorsed by all sitting Republican members of the board, including incumbent Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio). SBOE Chair Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) weighed in on the race Tuesday morning via Twitter with one of the day’s less subtle endorsements:

Texas House of Representatives

Several Texas House incumbents lost their primary runoff contests Tuesday, including several who had trailed their opponents by a substantial margin during the March primaries and a couple who had only held their House seats for a few short months.

State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van), who served in the House since 2002 and previously chaired the House Pensions committee, lost to repeat challenger Bryan Slaton by a vote of 37% to 63% in the House District (HD) 2 Republican runoff. Flynn had been endorsed by Gov. Greg Abbott and by the pro-public education group Texas Parent PAC. Slaton will go on to face Democrat Bill Brannon in November.

Republican Cody Vasut defeated Ro’Vin Garrett in HD 25, which is the open race for the seat currently held by outgoing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton). Vasut will face Democrat Patrick Henry in November.

In a HD 26 double header, Republican Jacey Jetton beat Matt Morgan, while repeat candidate Sarah DeMerchant defeated Suleman Lalani in the Democratic runoffJetton and DeMerchant will now face each other in the fall for the seat held by outgoing state Rep. Rick Miller (R-Sugar Land) who is not seeking re-election. Voters in HD 26 have elected Republicans in the past, but the district has been trending Democratic. Beto O’Rourke won the district by 1.6% in 2018 after Donald Trump won by 4.9% in 2016. Greg Abbott won the district by more than 33% in 2014.

Republican candidate Carrie Isaac handily defeated Bud Wymore in HD 45. Isaac, the wife of former Rep. Jason Isaac, will face incumbent Democratic Rep.Erin Zwiener and Green Party candidate Dan Lyon in the November general election. This one is considered a very competitive swing district.

In another Republican match-up, Justin Berry defeated Jennifer Fleck in HD 47. Berry will go up against incumbent Democratic Rep. Vikki Goodwin along with with Libertarian candidate Michael Clark in the general election. HD 47 is yet another swing district deemed to be competitive for both major parties.

State Rep. J.D. Sheffield (R-Gatesville) fell to challenger Shelby Slawson in the HD 59 Republican runoff, 38% to 62%. Like ousted incumbent Flynn, Sheffield had been visibly supported by the governor, and he was endorsed by Texas Parent PAC over the course of multiple elections. Slawson is unopposed in the general election, making this one a “winner-take-all” runoff.

In a stern rebuke of anti-public education provocateurs Empower Texans, Glenn Rogers defeated Jon Francis in the open HD 60 GOP runoff, 52% to 48%. Rogers was supported by Texas Parent PAC and Gov. Abbott, while Francis’s campaign was bankrolled almost entirely by his father-in-law, West Texas billionaire and Empower Texans megadonor Farris Wilks. Rogers faces third-party candidate Scott Coleman in the fall.

In another Democratic runoff, Lorenzo Sanchez will go on to face incumbent Republican Jeff Leach in the general after defeating Tom Adair in the HD 67 Democratic primary. Green Party candidate Kashif Riaz will also be on the November ballot.

State Rep. Lorraine Birabil (D-Dallas) appears to have narrowly lost to challenger Jasmine Crockett by less than 100 votes in the HD 100 Democratic runoff. Birabil, who was endorsed by Texas Parent PAC, won a special runoff election in January to fill the seat previously held by Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. Crockett moves forward unopposed in the general election, making her the presumptive winner of this seat.

Democrat Liz Campos defeated Jennifer Ramos in the HD 119 runoff. She will face Republican George B. Garza in the November election, along with Green Party candidate Antonio Padron and Libertarian Arthur Thomas, IV. The seat is currently held by state Rep. Roland Gutierrez, who is running run for the Texas Senate.

Democrat Akilah Bacy soundly beat Jenifer Rene Pool in HD 138 for another open seat. Bacy, who has been endorsed by Texas Parent PAC, will face Republican Lacey Hull in November to replace outgoing state Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston) who is not seeking re-election.

State Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) defeated his challenger Jerry Davis in the HD 142 Democratic primary, 52% to 48%. Dutton, the third longest serving member in the Texas House, will face Republican challenger Jason Rowe and an independent candidate Whitney Hatter in the fall.

In HD 148, Democratic challenger Penny Morales Shaw defeated another short-term incumbent, state Rep. Anna Eastman (D-Houston) by 200 votes, 54% to 46%. Eastman won a special runoff election in January to fill the seat vacated by former state Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston). Shaw will face Republican Luis LaRotta in the general election.

Texas Senate

There were two Texas State Senate runoffs in play yesterday. First, state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) defeated Xochil Pena Rodriguez in the Democratic runoff for Senate District (SD) 19 to face Republican state Sen. Pete Flores (R-Pleasanton) in the general election. Libertarian candidate Jo-Anne Valdivia will also be on the ballot in November. Sen. Flores flipped this seat that was previously held by a Democrat in a surprising special election held in September 2018.

In SD 27, State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) last night survived a primary challenge by Brownsville attorney Sara Stapleton-Barrera by a vote of 54% to 46%. Sen. Lucio, who has served as Vice Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, will face Republican Vanessa Tijerina in the general election; an independent candidate Javier Navarro also filed to run for this seat. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick congratulated Lucio on his primary win.

Many Austin-area voters also participated in a special election Tuesday. Former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt appears headed to a runoff against state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) after finishing with 49.7% and 33.8% of the vote, respectively. The two Democrats were the top finishers in a special election to represent SD 14, after longtime state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) resigned earlier this year to accept a post with the University of Houston.

Voter Turnout

In general, the primary runoffs exposed some deeply troubling issues with voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from problems with voting by mail, to staffing issues resulting from poll workers who refused to wear masks, to issues for voters who have tested positive for COVID-19.

A total of 660,184 Democrats and 420,960 Republicans voted early in the runoff elections for a combined turnout of 6.61%. Of those, 30% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans cast ballots by mail. Election Day turnout figures were not immediately available from the Texas Secretary of State, but 955,735 Democrats voted in the statewide runoff for U.S. Senate. There was not a statewide runoff on the Republican ballot, making comparisons difficult without official turnout numbers.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott mandates face masks in most counties

Abbott previously resisted calls for such an order and at one point banned local governments from requiring masks. First-time violators will be issued a warning, though repeat offenders could be fined up to $250.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest order requires Texans living in counties with more than 20 COVID-19 cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while in a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. Photo credit: Ricardo B. Brazziell/Pool/American-Statesman

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide mask mandate Thursday as Texas scrambles to get its coronavirus surge under control.

The order requires Texans living in counties more than 20 coronavirus cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while in a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. But it provides several exceptions, including for children who are younger than 10 years old, people who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, people who are eating or drinking, and people who are exercising outdoors.

The mask order goes into effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday. It immediately applies to all Texas counties, but counties with 20 or fewer active cases can be exempted — if they opt out. County judges must submit an application to be exempted to the Texas Division of Emergency Management. TDEM will list the counties that have opted out on its website.

Later Thursday, in an interview with Univision in Dallas, Abbott also signaled he might be rethinking plans to open the state’s public schools for in-person classes this fall, after state officials said last month that it would be safe.

“If COVID is so serious, it may mean that students are having to learn from home through a distance learning program, something like the use of Zoom or FaceTime or other strategies where a teacher in real time will have the means to speak with a student, a student will be able to speak with other students, and it will replicate the class setting as much as possible,” he said.

State officials have delayed the release of public health guidelines for in-person instruction as cases have continued to rise. But a draft version last month showed they were planning to leave safety regulations up to individual school districts instead of issuing mandates.

The mask order represents a remarkable turnaround for Abbott, who has long resisted a statewide requirement, even as the coronavirus situation has gotten worse than ever over the past couple of weeks in Texas. When he began allowing Texas businesses to reopen this spring, Abbott prohibited local governments from punishing people who do not wear masks. As cases began to rise earlier this month, he clarified that cities and counties could order businesses to mandate that customers wear masks.

In recent days, Abbott had held firm against going further than that, saying he did not want to impose a statewide requirement that may burden parts of the state that are not as badly affected by the outbreak.

Along with the mask order, Abbott on Thursday also banned certain outdoor gatherings of over 10 people unless local officials approve. He had previously set the threshold at over 100 people. The new prohibition also goes into effect Friday afternoon.

Abbott’s latest moves come ahead of Fourth of July weekend, which has raised concerns about larger-than-usual crowds gathering while the state grapples with the virus spike.

Abbott also released a video message Thursday, saying the latest coronavirus numbers in the state “reveal a very stark reality.”

“COVID-19 is not going away,” he said. “In fact, it’s getting worse. Now, more than ever, action by everyone is needed until treatments are available for COVID-19.”

In the video, Abbott reiterated his resistance to returning the state to the roughly monthlong stay-at-home order he issued in April. He said Texans “must do more to slow the spread without locking Texas back down.” He also said his latest announcement is “not a stay-at-home order” but “just recognizes reality: If you don’t go out, you are less likely to encounter someone who has COVID-19.”

“We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast there is little margin for error,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s announcement came a day after the number of new daily cases in Texas, as well as hospitalizations, reached new highs again. There were 8,076 new cases Wednesday, over 1,000 cases more than the record set the previous day.

Hospitalizations hit 6,904, setting a new record for the third straight day. The state says 12,894 beds are still available, as well as 1,322 ICU beds.

Abbott has been particularly worried about the positivity rate, or the share of tests that come back positive. That rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has jumped above its previous high of about 14% in recent days, ticking down to 13.58% on Tuesday. That is still above the 10% threshold that Abbott has long said would be cause for alarm amid the reopening process.

First-time offenders of Abbott’s order will receive a written or oral warning. Those who violate the order a second time will receive a fine of up to $250. Every subsequent violation is also punishable by a fine of up to $250. The order specifies that no one can get jail time for a violation.

After listing several exceptions to the mask requirement, Abbott’s order specifies that at least one group of people is not exempted from the order: “any person attending a protest or demonstration” with over 10 people who cannot socially distance. Like other states, Texas has seen massive protests since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody.

Democrats and local officials had been demanding that Abbott institute such a requirement, and the state party said his new order was “far too little, far too late.”

“This is unacceptable,” party spokesman Abhi Rahman said in a statement. “Governor Abbott continues to lead from behind rather than implementing preventive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”

When asked at a Thursday afternoon press conference about Abbott’s new order, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg simply said, “It’s about time.”

“We will count this one as a good step that the governor is taking,” Nirenberg added.

Nirenberg was speaking alongside Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and the leaders of the region’s main hospitals when news of the order broke. Wolff was the first local official to order businesses to require their customers to wear masks.

“Now with the order by the governor, that’s going to help take a lot of pressure off the businesses,” he said.

But Abbott’s mask requirement is likely to further anger a small but vocal group of fellow Republicans in the Texas Legislature who have grown increasingly frustrated with his executive actions. Health experts say masks help slow the spread of the coronavirus, but some conservatives have railed against mask mandates, saying they impose on people’s freedoms.

One intraparty Abbott antagonist, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, vented after Abbott’s announcement Thursday that the governor “FAILED TO MENTION” the mask mandate during a conference call with legislators.

“What a piece of crap!” Stickland tweeted. “The man thinks he is KING!”

State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, tweeted that lawmakers “need a special session now so legislators can pass laws, not Abbott.”

This is Abbott’s latest set of moves aimed at trying to get the virus surge under control in Texas. Six days ago, he ordered bars closed and reduced the permitted restaurant occupancy to 50%, among other things.

Juan Pablo Garnham and Aliyya Swaby contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/07/02/texas-mask-order-greg-abbott-coronavirus/.

Commissioner discusses COVID-19 issues at the June SBOE meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ATPE weighs in on proposed Teacher Incentive Allotment rules

House Bill (HB) 3, the landmark school finance bill passed by Texas lawmakers in 2019, included funding for a new Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA). Despite almost certain budget cuts in the upcoming legislative session that call into question the state’s ability to fund the ambitious and somewhat controversial performance pay program, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has forged ahead with implementation of the program. Administrative rulemaking to implement the new TIA law is currently underway, which affords the public an opportunity to provide input on the program. ATPE submitted formal comments on the proposed commissioner’s rules this week.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) began putting out information on the TIA through its HB 3 in 30 video series back in the fall of 2019. Earlier this year, the agency asked school districts interested in participating in the program to submit a letter of intent and also released guidance on timelines for funding and implementation. Additionally, TEA staff briefed the ATPE Board of Directors on the plans for TIA implementation in February.

On April 24, after more than six months of sharing guidance with the field, TEA published proposed commissioner’s rules on the TIA’s Local optional teacher designation systems. Local optional teacher designation systems are the school district-developed and TEA-approved rubrics by which a district can designate individual teachers for merit recognition under the TIA, giving the district access to TIA merit pay funding from the state.

During the last legislative session, the ATPE lobby team worked hard to ensure the laws creating the TIA program would include certain provisions protecting the confidentially of the teacher evaluation process. We also fought to ensure districts would not be required to use students’ STAAR test scores to rank educators, and that it would be at least mathematically possible under each district’s plan for all teachers to earn a designation if they met the eligibility requirements. In the comments we submitted this week, ATPE requested changes to improve upon the implementation plans and ensure that the fruits of those hard-fought legislative battles would be reflected in the TIA rules. Read more about how the legislature designed the TIA law in this Teach the Vote blog post.

TEA is now tasked with organizing and responding to all comments the agency has received from various stakeholders and potentially modifying the proposed rules accordingly. The commissioner’s rules on the TIA are scheduled to go into effect July 30, 2020.