Tag Archives: session

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.

From The Texas Tribune: How the Texas Legislature will operate next year is up in the air

It’s unclear what typical functions at the Texas Capitol will look like in January, or whether they will even exist. Credit: Austin Price for The Texas Tribune

The Texas Legislature meets in less than 100 days. Nobody knows how the session will look.

The Texas Capitol is a bustling place when the Legislature is in session — the elevators are crowded, the hallways are packed, the committee hearing rooms are overflowing and the chamber floors are covered with state lawmakers.

But with less than 100 days until the 87th regular session and the coronavirus pandemic still upending once-regular ways of life, it’s unclear what typical functions at the Capitol will look like in January, or whether they will even exist.

That uncertainty this close to the session could have ramifications for what members say will be one of the toughest legislative sessions in recent years: tackling billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget, undergoing the process of redrawing the state’s political maps, and navigating issues like health care and public education that have been a focus during the pandemic.

On top of that, the Capitol has been closed to most everyone for months, prompting questions about the access that the public will have to the legislative process.

Senate and House members spearheading logistical discussions say that while much remains up in the air, the two chambers are working together to implement session rules that are consistent for both chambers. With wildly different dynamics in the 31-person Senate and the 150-person House, though, some suggest that the two chambers may not end up on the same page.

“Our primary concern is safety, transparency and public access,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat who serves as vice chair of the House Administration Committee. “There’s so much up in the air.”

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, chair of the committee, said the House is “in conversation with the lieutenant governor’s office,” but noted that “until there’s a presumed speaker, we don’t have a lot of guidance” in the lower chamber.

To Geren’s point, there’s only so much the House can do to prepare for the next session when its speaker is retiring and control of the lower chamber could flip to Democrats in November. There aren’t any declared candidates yet in the race to replace Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. However, if a member collected the votes needed to win before January, they could become the presumptive speaker and informally lay the groundwork on what protocols would be in place.

On the Senate side, rumors have lingered for weeks over what Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has told senators to expect come January. On a recent call with Senate chairs, according to several people who had knowledge of the call but weren’t authorized to speak on the record, Patrick outlined a worst-case scenario that involved limiting the legislation allowed for consideration and banning the public, press and lobbyists from entering the chamber.

A senior adviser for Patrick declined to comment for this story. And state Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican who chairs the Senate Administration Committee, did not respond to requests for comment.

Some decisions have already been made. Plexiglass dividers have been installed in several House committee hearing rooms, Geren said. Such barriers, he said, won’t be installed on the 150 House floor desks in the chamber after a trial run with a couple of them because they would interfere with the light used by new mobile sanitizing machines, as The Dallas Morning News first reported. House and Senate offices have also offered free webcams to offices in preparation for conducting more business virtually.

The Legislature, though, still faces a list of seemingly never-ending questions: Should temperature checks or some other form of screening be required before people enter the building? How can the House spread out 150 desks on the chamber floor — and will press and essential staff still be allowed on it? How can the public testify on legislation in committee hearing rooms, particularly on measures that generate a lot of interest?

Buoying those questions are layers of uncertainty about whether the virus will spike this winter, whether a vaccine will be available — and accessible — and, heading into the November election, whether Democrats will have control over the House, which could mean a change in leadership style to counter the GOP-controlled Legislature.

In August, Geren sent members results from a House survey over how and when the Capitol should reopen. Not every member responded, but those who answered questions about requiring temperature checks upon entering the Capitol and requiring face masks while inside committee rooms and public meeting spaces overwhelmingly supported those measures.

Howard told the Tribune that members are considering different sorts of screening protocols for how the public enters the Capitol but that no decisions have been made on what that could look like.

Since mid-March, the Capitol has been closed to the public, preventing members from holding interim committee hearings inside the building with public testimony. Those hearings are usually scheduled to help members consider or research business that could come up during the next session.

On Monday, hearing notices were posted for Senate Higher Education and Education interim committee hearings, both of which are set to happen next week. Each notice states that access to the Capitol “is limited to legislators and staff only” — and that only invited testimony will be allowed. “Invited testimony will be conducted via video-conference,” the notices say.

As a sort of workaround in the House, the speaker’s office released a memo in July detailing three options for how to conduct committee business while also adhering to lower-chamber rules, which do not allow for virtual hearings. Some committees have carried out interim business following that guidance.

Still, Democrats and Republicans have called on Gov. Greg Abbott, who oversees the Capitol, to reopen the building in recent weeks, arguing that if in-person fundraisers and public schools can resume, so can interim committee hearings. Such requests have gone unanswered publicly, and a spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment for this article. A spokesperson for the State Preservation Board also declined to comment.

“It certainly looks like we’re not going to have anything open before session starts,” Howard said. “We’ve really had no opportunity to have interim hearings, which has been extremely frustrating.”

State Rep. Phil King, a Weatherford Republican who chairs the House Redistricting Committee, said that “right now, we’re just locked out” — and added that it’s his “strong preference” that the Capitol reopen as soon as possible.

“I think it’s time now,” he said.

In the meantime, some members are already mapping out what office-specific guidelines they may issue for the 87th session. While most members say they are waiting to finalize those plans until closer to January, a number of them have already laid out protocols.

State Rep. Jon Rosenthal’s office, for example, has established a set of guidelines that staff and the lawmaker “will adhere to independent of rules and procedures the House Administration Committee provides the members for the 87th Legislative session,” according to a memo from the Houston Democrat’s office and assuming he wins reelection.

Masks will be required to enter Rosenthal’s Capitol office, which will not allow more than six people inside at a time. Rosenthal and his staff, the memo says, will also be tested for the virus “a minimum of once per week.” And interns, should they be hired, will work from home unless “dramatic changes happen” to prevent the spread of the virus.

On the other hand, state Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Republican from Deer Park and a member of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he and his staff “absolutely will not” mandate masks — and that his “office will be open to all just as it has been since I was first elected.”

“It won’t bother me if visitors want to wear [a mask], I’m not going to make them take them off,” Cain told the Tribune. “In 2017 or 2019, if someone wanted to wear a mask, I would not have cared.”

Another Republican, state Rep. Dade Phelan of Beaumont, said his office is considering limiting staff and the number of visitors allowed in the office at one time. He said his office is also thinking about trying to move meetings online, though no decisions have been made yet. Across the rotunda, state Sen. Borris Miles’ staff members said they have already installed a plexiglass shield at the front desk in the Houston Democrat’s office.

Meanwhile, a group of House Democrats including state Reps. Joe Moody of El Paso and John Turner of Dallas have spent the past several months working on a governance platform to add to the conversation about what the session should look like.

“Keep the ‘People’s House’ accessible to all who wish to safely participate,” read a line in a one-pager that was presented at the House Democratic Caucus’ recent virtual retreat. “Institute daily COVID checks for everyone entering the Texas Capitol,” reads another. Another one: “Propose penalties to discourage anyone from flouting pandemic rules.”

The pandemic has, of course, impacted other issues tied to the Legislature and its usual timeline. In addition to addressing the billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget and other core issues during session, state lawmakers are also set to undergo the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political maps.

The pandemic has already halted several hearings that both the House and Senate redistricting committees had scheduled across the state during the interim. And, on top of that, King, chair of the House Redistricting Committee, said the census data that helps lawmakers draw political maps is not expected to arrive until at least June — which could put the Legislature on track to work beyond the 140-day regular session.

“I think we’re headed for a special session on redistricting regardless,” King told the Tribune.

Others agree. At a virtual event in July, the lieutenant governor said the Legislature could be in session until at least September, citing the budget and redistricting.

“I’ve told my staff and I’ve told senators,” Patrick said, “don’t plan any vacations until maybe after Sept. 30 of next year.”


The Texas Legislature meets in less than 100 days. Nobody knows how the session will look.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

 

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.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 10, 2020

For many Texas educators, this week marked the beginning of an uncharted journey into distance learning. Our ATPE Governmental Relations team applauds all the educators who are rising to the unprecedented challenge. As always, we are here to provide the latest in education news. The ATPE state office is closed today, April 10, but our staff will be back in action next week and ready to help you find your way through these uncertain times. We hope you get to enjoy the weekend and this edition of Teach the Vote’s Week in Review.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The worlds of the novel coronavirus and education were a bit quieter this week, but many questions remain on the long-term impact of the pandemic. Texas educators are facilitating distance learning and conducting other essential work even though Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the closure of Texas school buildings until at least May 4th, and some localities and districts have extended their closures beyond that date or even for the rest of the school year. Abbott held two press conferences this week, but neither provided further updates regarding education.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has been issuing and updating its guidance for public schools on a daily basis, but numerous questions remain, especially for educators and those working to become educators who are concerned about job security. This week, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier summarized what we know so far about changes to educator preparation and certification procedures in this blog post for Teach the Vote. We also await a response to ATPE’s call for accommodations regarding educator evaluations, on which so many compensation and job-related decisions are based. As we reported last week, ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes sent a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to request statewide action regarding educator appraisals, which are unlikely to yield fair and valid results under current conditions. Read more in this ATPE press release.

For a quick recap of where we stand, here are other notable state-level developments pertaining to the pandemic:

  • After Gov. Abbott cancelled this year’s STAAR tests, Texas sought and was approved by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to waive statewide testing and accountability. All districts will be “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster” for 2019-20.
  • If you’ve seen a graphic circulating on social media with what looks like “Woody” from Toy Story, it is probably TEA’s “Stay Well, Texas” public health campaign, which school districts are helping to roll-out.
  • Parents can use TEA’s “meal finder” tool and pick up meals without their children being present, thanks to an waiver granted to Texas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • The TEA coronavirus resource page is chock-full of resources (mainly geared towards district leaders) relating to instructional continuity, special education, testing, graduation, and more. New guidance added to the TEA site this week includes FAQs on FERPA, the SAT, ACT, TSIA, and AP/IB tests, FEMA assistance, and Information Technology, plus child care support sample documents, a list of available waivers, and TELPAS and LPAC Guidance.
  • TEA has launched a partially-complete website that includes home learning resources for families, districts, and teachers.

At the federal level, Congress has approved substantial federal aid packages, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act, which provide billions in funding for individuals and businesses, along with waivers from various federal laws to facilitate relief. Attempts to advance another piece of coronavirus relief legislation stalled this week in Congress after partisan disagreements. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced this week new spending flexibility waivers under the CARES Act that would purportedly allow school officials to dedicate funds to distance learning and virtual classrooms. As we reported last week, DeVos has also floated the idea of “microgrants” for students and teachers, which are essentially vouchers and have not yet been approved by Congress.

  • ATPE has helpful information about the CARES Act here, including more on the direct cash payments to individuals that are expected to be distributed soon by the U.S. Treasurer.
  • Read ATPE’s information about the FFCRA’s expanded paid leave benefits here.

For guidance on dealing with COVID-19, we encourage educators to visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page.  Also, follow the ATPE lobbyists here on Teach the Vote and on Twitter for related legislative and regulatory news.


ELECTION UPDATE: The Texas Democratic Party filed a second lawsuit against the state this week over mail-in ballots, this time in federal court. According to a report in the Texas Tribune, Texas Democrats were concerned by Monday’s party-line decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that resulted in Wisconsin voters being forced to vote in person this week in contradiction to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Texas Democrats are asking the state to expand eligibility for mail-in ballots so that voters are not forced to expose themselves to COVID-19 in order to cast a ballot. Current Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey has voiced opposition to expanding mail-in ballots, suggesting that mail handlers could also risk COVID-19 infection. Gov. Greg Abbott stated in March that “everything’s on the table,” but has been relatively quiet on the subject since then.


We reported last week that the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission has released its sunset staff recommendations for the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS). While TRS can’t be abolished through the sunset review process unlike other agencies, the commission staff have identified several issues that the legislature will likely address during the next legislative session in 2021. Check out this new blog post from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, which takes a deeper look at one of the major issues raised by the sunset report: a recommendation that TRS should “repair its relationship with its members by focusing on their needs.”


ATPE joined 17 other organizations calling on Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to place a moratorium on charter expansion during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Because charters cannot levy taxes, the state picks up the tab in order to fully fund every charter school student. ATPE believes the expansion of charter enrollment during a pandemic with extremely uncertain financial outcomes would be fiscally irresponsible. In fact, the 94 charter expansion amendments currently on file with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) could cost the state an additional $90 million per year if approved, money that may be sorely needed to shore up budgets of existing public schools across the state. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins


This week, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar sat down for a virtual conversation with the Texas Tribune to discuss what the novel coronavirus means for our state’s economy. Hegar said that Texas is in a recession but will be able to meet current budget obligations through August 31, 2021. In the summer, Hegar will release an updated revenue estimate that will likely be several billion dollars less. Since the state pumped billions into education during the last legislative session, educators worry that continued funding commitment might be hard to maintain. Read a full rundown in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Census 2020 self-response rates as of March 8, 2020. (Source)

The 2020 U.S. Census is still underway, and everyone’s response is critical for many important streams of funding, including for public education. Texas’ response rate has increased from 36% last week to over 41% this week, but we are still behind the current national rate of 46%. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, some census work has been delayed, making it more important to push online/phone/mail census completion options that can reduce the need for interpersonal interaction. Learn more about the 2020 Census in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and find census FAQs here.


ATPE member Michelle Bish of Pasadena was featured this week in a news story by KHOU 11 news in Houston. While taking care of her own three children, Bish is also implementing distance learning for her third graders and staying in contact with her students’ parents. Bish says it is overwhelming but that we will all get through this together. In the article, she says:

“I cannot wait for this to be over,” she said. “This is not why I signed up to be a teacher. I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to be present. Like, physically be in the presence of my students. You know, at school and being a part of them and teaching.”

We can’t wait for this to end either! In the meantime, we can help each other stay positive. ATPE wants to hear how you are adapting to a new educational environment during the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to email us your stories, best practices for distance learning, or strategies you’re using to stay upbeat during the crisis.


ATPE advocacy never stops. Get involved outside the legislative session.

When people think about public education advocacy, many naturally think about the legislature and the 140-day legislative session that occurs every two years. To be sure there is a lot of action during session, but there are also plenty of ways for public education advocates, including ATPE’s professional lobby team and members of the general public who care about the issue, to stay engaged outside of a legislative session.

Two primary areas of engagement during the interim are interacting with state regulatory boards and agencies and following interim charges to legislative committees.

Boards and agencies, such as the State Board of Education or the Teacher Retirement System, do the day-to-day work of implementing the laws enacted by the state legislature. This work happens year-round and these entities have a huge impact on shaping the law through their interpretation and implementation of it. Stakeholders can share their input with boards and agencies through administrative rulemaking processes and at public meetings.

State board and agency rules are contained in the Texas Administrative Code. Each week, proposed and newly adopted rules are published in the Texas Register through the Secretary of State’s office. Both resources are available to the public.

For example, just this week ATPE submitted comments on multiple administrative rules.

  • ATPE formally commented on proposed changes to commissioner’s rules governing school district-charter partnerships under Senate Bill 1882 of 2017.
  • We joined with the Texas Association of Future Educators in recommending rule revisions by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) that could benefit high school students who are interested in careers in the classroom.
  • ATPE also shared concerns about SBEC rules relating to master teacher certificates that are slated to be eliminated as a result of 2019’s House Bill 3 (2019).

In addition, we attended this week’s State Board of Education meetings, as ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins has reported on here and here for Teach the Vote. These are examples of advocacy efforts that, while related to actions taken by the legislature, take place in entirely different arenas. Rulemaking happens at the federal level, too. Through our Washington, DC-based lobby team, we are able similarly to stay on top of federal regulatory actions that might affect ATPE members.

Legislative committees have also begun conducting interim hearings that will continue to ramp up over the summer. These hearings give lawmakers an opportunity to monitor the implementation of recent legislation and to discuss the House interim charges and Senate interim charges. Public testimony is often allowed at these meetings, and committees may also invite expert witnesses to sit on panels or speak about an issue. Interim charges, and the hearings at which they are discussed, often provide the basis for major legislation in the upcoming legislative session. Becoming involved in the shaping of bills before they are ever filed puts savvy advocates way ahead of the game.

ATPE will engage in these and many other advocacy opportunities throughout the interim on behalf of our 100,000 members, and we encourage educators and others who care about public education to do the same. Take the time to share your input with decision-makers during this important, sometimes overlooked advocacy period. ATPE advocacy never stops!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 13, 2019

Gearing up for the holidays? Take a break from shopping to catch up on this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


ELECTION UPDATE: The candidate filing period has ended, bringing us one step closer to the Texas primary elections on March 3, 2020. The deadline to register to vote in one of the primaries is Feb. 3, 2020! Check your voter registration status here. Read more of the latest election news in this week’s election roundup blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins here.

If you live in House District 28, 100, or 148, don’t forget that you’ve also got a special election runoff coming up on Jan. 28, 2020. Early voting begins Tuesday, Jan. 21. If you are registered to vote in one of these districts, you may vote in the runoff regardless of whether you voted in the original special election in November. The deadline to register to vote in that special election runoff is Dec. 29, 2019.

Visit TexasEducatorsVote.com to get involved, find activities you can do to drive more participation in elections, and sign up for voting updates. Also, be sure to check out your state legislators’ profiles on our Teach the Vote website to find out how they voted on education bills in 2019. Read our recent blog posts to learn more about which education bills are featured and takeaways for using the record votes featured on our site. Teach the Vote will soon include profiles of all the candidates vying for seats in the Texas Legislature and State Board of Education.


Reps. Steve Allison and Ernest Bailes chat with ATPE’s Shannon Holmes on Dec. 12, 2019

A group of educators gathered near Austin this week at the Texas Association of Midsized Schools (TAMS) annual conference. Attendees heard from legislators and education advocates on a number of important topics including school funding, accountability, and educator retirement issues.

ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes moderated a conversation about teacher pay in the wake of this year’s passage of House Bill 3. The teacher compensation panel featured state representatives Steve Allison (R-Alamo Heights) and Ernest Bailes (R-Shepard). House Public Education Committee chairman Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) and Senate Education Committee chairman Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) also participated in a panel during the conference.


The preliminary results of ATPE’s “Your Voice” survey are starting to take shape. Our members are telling us that standardized testing is their number one policy priority. Want to chime in? You still have time to participate in this short, three-question survey, which is meant to gather ATPE members’ opinions on education issues, including results of the last legislative session. ATPE members are encouraged to take our “Your Voice” survey on ATPE’s Advocacy Central. Call the ATPE Member Services department at (800) 777-2873 if you need help logging into Advocacy Central.


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Board of Trustees met in Austin for the last time this year on Thursday and Friday of this week. The board contemplated space planning needs for the TRS agency, reviewed a recent actuarial valuation of the TRS Pension Trust Fund, and discussed a funding policy. For more detail, check out this teaser post from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter and check back on Teach the Vote next week for a full summary of this week’s TRS meetings.


Last Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) held its final meeting of the year. The board discussed several items, including new teacher and principal surveys, enabling high school students to become certified as educational aides, and other changes to implement bills from recent legislative sessions. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier testified at the meeting asking the board to help Master Reading Teachers retain their teaching assignments once their Legacy Master Teacher certificates expire under HB 3. Read a full meeting summary in this blog post and watch video of ATPE’s testimony here (located at the 41:00 mark on the archived broadcast).


A new report by the Center for American Progress describes the nationwide trend of declining enrollment and completion in educator preparation programs. The authors dive into Texas and California specifically to explain two different approaches to this issue. In Texas, enrollment has increased due to the proliferation of alternative certification programs, while completion has declined. Read an analysis of the report by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier here.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 6, 2019

We hope you had a great Thanksgiving break. Here is this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team!


ELECTION UPDATE: A runoff election date of Jan. 28, 2020, has been set for special elections in House Districts 28, 100, and 148. If you live in one of those districts, you may vote in the runoff election regardless of whether or not you voted in the original special election on Nov. 5. Check to see if you are registered to vote here as the deadline to register for the special election runoff is Dec. 29, 2019. Early voting in these three districts begins Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.

If you do not live in one of the House districts listed above, your next opportunity to vote will be the Texas primary elections on March 3, 2020. The deadline to register to vote in one of the primaries is Feb. 3, 2020! Visit TexasEducatorsVote.com to get involved, find activities you can do to drive more participation in elections, and sign up for voting updates.

The candidate filing period for those seeking a place on the ballot in 2020 opened last month and will end on Monday. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote in the coming weeks as we update our website to include profiles of all the candidates vying for seats in the Texas Legislature or State Board of Education. Read more election news in this week’s election roundup post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Do you know how your state representative or senator voted on education bills this past legislative session? ATPE’s lobbyists have carefully hand-picked key education votes from the 86th legislative session and uploaded them to all state legislators’ profiles on our Teach the Vote website for your review.

This collection of recorded votes aims to help Texans find out how their own lawmakers voted on major public education issues and ATPE’s legislative priorities in 2019. Use our search page to gain insight into incumbents’ views on public education. Share the information with your friends and family, too, to help inform decisions at the polls during the critical 2020 election cycle. Also, read our recent blog posts to learn more about which education bills are featured and takeaways for using the information contained in our record votes compilation.


Do you have something to say about public education in Texas? Tell us about it in our short, three-question survey. This survey is meant to gather ATPE members’ opinions on education issues, including results of the last legislative session. Don’t worry if you didn’t follow the session too closely, as the ATPE lobby team still wants to hear from you so that we can best represent your voice at the Texas Capitol. Take our “Your Voice” survey on ATPE’s Advocacy Central. Call the ATPE Member Services department at (800) 777-2873 if you’ve forgotten your password for logging into Advocacy Central.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has released another video in its “HB 3 in 30” series explaining the many aspects of the 86th Legislature’s omnibus school finance bill House Bill (HB) 3.

This week’s video explains the new, optional, Mentor Program Allotment which provides funding for districts who have, or implement, a mentor program that meet certain programmatic requirements. ATPE has long advocated for state funded mentoring programs for all new teachers as a way to curb the high cost of teacher turnover as well as support and improve teachers and teaching practice.

Find all of the HB 3 in 30 videos here, along with related presentations.


On Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) held its final meeting of the year. The board discussed several items, including data from the new teacher and principal surveys, the addition of educational aide to the list of certificates high school students can obtain, and other changes to implement numerous bills from recent legislative sessions. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier provided testimony during the meeting asking the board to create a pathway for Master Reading Teachers to retain their teaching assignments once their Legacy Master Teacher certificates expire under HB 3. Look for a post by Andrea in the coming days about today’s SBEC meeting and watch video of her testimony here (located at the 41:00 mark on the archived broadcast).


Part one of the STAAR readability study mandated by House Bill 3 was released on Dec. 2, 2019. The study was conducted by the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin. The 30-page report generally found that STAAR test passages are mostly at an appropriate level of readability, but was inconclusive regarding if individual questions were “readable” at grade-level or below. Additionally, the study leaves many questions unanswered regarding the measures used to determine readability. Read an analysis of the report by ATPE lobbyist Andrea Chevalier here.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Nov. 22, 2019

Ready for Thanksgiving? Gobble up this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team! We wish you a happy Thanksgiving and will post our next weekly summary on Dec. 6, 2019.


ELECTION UPDATE: Republicans in the Texas House of Representatives have launched a new PAC with the help of GOP strategist Karl Rove, and a new round of poll results show President Donald Trump shouldn’t take Texas for granted. Read more in this week’s election roundup from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

A runoff election date of Jan. 28, 2020, has been set for special elections in House Districts 28, 100, and 148. Unless you live in those districts, your next opportunity to vote will be the primary elections on March 3, 2020. Check to see if you are registered to vote here. If you’re not, the deadline to register to vote in the primary by Feb. 3, 2020! Visit TexasEducatorsVote.com to get involved, find activities you can do to drive more participation in elections, and sign up for voting updates.


You may be familiar with your legislators’ position on public education, but do you know how your state representative or senator actually voted on education bills this past session? ATPE lobbyists have carefully hand-picked key education votes from the 86th legislative session and uploaded them to all state legislators’ profiles on our Teach the Vote website for your review.

This collection of recorded votes aims to help Texans find out how their own lawmakers voted on major public education issues and ATPE’s legislative priorities. We invite you to use our search page to gain insight into incumbents’ views on public education. Share the information with your friends and family, too, to help inform decisions at the polls during the critical 2020 election cycle. Also, read up about our featured education bills in the first of a two-part blog series by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell on the record votes and their significance within the broader legislative process.

The candidate filing period for those seeking a place on the ballot in 2020 recently opened. Once filing period ends, ATPE will be updating our Teach the Vote website to include profiles of all the candidates vying for seats in the Texas Legislature or State Board of Education. Stay tuned!


Do you think the state places too much emphasis on standardized testing? Is there another issue you wish the state would address? Tell us about it in our short, three-question survey. This survey is meant to gather ATPE members’ opinions on education issues, including results of the last legislative session. Don’t worry if you didn’t follow the last session too closely, as the ATPE lobby team still wants to hear from you so that we can best represent your voice at the Texas Capitol.

Take our new “Your Voice” survey on ATPE’s Advocacy Central. You must be signed into the ATPE website as a member to participate in the survey, so call the ATPE Member Services department at (800) 777-2873 if you’ve forgotten your password.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has released a new video in its “HB 3 in 30” series explaining the various (and plentiful) aspects of the 86th Legislature’s omnibus school finance bill, House Bill (HB) 3. This week’s video dives into K-2 diagnostics, including streamlining of kindergarten readiness instruments, first and second grade diagnostics, dyslexia screening, and professional development. The video gives an overview of new requirements, optional tools and supports, and practice considerations.


 

Exploring legislators’ 2019 voting records on education: Part I

Last week on TeachtheVote.org, ATPE published a series of voting records for all Texas state lawmakers, analyzing their actions taken on significant education-related legislation. This blog post is Part I of a two-part feature on the record votes. Here, we’re taking a closer look at how the ATPE lobby team analyzed and chose the record votes that are featured on the legislators’ profiles.

Which bills are featured in the 2019 legislative voting records on Teach the Vote, and why were they chosen?

Without question, the most significant bill debated and ultimately passed by the 86th Texas Legislature this year was House Bill (HB) 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood). This major school finance and public education reform bill, deemed the top priority of the session, resulted in $6.5 billion in increased funding for public education and $5 billion for property tax relief. ATPE’s lobbyists have written extensively about the omnibus bill here on our Teach the Vote blog, and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has also dedicated a set of online resources to helping Texans understand the many components of the bill. With its high profile, HB 3 figures prominently in the 2019 record votes compiled by ATPE. We’ve selected both the House’s and Senate’s votes on HB 3 on “third reading” as the first record vote featured in this year’s list for Teach the Vote.

There are also a few votes on floor amendments to HB 3 that made our list this year. On the House side, we’ve provided representatives’ votes on House Floor Amendment #15 to HB 3, which dealt with charter school transparency and efficiency. The amendment by Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), which passed and was incorporated into the House’s version of HB 3 but later stripped out by the Senate, requires charter schools to undergo an audit of their fiscal management. The Bailes amendment would have required such an audit to be conducted before a charter could expand or open new campuses, and it also called for charter schools to share the results of those audits publicly on their websites.

For senators, we similarly tracked their votes on three amendments to HB 3:

  • Senate Floor Amendment #8 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) attempted to remove from the Senate’s version of HB 3 a controversial merit pay program that ATPE and most of the education community opposed.
  • Senate Floor Amendment #30 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) also failed to pass but aimed to provide a guaranteed pay raise for all professional public school employees. While teacher pay was another high-profile issue debated throughout the 2019 legislative session, most discussions about pay raises at that point in the session had been limited to classroom teachers and librarians.
  • Also, Senate Floor Amendment #66 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) was an unsuccessful attempt to add language to the Senate’s version of HB 3 to ensure that state standardized tests were written at the appropriate grade level. Testing was also a subject of great importance to the education community during the legislative session, particularly after studies found that certain test questions on the STAAR test had been written at reading levels well above the grade level being tested. Although the Menendez floor amendment did not get approved by the Senate, another bill passed during the 2019 legislative session (HB 3906) requires a study of STAAR readability, and results of that study should be released beginning in December.

HB 3 ultimately included some additional funding for increasing educator compensation, but it was not the only bill pertaining to teacher pay that lawmakers debated in 2019. Early in the session, the Senate rallied behind Senate Bill (SB) 3 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) pledged would be one of the first bills passed by the full Senate in 2019. Although SB 3 was later rejected in favor of the alternative compensation-related language in HB 3, we’ve included the Senate’s third reading vote on SB 3 in our list of record votes due to its early significance.

ATPE also supported a stand-alone bill in 2019 that was designed to fund and strengthen mentoring programs for teachers. The House’s third reading vote on HB 102 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) made our list of record votes this year. HB 102 did not get heard in the Senate, but its language was later incorporated into HB 3.

Another piece of legislation related to educator quality produced one of the record votes published on Teach the Vote this year. The House voted to approve HB 1276 by Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston) on third reading. HB 1276 was designed to prevent elementary grade students from being assigned for two consecutive school years to teachers who had less than one year of teaching experience or teachers who were not certified in the subject being taught as part of the foundation curriculum. Exceptions would have been provided under HB 1276 for new transfer students and for students whose parent or guardian consents to the non-compliant placement. Also, the bill would not have applied to school districts serving fewer than 5,000 students, those exempted under the District of Innovation (DOI) law, or those districts that received a hardship waiver from the commissioner of education. Unfortunately, this ATPE-supported bill did not get heard in the Senate.

School safety was another high priority issue debated during the 2019 legislative session. The key piece of legislation on keeping schools safe was SB 11 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), aimed at driving funding to implement school safety improvements and provide mental health resources. We’ve featured on our website the third reading vote taken on this bill in both the House and Senate chambers. Also on our list is the House’s treatment of House Floor Amendment #8 by Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) to SB 11, aimed at improving mental health support by requiring the state to identify regional resources that schools could use to address their students’ mental health needs. Legislators were considering a number of different measures pertaining to mental health resources in the context of the debate about school safety. Particularly in the House, some lawmakers were openly skeptical of efforts to link students with outside mental health professionals, worried about privacy concerns, and generally opposed to perceived government overreach. The controversy surrounding those issues had seemingly killed another high-priority bill aimed at addressing mental health earlier on the same evening that SB 11 was being debated. House leaders used Rep. Allison’s floor amendment as a vehicle for resurrecting the lost bill. Thus, Allison’s original amendment to SB 11 passed, was reconsidered, got amended to include language from the other mental health bill that had already been voted down, and then Floor Amendment #8 passed again. We provided data on both votes approving Floor Amendment #8 since there were some representatives who opted to change their position on the Allison amendment after it was expanded.

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) also garnered attention during the 2019 session and was an ATPE legislative priority. Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which increased the contribution rates for the TRS pension fund. ATPE included the third reading votes on this bill taken by both the House and Senate among our record votes compilation. The legislature’s passage of SB 12 resulted in immediate actuarial solvency for the fund, which made it possible for TRS to issue a one-time 13th check to retirees in Sept. 2019. Read more about the TRS bill here.

Another ATPE legislative priority for 2019 was opposing vouchers and stopping the privatization of public schools in any form. Few voucher bills were considered this session, but the full Senate did take a vote on Sen. Taylor’s SB 1455, which we included on our list of record votes. The bill would have expanded full-time virtual schools and created a “virtual voucher.” Despite passing the Senate, SB 1455 did not make it out of a committee on the House side.

The House also took a record vote on HB 1133 by Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), which is included on our list. That bill produced one of the most dramatic debates but did not garner enough votes to pass the House. HB 1133 would have weakened the existing 22:1 cap on elementary school class sizes by moving to a campus-wide, grade-level average. Many ATPE members reached out to their legislators in opposition to this bill, which would have allowed class sizes in the lower grades to dramatically expand.

Finally, there are a few record votes on our list this year that pertain to efforts to restrict legislative advocacy by school districts or dissuade educators from being politically active. One such bill was SB 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), which the Senate voted to approve on third reading but the House left pending in committee. ATPE staunchly opposed SB 1569, which would have restricted educators’ First Amendment rights to engage in political speech, limited their ability to teach students about elections, and unreasonably subjected educators to criminal penalties. Another troubling bill was SB 29 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), which tried to prohibit school districts and other local governmental entities from funding legislative advocacy efforts or paying membership dues to organizations that engage in legislative advocacy. SB 29 made our record votes list in two places. First, the Senate voted to approve the bill on third reading. Later, the House voted the bill down. Interestingly, the vote to defeat SB 29 on the House floor became even more significant after the legislative session ended, when certain Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill were seemingly targeted for retribution by their own party leadership in a taped discussion between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the head of the controversial dark money group, Empower Texans. The scandal resulted in Bonnen’s announcing that he would not seek re-election, opening the door for election of a new speaker when the 2021 legislative session convenes.

In any legislative session, there are limited votes taken on the record, offering relatively few options for us to showcase how individual legislators voted on education-related bills. However, we believe the votes listed above offer an informative glimpse into the treatment of public education by the 86th Texas Legislature, and we invite you to check out how your legislators voted by looking them up on our search page here on Teach the Vote. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for Part II of this blog feature where the ATPE lobbyists will explain more about the usefulness and limitations of record votes in general.

SBOE hears from commissioner on NAEP scores, STAAR study

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) met Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, in Austin for day one of its final meeting of the year. It is also the first SBOE meeting led by new board Chairman Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin). The meeting began with an update from Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

Commissioner Morath started with a review of Texas students’ most recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). While fourth grade math scores have held constant at slightly above the national average, eighth grade math scores have been trending downward since 2011 and dipped below the national average in 2019. Fourth grade reading has seen a minute overall decline since 2005. Eighth grade reading scores showed the only statistically significant change since 2017, indicating a precipitous decline since 2013 to the lowest level since at least 2003. According to Morath, the main takeaways from the 2019 NAEP scores are that while Texas continues to outperform the nation in math, it lags behind in reading.

Moving on to a discussion of House Bill (HB) 3906 passed earlier this year, Morath indicated that changes are coming to the STAAR test. Under HB 3906, no more than 75 percent of STAAR questions can be multiple choice. The commissioner said meeting this requirement will take a couple of years to field test. The bill also required a study of STAAR readability after studies found STAAR test questions written at reading levels well above the grade level being tested. The study has been assigned to the University of Texas and is in process. The first round of results are expected to be delivered in early December, and another round will be delivered in early February.

SBOE Member Marisa Perez-Diaz (D-San Antonio) inquired how educators could have more impact on STAAR questions while minimizing their time away from the classroom. Morath suggested the agency attempts to schedule educator advisory committee meetings in a way to minimize disruption, and has worked with districts to provide substitutes. Perez-Diaz requested a link to the application and a copy of the screening process for educator involvement.

Included among the requirements of HB 3 is a directive that teachers attend reading academies. SBOE Member Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) voiced concern over teachers attending reading academies online instead of in person. The commissioner suggested that teachers who complete the online course would be required to demonstrate proficiency, as opposed to lesser threshold of completion under the in-person reading academy model.

Commissioner Morath briefly addressed the recently announced Texas Education Agency (TEA) takeover of Houston ISD by summarizing the agency sanctions process. Perez-Diaz questioned Morath regarding the process for transitioning from an agency-run board of managers back to a locally elected body, and the commissioner indicated it would take multiple years. SBOE Member Lawrence Allen (D-Houston) also pressed the commissioner to explain the TEA’s process for selecting a superintendent and members of the board of managers. The commissioner replied a committee is reviewing applications from prospective managers and he had made no decision yet who will be superintendent.

Packed house to testify in support of proposed African-American Studies course at SBOE meeting November 13, 2019.

Additionally, SBOE Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) questioned Morath over whether the agency takeover would include a partnership under SB 1882 (passed in 2017 by the 85th Texas Legislature), which incentivizes districts to contract with charter schools that take over operation of one or more campuses in the district. The commissioner did not directly address whether that would be considered, and suggested that the managers would consider a wide array of options. Cortez also pressed Morath for details regarding what would happen if a campus is closed, to which the commissioner said that campus would simply cease to exist.

The board spent much of the day hearing testimony regarding a proposed new African-American Studies course. State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) was among dozens of witnesses who testified in support of the course. Chairman Ellis stated his goal is to have the course ready for students in 2020. The board will break into committees tomorrow and conclude its November meeting Friday.