Tag Archives: school finance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


 

 

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

Abbott, TEA launch voucher program for students with disabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest post: Schools need reliable and consistent funding

Laura Yeager

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

Schools need reliable and consistent funding

By Laura Yeager on behalf of Just Fund It TX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Public Education committee posts formal requests for information

House Public Education Committee meeting, Oct. 28, 2019.

We won’t see familiar images of the Texas House Public Education Committee meeting in person anytime soon. In accordance with procedures released in July for carrying out “distanced” interim committee business during the pandemic, the committee posted five formal requests for information on Wednesday and Thursday of this week. Four of the requests reflect the interim charges assigned to the committee by House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, while the fifth request relates to COVID-19. Anyone can submit information to the committee by September 30, 2020. Here is a summary of the requests:

1: The committee seeks information related to interim charge 1, which is related to monitoring and oversight of relevant agencies, programs, and the implementation of a slew of bills passed in recent legislative sessions. These include bills and rule-making related to school finance (House Bill 3, mentor teacher allotment, teacher incentive allotment, etc.), accountability and testing (STAAR, A-F ratings, district-charter partnerships), and school safety and mental health in schools. The formal request also includes several questions that the committee seeks answers to that largely relate to school finance, including a specific emphasis on teacher pay, and the efficacy of charter schools and district-charter partnerships.

2: This request seeks information related to interim charge 2, which seeks to determine barriers to providing a digital learning environment for all children. Specific questions related to this request ask where gaps in internet coverage exist and how internet providers may fill these gaps.

3: With regard to interim charge 3, the committee is seeking information related to the Texas Education Agency’s compliance with the U.S. Department of Education in correcting their errors related to special education. This includes the implementation of TEA’s Special Education Strategic Plan and other requirements the state has come out of compliance with, such as annual maintenance of financial support.

4: This request will not likely apply to many educators and the general public, as it is related to the committee’s fourth interim charge of monitoring the State Auditor’s review of agencies and programs.

COVID-19: The committee has posted seven questions to gather information on the pandemic. These include whether public schools are ensuring the health and safety of students, what plans are in place for on-campus COVID-19 testing, what plans are being made for athletics this fall, what projected enrollment might look like for 2020-2021, whether there is a noticeable impact on staff retention, if funding has already been impacted, and how the pandemic has specifically impacted the finances of small and rural school districts.

ATPE encourages educators to participate in this information-gathering process. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for more information and news on ATPE’s submissions to the committee and other House committees that have requested education-related information.

TEA shares remote learning guidance for fall 2020

Despite announcements last week that schools wound be able to safely open in the fall, Texas policy makers have been quietly saying for months that as many as 20% (or maybe even more) of Texas’ 5.4 million students may not return to their neighborhood school when it reopens for the 2020-21 school year due to continued concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic. With this in mind, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has been working on a funding framework that encompasses distance learning options within existing law, as opposed to simply waiving requirements as the state did out of necessity at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

The agency’s Remote Instruction Guidance and accompanying 2020-21 Attendance and Enrollment FAQ released yesterday, June 23, include two remote learning options for school districts, along with funding assurances and methods for gathering attendance. These changes will only be in effect for the 2020-21 school year and are only possible under TEA’s waiver authority.

Several aspects of the provided options are promising, while others are concerning. The agency’s focus on tying student-to-teacher contact to funding will help ensure that students interact with schools and teachers on a daily basis. On the other hand, the agency does not provide guidelines for ensuring student-to-student interaction, which could hinder important social and emotional development. TEA does take a step in the right direction by refraining from simply expanding full-time virtual programs, as some legislators have recommended, under the Texas Virtual School Network, which has not proven to be an effective learning model for students in the past.

There remain some gaps in TEA’s guidance with regard to funding and resources. As many have said throughout this pandemic, districts are being asked to build a plane while flying it, and without any new resources to boot. TEA’s proposed “hold harmless” approach to calculating Average Daily Attendance (ADA) for the first 12 weeks of the new school year will help districts that experience a significant enrollment drop, but many believe this accommodation should be extended to cover the entire fall semester or the full year. School attendance may not stabilize until well after a vaccine has been widely distributed, which Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci told lawmakers Tuesday could be at the end of 2020 or early in 2021.

Here is a summary of the remote learning options outlined by TEA in its most recent guidance:

Synchronous Instruction

In the remote synchronous learning model, students “sit” in virtual classes with their teachers and teachers take attendance much like they would in the physical school setting. This method generates funding based on a minimum number of daily minutes, which do not have to be consecutive. A defining feature is that PK-2 students are not eligible for funding through this model, as many agree that this type of real-time virtual classroom environment is not developmentally appropriate for young students who may have difficulty sitting in front of a computer screen for long periods of time. In order to offer this remote synchronous instruction method, districts must submit an attestation, complete a checklist of preparation items, and post the attestation on their website.

Asynchronous Instruction

In the asynchronous model, students will be expected to complete instruction and school work  independently, with intermittent teacher interaction. According to TEA, even the youngest grades can participate in this self-paced method, and attendance will be determined based on student “engagement.” Engagement will be specifically defined by each district, but TEA notes that it can be shown through progress in the Learning Management System (LMS), student/teacher interactions in the LMS, or turning in an assignment. Engagement must happen any day a student is marked present, which would then generate full-day funding.

The asynchronous model requires more work on the district’s end than the synchronous model. Districts will have to apply to TEA and submit a plan that details expectations for scheduling, curriculum, student progress, and educator support. For this reason, the agency is providing an attendance grace period or “hold harmless” through the end of the third six-week period while districts go through the approval process.

The Texas Virtual School Network (a not-so-new method)

TEA also reminds districts in its guidance that the Texas Virtual School Network (VSN) is available. Funding for this method is based on course completion, and districts can choose to enroll students in up to three VSN courses. As we have previously reported here on our blog, some state lawmakers have been advocating an expansion of the VSN. However, ATPE supports the limitations in statute that prevent the expansion of virtual schooling, as data have repeatedly shown that student performance in Texas virtual schools falls well below that of students in brick-and-mortar settings.

Funding with “Grace”

TEA will implement an ADA grace period or “hold harmless” provision for the first two six-week periods of the school year so that if a district experiences more than a 1% loss in enrollment compared to the first two six-week periods of the 2019-20 school year, those weeks won’t be counted in the overall ADA calculations that determine funding. As mentioned above, an additional grace period for the third six-week period will be applied for districts adopting the asynchronous model. This grace period does not apply to charter schools opening in 2020-21, as they do not have comparative ADA data from a previous year of operation. Additionally, district ADA numbers will be capped at the attendance rate of the 2018-19 school year, with some exceptions.

Rights to On-Campus Instruction

TEA’s plans reflect Commissioner of Education Mike Morath’s desire to make instruction in the 2020-21 school year similar to what instruction looked like before COVID-19, while keeping district offerings subject to parent wishes. In other words, whether parents request remote or on-campus instruction for their child, the district must meet the request. TEA’s guidance confirms limitations on schools converting to a virtual format. The agency’s FAQ document advises that schools will only be allowed to close for up to five days at a time if someone at the school is found to have been infected. The 90/10 attendance rule for students and truancy laws will remain in effect, and the agency does not plan to offer attendance waivers, instead directing districts to alter their calendars to build in flexibility.

ATPE is actively monitoring and analyzing all of TEA’s guidance, including the latest recommendations on remote instruction and urges educators to share their voices with district leaders and campus administrators as plans for remote learning are made locally. Educators can find more information on COVID-19 by visiting ATPE’s frequently-updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page.

NOTE: TEA has been frequently updating its guidance on the website. We advise educators to check for the latest versions on TEA’s COVID-19 Support and Guidance Page.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 29, 2020

These are the strangest last days of school. No bustling students, smiling and excited for summer. No hugs goodbye or “Have a great summer” notes. Socially-distanced graduation ceremonies. Rest assured, students and teachers will be reunited in the coming future, more grateful than ever for the bond that is created during learning. As you start your summer, relax and enjoy some reading on this week’s education news from the ATPE lobby team.


Abbott press conference in Amarillo, May 27, 2020.

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation to expand services and activities that can be reopened in Texas, including water parks, driver education programs, and food courts in shopping malls (with limited occupancy). As previously announced, zoos can reopen today, and on Sunday, youth camps and sports can resume activity. Abbott also held a press conference Wednesday in Amarillo to share positive updates on the progress of testing and containment of the outbreak in the panhandle.

On Monday, schools have been authorized to reopen to students with special safety measures in place, such as taking students’ temperatures every day and separating desks by six feet (among many others). Citing logistical concerns with the feasibility of implementing such requirements, Houston ISD and other districts in the area have chosen to implement online-only summer school. Other districts may only offer statutorily-required summer school to rising kindergarten and first grade English learners. Midland ISD is collecting data from parents and teachers on how to proceed with learning in the upcoming school year. Ft. Bend ISD announced this week that it plans to offer a full-time virtual learning option for its students who are not comfortable returning to school in-person in the fall.

As more districts gather input from their communities and make decisions regarding summer and fall learning, we expect to see a variety of approaches emerge. To help educators navigate these changes, ATPE continues to update our Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page. The Texas Education Agency also has updated nearly every topic on its coronavirus-related webpage, including new year-round calendar examples and guidance pertaining to special education, special populations (English language learner summer school guidance), academics (dyslexia screening requirements), student assessment, and funding (CARES Act guidance).


ELECTION UPDATE: This week, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that lack of immunity to the novel coronavirus does not constitute a disability, overturning a lower court decision that would have effectively expanded who can vote by mail in Texas. The court did not, however, side with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in forcing local election officials to check the disability status of those who apply for a ballot by mail. A separate case in the U.S. Fifth Circuit is still pending.

In light of the health risks associated with voting in person, Gov. Abbott said this week in an interview (see the 4:30 mark) with Lubbock news station KCBD that he will extend the two-week early voting period for the November 2020 election.

Secretary of State Ruth Hughes this week announced a minimum health and safety protocol for voters and poll workers, which includes bringing your own ballot-marking device and curbside voting if you have COVID-19 symptoms and meet other eligibility requirements. Read more in this week’s election roundup post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


FEDERAL UPDATE: This week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education (ED) would begin rulemaking to solidify its guidance directing public school districts to spend federal stimulus funds on private schools. This follows Texas’s issuance of its own CARES Act guidance, which instructs districts to heed ED’s interpretation of the “equitable services” provision within the law.

Betsy DeVos

Many argue that DeVos’s interpretation of how “equitable services” funds should be distributed under the CARES Act is actually inequitable. Her department’s direction could send an unprecedented amount of Title I-based federal emergency dollars to private schools, regardless of their students’ income, language status, or other eligibility criteria typically required by federal education law. Read more about the dispute over CARES Act funding in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

ATPE’s federal lobby team continues to discuss our concerns with lawmakers, and we will provide formal input on any new rules that are proposed by the department. However, it’s been reported that ED may use a “good cause” exception under federal administrative procedures to try to make the rule change effective immediately upon its publication, even before the public comment period expires. The U.S. House passed a new coronavirus relief bill earlier this month that would limit Secretary DeVos’s power to steer federal coronavirus relief funds to private schools, but the Senate has not been willing to consider the measure.


ATPE recently submitted formal comments on proposed rules for the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) established through last year’s House Bill 3. The proposed commissioner’s rules outline key aspects of the TIA’s local optional designation systems, such as data sharing requirements, teacher eligibility, and the district plan approval process. ATPE’s comments to the agency highlight the need to maintain confidentiality in data sharing and recommend other changes to improve the rules. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.


Recent surveys on education during the COVID-19 pandemic show parents and educators are worried about their students, mainly with learning loss and children’s ability to follow social distancing guidelines if they go back to school. They also appear to agree with the general public  in not wanting an extended school year calendar, instead preferring summer school options. Read more about the Learning Heroes Parent 2020 survey and the USA Today/Ipsos polls of parents and teachers in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

Do YOU want to take a survey and share your thoughts, too? Until June 3, ATPE invites educators  to share your concerns about returning to campus for the 2020-21 school year in ATPE’s short, confidential survey. You don’t have to be an ATPE member to participate, so please share the survey with your colleagues, too. Help us develop resources and support Texas educators and students during these uncertain times.

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.