Tag Archives: Secretary Betsy DeVos

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

Election day was this week on Tuesday, March 3, and Texas is abuzz with the results. The ATPE Governmental Relations team has the scoop on what happened at the polls and other education news. Also happening this weekend: don’t forget to move your clocks forward one hour on Sunday!



BREAKING NEWS: Austin Mayor Steve Adler and other city officials held a press conference this afternoon to announce the decision to cancel the massive SXSW conference slated to begin next week amid concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus. Conference organizers quickly issued a statement indicating that they are exploring options for rescheduling the event and/or changing some of the programs to an online format. The cancellation also includes SXSW EDU, in which ATPE was slated to participate. We will report additional details about the cancellation as we learn them.

Meanwhile, school officials in Texas have been closely watching developments with the coronavirus. During an interview with the Texas Tribune on Friday, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath repeated that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) continues to monitor the virus. TEA sent a memorandum to school administrators last Friday advising that the agency is monitoring media reports and information shared by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and working with other state agencies to provide guidance to local school districts. The memo included the following list of general practices that will help prevent the spread of the illness:

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • If you’ve not already gotten one, a flu shot is encouraged.

Today, TEA sent updated correspondence to school districts offering guidance on dealing with students and staff who may travel over the spring break. TEA also used today’s letter to urge schools to deep clean and disinfect their facilities over the break.

According to news reports, a school district in San Antonio undertook a major cleaning of one of its elementary schools after learning that an employee of the school also worked in a local mall where an infected person reportedly visited. A spokesperson for Northside ISD told KSAT that the district took the step in order to “get ahead of false information.” In the Houston area, where a 70-year old Fort Bend man was diagnosed with the first local case of coronavirus, Pearland ISD announced this week that it would suspend perfect attendance rules for the remainder of the school year, as well as exam exemption criteria. Fort Bend ISD has not canceled any classes, and Fort Bend County has set up a hotline with information regarding the virus. Read more in this article from the Houston Chronicle.


ELECTION UPDATE: The percentage of voters who turned out during Texas’ primary elections on “Super Tuesday” was slightly lower than in the 2016 primary, with over 4 million casting votes. The number of voters in each party’s primary was split nearly 50-50.

In many races, Tuesday’s primary winner will be unopposed or face weak opposition in the November general election in November. Other races are headed to a runoff, including those of four incumbents in the state legislature. Read more on the results here.

Even if you didn’t vote in this primary election, you may still be able to vote in a runoff to make your voice heard on May 26, 2020. The deadline to register to vote in a primary election runoff is April 27, 2020, and early voting will begin May 18. Visit TexasEducatorsVote.com to view an election countdown, get text reminders, and find additional election-related resources for educators. Also, remember that you can view candidate profiles and responses to ATPE’s candidate survey here on Teach the Vote. ATPE does not endorse candidates and invites all candidates to participate in our survey.


On Wednesday, March 4, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the launch of the School Safety and Victims’ Services Research Survey, to be distributed to approximately 500,000 educators across Texas. Read more about the survey in this article from the Texas Tribune. A link to the survey, which is said to take 20 minutes to complete, will be sent directly to educators. The results will provide invaluable educator input regarding school safety and will inform policy at the state level. Be sure to weigh in on this important topic!

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has also begun distribution of a voluntary survey aimed at high school counselors. School districts will receive the High School Counselor Survey and forward the link to their high school counselors in order to send information back to the TEA and the American Institutes for Research, “about the resources, activities, and tools that their teams use to assist students.” Read more about the High School Counselor survey from TEA here.


FEDERAL UPDATE: The U.S. Department of Education has announced a delay in changes that would reduce funding for many rural schools. Hundreds of rural schools around the country were facing funding cuts pursuant to a new federal interpretation of eligibility criteria for Rural Low-Income Schools (RLIS) grants. The department announced this week that it would postpone the change for at least another year, following criticism Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos received from members of Congress. Read more in this Teach the Vote blog post from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.


ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier reports that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is sharing examples of some new STAAR test questions. House Bill (HB) 3906 passed by the Texas legislature in 2019 eliminated the STAAR writing tests given in grades 4 and 7. However, this change won’t take effect until Sept. 1, 2021, which means the grades 4 and 7 writing assessments will stay the same until the 2021-22 school year. Instead of standalone writing assessments, writing content will be assessed in the reading and language arts STAAR tests, as discussed below.

Sample STAAR revising and editing question, grade 4 (Source: TEA)

TEA will begin field-testing revising and editing questions on the reading/language arts STAAR test as part of the Spring 2020 and Spring 2021 assessments. These items will not impact accountability. To help educators understand what these new test questions will look like, the agency has released sample test questions such as the one pictured here.


Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath spoke Friday, March 6, at a live event hosted by the Texas Tribune and sponsored in part by ATPE. In an interview with the Texas Tribune‘s Evan Smith, Commissioner Morath touched on several topics, including the state’s preparedness for dealing with the coronavirus and implementation of House Bill (HB) 3. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes, staff lobbyists, and members of our marketing and communications department attended the event. During an audience Q&A portion of the interview, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter asked the commissioner about teacher preparation and certification in light of state laws that exempt many school districts and charter schools from the requirement to hire certified teachers. The the commissioner responded that he believes teachers should undergo “extraordinarily robust training.” Watch video of the full interview with Commissioner Morath here.


Rural schools get a temporary reprieve on loss of federal funds

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has backed down, at least temporarily, on her department’s plan to cut federal resources currently flowing to more than 800 low-income rural schools. The move comes after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter in opposition to the plan this week. The announcement also follows the secretary’s appearance at a tense congressional hearing on Feb. 27 to defend the Trump Administration’s education budget proposal.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testified before a U.S. House Committee on Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Feb. 27, 2020.

The proposed cut in federal funding was due to the department’s decision to change its internal rules on the type of poverty data it would accept to determine eligibility for the Rural Low-Income Schools Program (RLIS). The program is one of two sub-grants under the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP), which senators who who wrote the letter to DeVos describe as “the only dedicated federal funding stream to help rural schools overcome the increased expenses caused by geographic isolation.”

Under REAP, which was enacted in 2002, school districts seeking RLIS grant funding would prove their eligibility based on census poverty data. However, upon recognizing in 2003 that adequate census data often was not available to the districts the act was meant to help, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) changed its course. By rule, ED began to allow school districts to substitute census data with the same internal data on the percentage of their students eligible for free and reduced lunch, which is used to determine Title I eligibility. The department has allowed the use of this substitute data ever since.

After receiving significant legislative push-back to the proposed change, ED has shied away from making the change for now. As reported by Bloomberg Government, a spokesperson for the department explained the rationale for the change as follows:

“We have heard from States the adjustment time is simply too short, and the Secretary has always sought to provide needed flexibility to States’ [sic] during transitions. This protects States and their students from financial harm for which they had not planned.” The spokesperson added, “[D]ue to the States’ reliance on the Department’s calculations for the past seventeen years, the secretary has concluded the Department can use its authority to allow alternative poverty data to be used for an additional year.”

Clearly, ED is still positioning itself to be able to make this change in the future, which would negatively affect hundreds of rural schools short of some additional action by Congress or the administration. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for future updates from ATPE’s federal lobby team.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 28, 2020

Today is the last day of early voting in Texas! Whether you’ve already had your close-up with the ballot box or plan to vote on March 3, catch up on the latest education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


ELECTION UPDATE: Today, Feb. 28, is the last day of early voting. Voter turnout has been steady in the state’s largest counties. Texas’ primary elections on “Super Tuesday” will be March 3, 2020. For the latest news on races in Texas, check out ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins’ “election roundup” blog post.

If you haven’t made it to the polls yet, we’re bringing it back to basics to get you vote-ready.

    • WHO? Visual learner? Watch this video to learn how to view candidate profiles on Teach the Vote, which include responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey. ATPE does not endorse candidates and invites all candidates to participate in our survey. If your favorite candidate has not answered our survey, encourage them to contact ATPE Governmental Relations for additional details. It’s not too late!
    • WHAT? We’ve received many questions about the party-based, non-binding propositions that are on your primary ballot. Learn more about these philosophical statements proposed by the state’s Democratic and Republican parties in this Teach the Vote blog post. These measures won’t change the law, but they help state party leaders learn more about their voters’ opinions on key issues.
    • WHERE? Use Vote411.org to find your polling location and build a customized ballot that you can print out and take with you to the polls. (You won’t be able to use your phone inside the voting booth.)
    • WHEN? Today or March 3! Visit TexasEducatorsVote.com to view an election countdown, get text reminders, and find additional election-related resources created for educators.
    • WHY? Did you know that some races are determined entirely by the primaries? Read more about why it is important to vote in the primaries in Part I and Part II of Teach the Vote’s “Primary Colors” blog series.
    • HOW? Get the scoop on how to vote, including guidance on new balloting systems in use in many polling places. Click here for tips!

Want even more? Read all the fantastic election features in our latest issue of ATPE News for Spring 2020 and find additional election reminders and tips on ATPE’s main blog at atpe.org. As you’re researching candidates and building your ballot, check out video of the recent candidate forums conducted around the state by Raise Your Hand Texas to learn more about the candidates’ views on public education.


FEDERAL UPDATE: The U.S. Department of Education has released the federal teacher shortage areas for Texas in 2020-21, which are largely consistent with those listed in 2018-19 and 2019-20. These include Pre-K-12 bilingual education, special education, and computer science, plus 7-12 career and technical education and mathematics. Since 2019-20, computer science as a shortage area has been expanded from only at the secondary level to covering all grades, likely reflecting career and technical needs across the country in our changing economy. The nationwide teacher shortage areas have implications for federal loan forgiveness and deferment options.

On Thursday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sat before the U.S. House Appropriations education, health, and labor subcommittee to defend President Donald Trump’s education budget proposal, which we wrote about here on Teach the Vote. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier reports that members of Congress questioned the secretary on several issues, including spending and scandals associated with charter schools, discipline practices for vulnerable students, concerns about child vaping, and the mechanics of the proposed consolidation of 29 federal programs into one block grant. Secretary DeVos defended much of the proposal by stating that the department’s intent is to give more spending freedom and flexibility to states.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies before a subcommittee of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, Feb. 27, 2020 (Source).

Much of the hearing was devoted to criticism and defense of the proposed “Education Freedom Scholarships” and the civil rights risk associated with the department’s lack of commitment to ensuring non-discrimination. DeVos insisted that, because the scholarship program would be administered through the U.S. Department of Treasury, the voucher-like tax credit was not federal funding. This would free the program from being tied to federal protections for students such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and it seemed apparent that many committee members understood this impact. View video of the hearing here.


The Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) conducted a survey of Texas public school districts on salaries during the fall of the 2019-20 school year. Just under half (49%) of districts responded, representing 84% of the estimated teacher population in Texas. According to respondents, the median starting salary for a new teacher is $44,000. This increase of 7.3% from 2018-19 is largely due to the passage of House Bill (HB) 3 and represents a one-time bump in salaries unless the Texas legislature increases the public school basic allotment again. A similar superintendent survey conducted by TASB showed a 3.1% increase in the average superintendent’s salary from 2018-19. See the full TASB teacher compensation survey for more information, including stipend trends and substitute pay. In both surveys, educators who work in larger districts were shown to receive higher pay.


In December 2019, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier reviewed Part I of a recent readability study of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). Mandated by the Legislature as part of last year’s House Bill (HB) 3, the findings in Part I left many questions unanswered. Chevalier reports that with the recent release of Part II, the study is now complete, but it still leaves us wondering if STAAR tests are written at the appropriate grade-level, as the results are mostly the same as in Part I.

Using 2020 STAAR assessments, researchers found that 99.5% of test items were aligned to the TEKS curriculum standards. As in Part I, researchers could not answer if items were at a grade-appropriate readability level due to a lack of confidence in methods and analysis. Lastly, the passage readability results were mixed, with researchers reporting multiple methods of analysis that lead to different conclusions.

Because this non-peer-reviewed study is entirely inconclusive on item readability and presents unclear results on passage readability, many questions remain as to the appropriateness of the use of STAAR in high-stakes decisions. As noted by Chevalier, if a student cannot understand a question because it uses vocabulary outside the scope of the student’s common knowledge, the child cannot be expected to answer it correctly.


Texas Senate Finance committee meets Feb. 25, 2020

The Senate Finance Committee met in Austin this week. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that among other agenda items, the interim hearing included a review of the investment strategies and performance of funds invested through the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), the Permanent School Fund, and university funds. The committee has been charged during the interim with making recommendations to better coordinate and leverage Texas’ purchasing power to maximize investment income for the state.

The committee also added to its agenda an examination of the long-term facility plans of TRS, including specifically examining the facility space costs of housing TRS’s Investment Management Division. TRS Executive director Brian Guthrie delivered two presentations to the board: the first on TRS investment strategies and the second on long-term space planning for the agency.


Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 29, 2019

Here’s your weekly wrap-up of education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


The Texas House of Representatives debated its budget bill, March 28, 2019.

During a late night floor session on Wednesday, the Texas House unanimously approved a $251 billion state budget billHouse Bill (HB) 1. The bill includes a $9 billion appropriation for improving the state’s school finance system and providing property relief to homeowners. The public education-related funding increases in the House budget would be implemented via HB 3, Chairman Dan Huberty’s (R-Kingwood) omnibus bill that ATPE supports. The full House is slated to debate HB 3 on the floor next Wednesday, April 3.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Finance Committee is preparing to approve its budget bill, Senate Bill (SB) 1, in the coming days. During a meeting yesterday, the committee decided to add money to its bill to match the House’s $9 billion funding proposal for public education. The two chambers are likely to disagree, however, on how that money should be spent.

Read more about the House’s big budget vote in this article from The Texas Tribune republished on our Teach the Vote blog. We urge ATPE members to use our convenient tools on Advocacy Central to send a message to House members thanking them for their vote on the budget to increase public education funding and urging them all to similarly support HB 3 next week.


ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand testified before a House committee, March 26, 2019.

This week two important bills affecting the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) advanced in both the House and Senate.

House Bill (HB) 9 by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), which increases contributions to TRS and provides retirees with a 13th check, received a hearing the House Committee on Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services on Tuesday. The bill was left pending in  committee but is expected to be voted out favorably in the near future. ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand testified in favor of HB 9 during the hearing.

Also, Senate Bill (SB) 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) was voted out of the full Senate by a unanimous vote on Monday. SB 12, which ATPE also supports, raises the contribution rates into TRS, albeit differently from the House’s bill, and provides retirees with a 13th payment, but the payment would be lower. For more information on the differences between the two bills, check out this blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.


On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee chaired by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), heard a number of bills focused on student discipline issues. ATPE supported bills such as Senate Bill 1451, which prohibits negative action on a teacher’s appraisal solely on the basis of the teacher’s disciplinary referrals or documentation of student conduct, and Senate Bill 2432, which would add harassment to the list of conduct that will result in the mandatory removal of a student from the classroom. For more information on the bills heard, plus other pending bills that were voted on during this week’s committee hearing, check out this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Meetings of the House Public Education Committee have been known to take on a theme and focus on bills that pertain to the same issue. The theme of this week’s meeting of the committee was school safety. Members of that committee on Tuesday heard 35 bills related to topics in school safety such as school hardening, access to mental health resources, and increased law enforcement on school campuses. ATPE registered a position in support of six bills including House Bill 2994 by Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock), which would require the Commissioner of Education to develop mental health training material for school districts. A thorough breakdown of the bills heard during this committee meeting can be found in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


FEDERAL UPDATE: On Thursday, March 28, 2019, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sat before the Senate Appropriations Committee to defend President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget for the Department of Education. DeVos faced questions on her support for increasing federal funding for school choice while eliminating or decreasing funding aimed at teacher effectiveness, special populations, and loan assistance. Watch more coverage of the hearing here for the full scoop.


ELECTION UPDATE: The 86th Texas Legislative session is more than halfway over, and issues like school finance, teacher pay, and school safety remain key topics. This is a direct result of the tremendous educator turnout during the 2018 elections and proof of the power of democracy – informed and engaged citizens holding their elected officials accountable. Practicing and modeling civic engagement require voting in every election. On May 4, 2019, many Texans will have the chance to vote in local elections for school boards, mayoral seats, bonds, and more. Make sure your voter registration is up to date so you will be able to participate. The last day to register to vote in the May election is April 4. Early voting runs April 22-30, 2019. Visit VoteTexas.gov to learn more about how to register and vote.

Congress passes education budget

Congress passed a funding bill today that averts a looming government shutdown and, among other spending, includes FY 2019 funding for the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The measure now heads to President Trump for his signature.

Under the spending measure, the overall federal education budget is increased based on current levels, with major programs like Title I and special education seeing program specific bumps. President Trump asked for more than $7 billion in overall budget cuts to ED in his budget request to Congress earlier this year. Congress’s education budget also largely ignores his request to funnel north of $1 billion to various school choice programs, but does include increased funding for charter school grants.

The bill increases funding levels for a grant aimed at creating safer schools. Despite efforts from Democrats, a prohibition on using certain funding under the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) to arm teachers in schools did not make it into the bill. Texas has been at the center of the debate following questions from Texas school districts asking whether Title IV ESSA funding could be used to arm teachers. At a hearing on ESSA held by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee yesterday, the issue again garnered significant attention. Education Secretary Betsy Devos has maintained that the law offers districts considerable flexibility and does not specifically prohibit spending on arming teachers.

President Trump said earlier today that he will sign the measure, which keeps the government running through December 7 and also funds the Defense, Labor, and Health and Human Services Departments.

 

A busy education week in Washington

This week’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on collective bargaining topped the education news coming out of Washington, but across the street, Congress was working on a few public education issues as well. A U.S. Senate committee gave early approval to a future education budget, a separate Senate committee advanced a bill to revamp the federal role in Career and Technical Education (CTE), and the Trump Administration continued its work on school safety.

Federal education funding

The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies marked up a bill this week to address funding for the education department in fiscal year 2019 (FY19). While the bill still has to get the approval of the full appropriations committee, the full Senate, and then the U.S. House, it is an early indicator of how the U.S. Senate intends to fund education in the future. On the other side of the building, the House has its own version of an FY19 education funding bill sitting in the same spot as its senate companion (having passed out of the subcommittee). Overall, the Senate bill would provide $71.4 billion in funding for the Department of Education, which represents a $541 million increase, while the House bill grants $71 billion, a $43 million bump. The respective committees have summaries of the House and Senate bills posted for more information.

Rewrite of the federal CTE law

Those funding bills would stabilize funding for CTE at or just above current levels for FY19, and a separate bill to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act is gaining considerable steam. The White House and other major players have backed the legislation, and it easily passed out of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on Tuesday. The bill would give states more authority in crafting their goals, as long as they are aligned with requirements under the bill, but states would be required to meet those goals within two years or face losing funding. A House version of the bill has already made its way to the Senate, where it has sat while the Senate works on this version of the bill. One loud voice opposing the Senate version is the American Association of School Administrators, who called the bill too prescriptive and a step away from the flexibility advancements made under ESSA.

School safety commission

Meanwhile, the Federal Commission on School Safety began what is expected to be a series of regional listening sessions in Lexington, Kentucky this week. The remaining sessions have not been announced, but the commission intends to host more, calling this week’s meeting the “Midwest” session. The commission was announced by President Trump in March following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Parkland, Florida. It is chaired by Secretary of Education Betsy Devos and is also made up of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. The commission has already conducted some of its work in Washington both publicly and through private meetings.

Back in Texas, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced a federal grant opportunity pertaining to school safety: the STOP School Violence Prevention and Mental Health Training Program grant is available through the US Department of Justice. TEA said it intends to apply, but also shared that the opportunity is open to individual ISDs. More information on the grant can be found here.

Congressional leaders reach deal on spending that includes boost to education dollars

Budget negotiators in Congress have reached an agreement on a deal to keep the lights on in Washington. The deal represents $1.3 trillion in total spending and a boost of $3.9 billion to spending on education. Congress now has until the end of Friday to pass the bill, preventing another government shutdown.

If Congress is able to pass the legislation in its current form (Republican and Democratic leaders are backing the final negotiation) and President Trump signs the legislation (he seemed to support the legislation Wednesday night after waffling throughout the day), many programs at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) will see boosts to funding.

Boosts include funding for Title I and special education (IDEA), the two largest sources of funding at ED, as well as a program aimed at recruiting, supporting, and training educators. Other boosts to funding include programs pertaining to STEM education, technology enhancements, counseling and mental health, social and emotional learning, after school curricula, and rural schools. There is also new funding for school safety in the form of training and safety technologies like metal detectors.

Many of the funded programs are ones President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos cut under their budget request. For example, the president’s budget proposal suggested defunding the $2 billion program aimed at recruiting, supporting, and training educators primarily in high-needs schools. Aside from an increase to charter school funding, Congress also ignored the administration’s requests regarding public and private school choice. There is no funding for a $500 million investment in expanding existing state voucher programs or establishing new voucher programs, and the $1 billion in Title I funding Trump wanted to see invested in a system termed Title I portability (a refresher on that can be found here) is not included. Secretary DeVos faced a congressional committee just this week in an effort to advocate for a number of major reforms at ED, but those were largely overlooked by congressional leaders under the spending plan.

While the deal looks poised for passage, there are still several procedural measures that could prevent its passage ahead of the Friday midnight deadline. Check back for more on how the latest deal on federal funding plays out.