Tag Archives: Mike Morath

TEA gets federal funding to grow charters and approves one controversial charter chain’s expansion

Mike Morath

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath approved the controversial expansion of IDEA, one of the state’s largest charter school chains, to 12 new campuses in 2021.

The commissioner announced his decision last week despite 18 education organizations, including ATPE, calling for a moratorium on the expansion of taxpayer-funded charter school chains while the state faces a $4.6 billion budget deficit caused by the economic recession. This recession threatens the funding of existing public schools, which must contend with both the economic conditions and educating 5.4 million students during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The commissioner denied 15 of the 27 new campuses proposed by IDEA, but approved two new campuses in Odessa, two in La Joya, two in San Antonio, two in El Paso, two in Fort Worth, and two in Lake Houston. This will increase IDEA’s maximum enrollment by 15,000 students. Over the last four years, IDEA has expanded to 62 new campuses. Funded by Texas taxpayers, the charter chain has since doubled its budget, including spending on lavish executive salaries, private jets, and a luxury suite for the San Antonio Spurs.

Charter school chains differ from traditional public schools in the way they are funded and governed. While charter chains are run by private, unelected boards and are often tied to for-profit, out-of-state charter management organizations (CMO), they are funded almost entirely by state tax dollars. Independent school districts (ISD) are funded in part by the state and in part by local taxes. This means that charter chains cost the state more money per student than ISDs, to the tune of millions of dollars, depending on the size of the chain.

Under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime proponent of school privatization, the U.S. Department of Education has placed an increasing focus on diverting federal tax dollars to charter chains. On Friday, the department announced it had designated more than $131 million in federal funding to expand charter chains nationwide, $33 million of which will go to expanding charter chains in Texas. The largest tranche of this federal funding went to the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The department awarded more than $23 million to the TEA for charter expansions and $10 million to the Texas Public Finance Authority, which allows charter chains to obtain public financing through taxpayer-backed bonds.

ATPE and other education organizations have pointed out that it is irresponsible to pour scarce tax dollars into expanding these privately run business ventures while the state faces a $4.6 billion budget shortfall that could result in less state funding for local schools — potentially leading to layoffs or other negative consequences to the public education system.

In September, the State Board of Education (SBOE) vetoed three of the eight new charter school chains TEA proposed to establish in Texas. The elected SBOE has the authority to determine whether a new chain is allowed to open for businesses in Texas. However once a new chain is established, the unelected commissioner has sole discretion over future expansions. The Texas Legislature could make charter chains more accountable to voters and taxpayers by expanding the SBOE’s veto authority to charter chain expansions as well.

 

With fuzzy guidance from the state, school districts grapple with remote learning and timelines for resuming in-person instruction

Plans for resuming in-person instruction remain in flux across the state as many districts near the end of their allowed four-week transition period to move from virtual to in-person learning.

The latest Texas Education Agency (TEA) update to its statewide “Attendance and Enrollment” guidance reflects that some school districts may feel a need to request more than eight weeks of flexibility on resuming in-person instruction. “Any additional transition window will require board approval after preliminary TEA plan feedback has been received,” notes the TEA document released September 24, adding the agency will expect any district seeking additional transition time to be steadily increasing the number of students on campus during that period. But, despite assurances that the agency will take health-related metrics such as hospitalization data into consideration when reviewing such requests, the state’s decision-making remains discretionary and impossible to predict—leaving school districts grappling with how to proceed. ATPE believes this isn’t fair to administrators, teachers, parents, and certainly not students.

Since early summer, ATPE has urged the governor, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, and other state officials to use objective, health-related data as the basis for school reopening decisions that are made at the local level. While we are glad to see the state’s recognition of some data on COVID-19 infections as a valuable consideration, ATPE believes it is unfair to leave school districts guessing as to whether the state ultimately will grant them additional flexibility if they believe it is unsafe for students to return to campus.

As we have reported, Gov. Abbott announced last week an easing of restrictions on restaurants and certain other businesses, but the changes were not applicable to three areas of the state that remain “danger zones”: Victoria, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley. Gov. Abbott said further reopening decisions would be based upon COVID-19 hospitalization data in the area, noting that the hospitalization numbers remained too high in those three areas, which include 13 Texas counties.

Rio Grande Valley school district leaders have been pleading with the commissioner and elected officials for additional flexibility on resuming in-person instruction. Today’s updated guidance notes that when reviewing district requests for extension of the transition period, TEA will consider “whether school systems are located in whole or in part in areas” identified as hot spots under the criteria referenced by the governor.

ATPE issued a press statement today in response to the new information from TEA. ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell stated in the release, “ATPE is pleased that state officials are finally listening to our recommendations on the importance of basing reopening decisions on objective, health-related data. However, TEA’s promise merely to ‘take into consideration’ such data offers little comfort for schools being pressured to reopen their facilities before it may be safe to do so under local health recommendations.”

School district approaches to reopening vary widely. COVID-19 has not affected every community to the same degree, and differing political views about the pandemic have put pressure on school boards. Not surprisingly, many districts have revised their initial plans and may still be considering further changes. Several districts are announcing plans to terminate virtual instruction, while others are looking for ways to extend it. The shifting landscape and fluctuating directives from school district leaders have been frustrating for educators and parents alike, resulting in emotional debates on social media and in school board meetings. Also frustrating is the red tape surrounding the decision-making process: Districts seeking to stretch out their return timeline must first secure initial board approval, then submit a request to TEA for “preliminary feedback,” and then ask for another board vote.

A few examples from across the state:

  • Fort Worth ISD began its school year with four weeks of remote instruction set to expire October 5. Last week, the FWISD board voted 5-4 against a motion that would have extended the district’s remote learning plan an additional four weeks. But this week, the board held another meeting and voted 5-4 in favor of adding two more weeks to the transition period. The change came after educators and parents testified at the 10-hour meeting, with some circulating petitions and organizing rallies on both sides of the issue. ATPE submitted testimony urging FWISD to base its decision on local public health data, paying close attention to the recommendations of Tarrant County Public Health.
  • Hardin ISD posted a notice on its website this week stating, “Due to less than acceptable virtual participation and student results, please be advised that Hardin ISD will cease virtual learning on Friday, October 2, 2020.”
  • Louise ISD sent a letter to parents September 22 stating, “The effort required of our teachers and administrators will no longer be divided by the requirements of offering remote learning beginning Tuesday, September 29, 2020 … I am not mandating that your family chooses to return to school. Yet, I am suggesting that you make a decision that continues to provide the appropriate needs of your children.” Superintendent Garth Oliver lists “suitable” options for parents to consider: returning to school in-person, transferring to a district that offers remote learning, or withdrawing from the public school system to either home-school or enroll in private school.
  • Brownsville ISD’s superintendent has urged stakeholders to lobby TEA for more flexibility. The Brownsville Herald reported September 19 that Superintendent Rene Gutierrez asked the state to allow BISD “to continue at 100% distance learning so that we can ensure everyone’s safety,” but the district plans to begin hosting students on campus September 28 because of state limitations on the timeline for operating remotely.

Commissioner Morath clarified on a call with superintendents today that no school district is required to offer remote instruction, but any parent who wants their child to continue attending school virtually must be allowed to transfer to a school district that offers it.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among on-campus students and staff is being reported by each school district and shared via an online dashboard. There is a lag in the reporting time, however, and the numbers reflect only test-confirmed cases of COVID-19 among individuals who have been on the campus. TEA posted this updated FAQ document about the COVID-19 data reporting today.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 11, 2020

Here is a look at this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Education Agency (TEA) adapted its guidance on equitable services this week to reflect a recent U.S. District Court ruling vacating the U.S. Department of Education’s interim final rule that directs public school districts to spend an unprecedented amount of taxpayer dollars on private school students. The court ruling issued last Friday makes the department’s rule unenforceable nationwide, but Secretary Betsy DeVos still has time to appeal the decision.

TEA also updated several other sections of its COVID-19 Support and Guidance page, including new intern and emergency certification waiver information that continues the suspensions on face-to-face requirements for candidates completing their internships, clinical experiences, field-based experiences, and practicums. Also, be sure to check out the new Project Restore training on resilience that was posted this week.

ATPE State Treasurer Jayne Serna and ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier participated in an educators’ town hall on COVID-19 and teaching this week. The Wednesday night event was hosted by U.S. Congressional District 10 candidate and former teacher Mike Seigel. Serna was the opening speaker for the event, sharing the difficulties educators are facing this school year and highlighting the importance of voting to elect pro-public education candidates. Chevalier provided an overview of COVID-19-related federal funding issues facing educators and students, federal waivers, and the need for congressional oversight of the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Also this week, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter spoke with The Texas TribuneThe Dallas Morning News, and KBMT’s 12 News Now about the current state of teaching, learning gaps, and how spending cuts prompted by COVID-19 could impact students.

As a reminder, ATPE offers educators a gamut of resources:

  • Find answers from our legal team to frequently asked questions on our COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page.
  • Earn CPE by watching informative webcasts on topics such as educator rights, leave options, disability accommodations, and school safety through ATPE’s professional learning portal.
  • Explore an interactive pandemic timeline.
  • Take our survey on parent-teacher collaboration.
  • ATPE members only: Use Advocacy Central to communicate with elected officials about your concerns.

ELECTION UPDATE: Don’t let the November 3 general election creep up on you. Election Day is less than eight weeks away and early voting starts in one month. This means other deadlines for registering to vote or requesting a ballot-by-mail are even sooner! Remember that if you have moved recently or changed your name, you need to update your voter registration. Here are important dates to add to your calendar:

  • September 19: If your vote-by-mail application is received by this day, you are guaranteed to receive your ballot at least 30 days before Election Day.
  • September 22: National Voter Registration Day
  • October 5: Deadline to register to vote
  • October 13: First day of early voting
  • October 19: Educator Voting Day
  • October 23: Last day that a vote-by-mail application can be received (not postmarked)
  • October 30: Last day of early voting
  • November 3: Election Day! Mail-in ballots also must be received by this date.

If you happen to live in Texas Senate District 30 and are a registered voter, you’ll be eligible to vote early starting Monday, Sept. 14, for the special election to replace Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper). Read more about the race in this previous blog post, and check out profiles of the SD 30 candidates here on Teach the Vote.


FEDERAL UPDATE: In addition to the above-mentioned court ruling against Secretary Betsy DeVos’s effort to send more public money to private schools, there was activity on Capitol Hill this week. U.S. Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully to advance a new coronavirus aid package that included a $10 billion private school voucher provision. ATPE released a press statement opposing the voucher language in the Senate bill, which failed during a preliminary vote held in the Senate yesterday. Read more about the legislation and ATPE’s press statement in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) met this week to take up hefty agenda items including the revision of science, physical education, and health curriculum standards (TEKS). The revisions garnered hours of testimony from the public, as did the discussion of eight new charter applications before the board.

ATPE and other organizations urged the board to reject the new charters due to the increased costs the state would incur by granting the applications. SBOE Member Ruben Cortez asked Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, “Is now the time to be playing Shark Tank?” Read this week’s blog posts from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins to learn more about Morath’s defense of the charter applicants, the board’s Thursday split decisions to preliminarily approve just six of the proposed charters, and the ultimate veto of three charter operators during Friday’s full board meeting.


Per usual, the annual Texas Tribune Festival has an impressive education strand of events. This week, Texas Tribune education reporter Aliyya Swaby moderated a panel of Texas public school teachers, superintendents, and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. The teachers expressed how the pandemic impacted their interactions with students, the superintendents talked about budget and enrollment concerns, and Morath stuck to his usual admiration of data and the need to continue standardized testing. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


The Texas Senate Democratic Caucus incorporated ATPE recommendations regarding COVID-19 and schools into a letter it sent to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath earlier this week. The letter was influenced by a task force of education stakeholders including ATPE. Among other requests, the senators’ letter urges Morath to seek a waiver of federal testing and accountability requirements for 2020-21. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Did you know that high schools are legally required to offer students who will be age 18 by election day the opportunity to register to vote? In Texas, students may register to vote at 17 years 10 months. Students can print, fill out, and mail in an application obtained from VoteTexas.gov or fill out a voter registration application online and have it mailed to them.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals has partnered with dosomething.org to create the “Democracy Powered by (You)th” voter registration competition. By doing things like racking up voter registrations, students can win scholarships, school grants, and trophies. Pace High School in Brownsville, TX is currently in third place!



Today we remember the tragic events of September 11, 2001. On that day, some of our members were in the classroom as teachers, while others were still just students themselves. On this Patriot Day, we honor the lives lost that day and the heroic efforts by first responders, service members, and citizens who risked their lives that day and in the aftermath of the tragedy. We will never forget.

Teachers, superintendents, and commissioner speak at Tribune Festival

The Texas Tribune is holding its annual Texas Tribune Festival this month. Rather than an in-person event jam-packed with speakers over a few days, this year’s festival is taking place virtually throughout the entire month of September. The event still features a prominent strand of panels and interviews related to education. A session held this morning, “Public Education in the Time of COVID,” featured two teachers, two superintendents, and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. Here’s what the panelists had to say.

No more high-fives or cozy reading corners. Texas public school teachers Paige Stanford (Waco ISD) and Ale Checka (Forth Worth ISD) are optimistic about the school year and simultaneously saddened by the lack of physical interaction they anticipate having with their students. Both teachers highlighted how the pandemic has changed their community, from inspiring more empathy to creating traumatic situations. In Stanford’s school district, she said, “the streets went empty,” when Waco ISD principal Phillip Perry passed away from COVID-19, but Stanford added that students are now excited to help others by wiping down their desks after class. A shift in attitudes has impacted teachers, too. Checka said she, “will never forget or forgive the way that state leadership has tried everything possible for us to not be able to follow local public health guidelines.”

Superintendents Dr. LaTonya Goffney (Aldine ISD) and Dr. Michael Hinojosa (Dallas ISD) were each in different stages of reopening their districts for instruction, but both expressed that assessment will be key in determining how to support students and fill in learning gaps from the spring. Since Aldine ISD has already started instruction, Goffney was able to confirm that enrollment in the district has declined by about 3,500 students (out of 67,200), with more than 50% of the decline occurring in pre-Kindergarten. This comment trends with other anecdotes gathered by ATPE, which suggest parents are choosing to keep their children out of optional grades such as pre-K and Kindergarten. Goffney said her district is trying to identify students who are not showing up to school, but many students are impacted by policy changes outside of the school’s purview, such as the rental assistance program in the Houston area.

Both superintendents on today’s panel said their districts spent millions of unanticipated dollars on personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning supplies, sanitizer, plexiglass, face shields, masks, misters, food, and devices to keep students safe and learning. Aldine ISD spent $10 million while Dallas ISD spent $31 million. Many of these costs will be reimbursed at 75% through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, while others will be handled through the state’s Operation Connectivity program. In the long-term, Hinojosa said he is concerned about being able to maintain many of the programs his district offers.

It would have been nice for Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to respond directly to some of the comments made by the teachers and superintendents, as would have been possible in a regular in-person panel. However, the answers he provided to moderator and Texas Tribune education reporter Aliyya Swaby did shed some light on important policy topics, such as accountability.

It is no secret that Morath loves data, as it undergirds all of his discussions. Much like they did in the spring, Texas school districts will use existing data reporting systems to track where students are receiving instruction. The commissioner said we are about two or three weeks away from being able to look at this data, but Morath noted that it seems the majority of students are in remote instructional settings. This is despite the fact that the “overwhelming majority” of districts, according to Morath, are offering in-person instruction.

With regard to standardized testing and accountability, Morath expressed his view that most people want more data during a pandemic, not less. The commissioner said assessing expectations of students is still important for ensuring they are meeting milestones for success later in life. Morath believes the STAAR tests are an accurate gauge for mastery, which then provide educators with information on who needs extra support so that we can help students reach their potential. These comments reflect the commissioner’s views of assessment as a diagnostic tool, which Morath spoke about during an SBOE meeting earlier this year.

The commissioner stressed that the state tests use data on student growth over the course of the year and that parents still deserve to know that information about their school. ATPE and many others have questioned whether any growth measures will be accurate this year, given the loss of learning in the spring during COVID-19 school closures, rapid transitions to remote learning, and the loss of contact with 11% of students. Nevertheless, Morath didn’t indicate any easing up on district and campus accountability ratings using the test scores, saying the data will help to identify best practices of those who do well during the pandemic. Unscientifically identifying some things that work during one year of an exceptional time might satisfy the curiosity of some, but at what expense to schools and districts that experience negative accountability interventions and sanctions due to a pandemic?

Morath closed out his remarks by expressing satisfaction with the amount of money that had been allocated to districts to mitigate COVID-19 costs and pay for closing the digital divide. He also expressed hope that public health data expected to be posted toward the end of September will help the state identify if there is viral spread in schools.

The Texas Tribune Festival continues through Sept. 30, and it includes numerous free events that are available to stream right now. As usual, the festival features specially priced educator and student tickets, which provide full access at a fraction of the cost. Nearly all of the festival events, including this morning’s education panel, are available for replay on demand for ticket holders who may have missed previous events.

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.

Senate task force includes ATPE recommendations in letter to education commissioner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BREAKING: TEA issues new reopening guidance; ATPE deems it insufficient to ensure safety

Today the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced it would allow school districts to begin their school year with a four-week transition period of virtual instruction (up from three weeks permitted under prior TEA guidance). The new public health guidance and attendance and enrollment FAQ also allow districts, with school board approval, to apply for an extension to add four more weeks to the transition period based upon local health conditions. ATPE issued a statement today saying the revised guidance is insufficient to address the serious safety concerns of educators and parents and that the state must take stronger, more decisive action to protect Texans’ lives.

TEA’s updated guidance attempts to offer school districts additional flexibility around moving to a full-time, in-person instructional environment. But the updated guidance continues to miss the mark by imposing arbitrary time limits that are not tied to any statewide, medically determined standard that would calculate and reflect the actual risk of viral spread in a particular community. ATPE has urged the state to gate reopening decisions by objective epidemiological metrics to give parents and educators confidence that reopening decisions are based on sound public health science that is applied consistently throughout the state.

TEA previously issued guidelines allowing districts to avail themselves of a three-week transition period at the beginning of the school year during which students could attend school virtually. After three weeks, the school district would be required to provide full-time in-person instruction in order to continue receiving state funding. On Friday, TEA extended that transition period to four weeks and is allowing districts, with the approval of their school boards, to request an additional four weeks of transition based upon local health factors.

While this additional opportunity to extend the transition period between remote and in-person instruction is appreciated, it remains arbitrarily time-limited and not tied to any quantitative, health-based metrics. A four- or eight-week delay might be appropriate in some parts of the state, but not others. ATPE has consistently argued that school reopening decisions should be guided by local health conditions as measured by a statewide framework.

The extension of the transition period also seems to be available only at the subjective discretion of school boards and the commissioner, although the new guidance around this is vague. TEA states, “All waivers are approved upon receipt,” but at the same time stipulates that districts must provide additional documentation along with their request, including information regarding local health conditions relating to the safety of returning to campus. Weekly case counts and positive tests are cited as examples. If the commissioner intends to grant all waiver requests upon receipt, it is not clear why districts are being forced to collect local health data and provide additional paperwork to TEA. It is also puzzling why the state cannot identify a state-level source for such COVID-19 data and use that to guide reopening decisions, as ATPE has recommended.

The agency does state in its new guidance that a district seeking an extension of the transition period must consult teachers, staff, and parents, which is something ATPE has advocated for a long time at both the local and state level. We are pleased to see this nod to the importance of involving school staff and parents in decisions about safely reopening schools, but we urge the state and school districts to solicit the feedback of these critical stakeholders immediately. Educators and parents must be involved in the reopening process from the beginning; they should be meaningfully involved and consulted before the school year begins and as changes become necessary. Clear communication is also essential.

One of the more troubling aspects of the state’s new guidance issued today is the continuing requirement that schools must offer in-person instruction to any student who needs and requests it on any day of the school year, even during the initial transition period. The guidance states, “On-campus instruction must be offered for all students who want to attend on campus in order to be eligible to receive funding for remote instruction.” There are exceptions for a few limited circumstances, such as a district’s being subject to a government closure order or campuses that are part of the Texas Virtual School Network. But it is clear that the state’s directive will require a minimal number of staff to be on campus from the beginning, even during the transition period since there will be students who are unable to participate in virtual instruction and must be allowed an on-campus option. This could easily allow for an unsafe number of students – and the higher-risk adult teachers and other staff whose presence is required to serve those students’ needs – physically on the campus.

We believe TEA is relying on assumptions that the risk of COVID-19 infection and spread among children is low, even though much remains unknown about this new virus, but underestimating the risk to the numerous adults who will be forced to interact with each other and those students in order to provide on-campus instruction as required by the state. Many ATPE members have told us they are considering retirement or leaving the profession due to fears they will be forced back to campus too early and face an unreasonably high risk of exposure to COVID-19, compromising their own health or that of their families. Those adults at higher risk than children, according to the state’s approach, deserve more assurances that their return to campus will be reasonably safe. For this reason, ATPE insists the state must take stronger, more decisive action to protect Texans’ lives.

“If Texas is not willing to provide objective metrics to guide local reopening decisions, as ATPE has recommended to them, then school districts and local health authorities must be empowered to make their own reopening decisions without the threat of losing funding,” said ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes. “Otherwise, we are simply playing politics with the lives of all Texans—our more than 5.4 million students, approximately 750,000 public school employees, and their families at home.”

ATPE has proposed its own plan and recommendations for the safe reopening of schools, which can be found here. ATPE will continue to advocate for educators and urge state and local leaders to include school employees and parents in the decision-making process for when and how to return to school.

ATPE releases plan with new recommendations for reopening schools

The Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE) released new recommendations Tuesday including a statewide plan to facilitate a safer start to the 2020-21 school year. ATPE submitted the plan to state officials with oversight of the public education system, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, House Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

The ATPE proposal urges the state to postpone in-person instruction until objective measures show local COVID-19 cases have declined to levels judged by public health officials to be safe for reopening. The plan focuses on three overarching principles informed by input we have received from ATPE members in recent months:

  1. Safety should be a foremost concern driving decisions on reopening schools.
  2. State and local school officials must involve educators and parents meaningfully in the development of COVID-19 policies.
  3. Flexibility is needed.

The decision on reopening schools for in-person instruction should ultimately be based on conditions indicating the impact of the virus in each school district, and ATPE is urging the state to adopt a framework comprising such conditions. Educators and parents must be involved in the development of plans to address COVID-19 in the 2020-21 school year, which is why ATPE has been recommending that each district assemble a local COVID-19 advisory committee that includes non-administrative campus-level staff, as well as parents and local health experts. Districts should also have the flexibility to offer a variety of remote and hybrid instructional models based on local needs and conditions. ATPE has also been meeting frequently with state and federal officials, reminding them that school districts also need additional financial support from the state and federal government to address the enormous challenges created by this pandemic.

As school districts mull plans for reopening their campuses, ATPE believes districts should be empowered to fine-tune those plans in consultation with their local COVID-19 advisory committee and only upon meeting objective criteria established by the state. ATPE has recommended to state officials, for illustrative purposes only, the following criteria that could be measured at the local level and used as a threshold for reopening schools:

  1. The local COVID-19 positivity rate, defined as the percentage of positive cases to viral tests conducted over seven days, is below a minimum threshold established by the state as informed by state health officials;
  2. Newly identified COVID-19 cases are on a downward trajectory (or near-zero incidence) over a 14-day period; and
  3. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are on a downward trajectory (or near-zero incidence) over a 14-day period.

The recommendations submitted by ATPE on Tuesday include a call to waive the administration of the STAAR and TELPAS for the 2020-21 school year. This was one of two resolutions related to COVID-19 that the ATPE House of Delegates wrote and adopted last week during the 2020 ATPE Summit. Both resolutions were referenced in ATPE’s updated recommendations shared today.

  • Read ATPE’s full plan and updated recommendations on school reopening here.
  • Read ATPE’s July 14 letter from Executive Director Shannon Holmes to state leaders here.
  • View ATPE’s July 14 press release about our new recommendations here.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 3, 2020

This week, we celebrated the anniversary of the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was ratified July 1, 1971. Since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, now is the perfect time to celebrate with all the young people in your life as you make plans to early vote in the primary runoffs. Here is our wrap-up of this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team. We wish you a safe and relaxing Independence Day weekend!


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott made headlines with an executive order requiring that Texans wear masks in public spaces in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases. There are a few exceptions to the mask order, including for children under 10 years old, those with a medical condition that prevents wearing a mask, and in some specified circumstances such as driving. Violating the order is punishable by fine, but jail time for violations is prohibited. See the full executive order with a list of exceptions and exempted counties here. Abbott also reduced the limits of most allowed gatherings from 100 to 10 people. Both changes take effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday, July 3, 2020.

According to an article by the Texas Tribune republished here on our blog, Gov. Abbott gave an interview on Thursday afternoon in which he speculated about restarting schools this fall. ““If COVID is so serious, it may mean that students are having to learn from home through a distance learning program,” the governor is reported as saying, despite giving earlier assurances that it would be safe for schools to reopen soon. Meanwhile, we continue to wait for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to provide school districts with health and safety guidance needed to begin the new school year. The agency posted a public health document last week only briefly before quickly pulling it down and calling it a working draft.

ATPE has shared its own Recommended Health and Safety Guidelines to the state and districts, urging them to address the safety concerns of school staff, students, and parents well ahead of a return to in-person classes, especially with the current spike in Texas coronavirus cases. Our recommendations urge TEA to release COVID-19 reopening guidelines and require that prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year, each school district disseminate a local policy describing health and safety measures it will take to mitigate and respond to the threat of COVID-19. ATPE believes TEA should require districts to involve non-administrative, campus-level staff and parents as they develop such policies. Districts should promptly notify employees and parents of their policy, and they must also be ready to adjust their policy should pandemic conditions change. We also provided a list of other considerations for districts to consider as they develop their policy, which include accommodating varying levels of risk factors among their student and staff populations, minimizing person-to-person contact, planning for special populations, adjusting staff  leave policies as necessary, and addressing child care needs of their staff, especially since many districts are now contemplating staggered student schedules or mandatory remote instructional days.

Please visit ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for news and answers to educators’ commonly asked questions amid the rapid developments during this pandemic. Many of the categories of resources on the TEA Coronavirus Support Page were also updated this week, including an Operation Connectivity Survey, English learner guidance, waivers, finance, and grants (information on synchronous and asynchronous instruction), crisis code reporting results, July 4 public health resources, and child nutrition. Gov. Abbott also extended the P-EBT application deadline to July 31.


ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting for the primary runoffs and the Texas Senate District 14 special election started this Monday. Polls are closed today for the holiday, but early voting will continue through July 10. Election day is July 14, but we highly recommend you early vote in order to avoid crowds and lines. This week, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier voted early and documented her experience here on our blog with tips to prepare for a safe trip to the polls.

The education-focused nonprofit organization Raise Your Hand Texas is holding two virtual forums for runoff candidates next week (see below). If you’re not attending the ATPE Summit next week, find more information and submit questions for the candidate forums here.

  • Texas Senate District 19 (San Antonio to Big Bend area) – Tuesday, July 7 at 1:00 p.m. (CDT)
  • Texas House District 26 (Houston/Sugar Land area) – Thursday, July 9, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (CDT)

We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating many challenges for our public education system that will be long-lasting and require a commitment of support from our elected officials. Voting is the best way to influence laws and policies in Texas that will affect your profession, your schools, and your students. Find a list of polling places where you can vote here. Generate a personalized sample ballot here. Review candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. Stay safe, Texas voters!


FEDERAL UPDATE: On Wednesday, July 1, the U.S. Department of Education officially published a final interim rule that states how public school districts must spend their CARES Act federal emergency funds for equitable services offered to private schools. The rule became effective immediately upon being published, but it is open for public comment through July 31, 2020. TEA held an update training session on Thursday in light of the changes; expect to find the training recording on TEA’s Grant Compliance and Administration YouTube playlist here. The new rule gives districts two options – spend CARES Act funds only on Title I schools and follow the longstanding interpretation of equitable services under federal law, or spend CARES Act funds on all schools and be held to the questionable interpretation of the equitable services law advanced by U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Read ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier’s post on the rule from last week for more information.

DeVos also announced final rules that impact the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant program, which provides up to $4,000 a year to college students who are taking certain courses in preparation to teach, so long as they continually certify that they meet certain requirements when they become teachers, such as teaching in a low-income school. If recipients do not continue to meet the requirements, the grant is converted to a loan. As reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2015, many TEACH Grant recipients had their grants converted to loans due to confusion over the requirements. The new rules change the department’s practices to expand how recipients can fulfill their service obligation, simplify the employment certification requirements, and allow recipients whose grants have been converted to loans to request a reconversion, among other provisions. Read a fact sheet on the rules here.


This week, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter set the record straight on erroneous claims that teachers can temporarily retire due to the pandemic. The “temporary retirement” myth was mentioned in a news story following a conference call national teacher union affiliates held with Texas reporters last week. The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) has made it clear that there is no such option for “temporary” retirement, explaining that any teacher who retires and then returns to employment will be held to a fixed annuity amount as of their retirement date. There are a number of restrictions on early retirement that educators should consider. Read retirement facts in this blog post by Exter.


New data show student engagement declined when the pandemic forced schools to close this spring. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released crisis code reporting data this week, which includes crisis code reporting on student “engagement” and indicates that more than 600,000 students (about 11% of the student population) had inconsistent or no contact with their teachers or administrators. ATPE’s 2020 Membership Survey provided even more concerning data related to engagement, as just over 65% of our survey respondents reported that their students were less engaged during virtual learning. Moving forward, TEA and school districts will need to prioritize data collection and planning that works towards eliminating barriers students faced when attempting remote learning this spring, which goes far beyond access to Internet and devices. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) met this week to address several agenda items, including revision of physical education and health TEKS, which garnered over 12 hours of virtual testimony on Monday. Votes on proposed revisions to the curriculum standards will not occur until a future meeting of the board.

On Tuesday morning, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath appeared before the board during its virtual meeting and fielded questions from SBOE members on topics such as testing and how teachers would be protected against COVID-19 risks when schools reopen. The commissioner said no decision has been made yet as to whether Texas will seek a federal waiver of testing and accountability requirements like it did during the spring when schools were forced to close. Read a summary of Morath’s comments to the board in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

The SBOE committees’ work on Wednesday was largely uneventful, although the Committee on Instruction did amend an agenda item to keep computer science as a required high school course. On Thursday, the full board had a lengthy discussion about increasing the capacity of the charter school bond guarantee program by 20%. Upon a motion by Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville), the board voted 5-9 in favor of maintaining the increase. The board moved forward with ease on their other agenda items.


An accurate count for Texas in the 2020 U.S. Census is essential for adequate funding of public schools and other services that will be sorely needed in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. The Census Bureau has launched a self-response rates map, showing Texas currently ranks 40th and is tied with Arkansas. Rankings by county and city are also available, creating the perfect opportunity for some friendly competition! Congratulations to Mountain City, Texas and Fort Bend County for the highest census completion rates in Texas!

Find a Census response rate competition toolkit here, and keep spreading the word on social media and in other communications with family, friends, and the community about the importance of filling out the census questionnaire.