Tag Archives: Texas Supreme Court

Texas election roundup: Another court decision on mail-in voting

For weeks there has been a back-and-forth battle being waged over Texas voting laws, but that fight may be drawing closer to an end. Today, June 4, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals became the latest in a litany of federal and state courts to weigh in on a debate at the intersection of elections and the coronavirus pandemic: whether to expand eligibility for mail-in voting.

As previously reported here on Teach the Vote, the Texas Supreme Court and a federal district court were the last to weigh in on this issue prior to today’s ruling. A federal district judge previously issued an order to allow all registered voters in Texas to apply for mail-in ballots, based on finding our state’s current restrictions to be unconstitutional. The federal appellate court ruling issued today blocks that district court’s order from taking effect.

While the Fifth Circuit’s ruling today is merely a stay of the lower court’s order, the language used by two members of the three-judge panel demonstrates the appellate court’s dubious view on the merits of using litigation to expand mail-in voting eligibility. We will have to wait to hear a more final word from the appeals court, but it does not appear likely that more people will be permitted to avoid visiting the polls in person while still exercising their right to vote.

Regardless of the final outcome at the Fifth Circuit, the losing side is likely to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may or may not choose to hear the case. Most cases appealed to the highest court in the nation do not get heard, which means a ruling by the circuit court often becomes the last word on federal judicial matters. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.

Texas election roundup: Voter safety and a court ruling

The on-again, off-again saga of whether or not all Texas voters can vote by mail continued this week with a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court yesterday. The state’s highest court agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that a lack of immunity to the novel coronavirus does not constitute a disability that would enable a voter to be eligible to vote by mail.

The issue remains clear as mud, though, as the court left much to voter discretion, saying, “…a voter can take into consideration aspects of his health and his health history that are physical conditions in deciding whether, under the circumstances, to apply to vote by mail because of disability.” Furthermore, in a rejection of Paxton’s request, the court ruled that local officials can’t reject voters who cite an unspecified disability on their application for a ballot by mail.

As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, the debate over mail-in voting is also being heard in the federal court system. Through an administrative stay, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily blocked a lower court’s ruling to expand vote-by-mail options last week. The fight is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Also this week, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughes issued a new, recommended minimum health protocol for voters and election workers. Formatted as a checklist, the protocol instructs voters heading to the polls to consider maintaining six feet of separation, self-screening, bringing their own stylus or pencil with eraser, bringing hand sanitizer, and wearing a mask. For those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, voters are encouraged to consider utilizing curbside voting, if they meet the eligibility requirements. Curbside voting is typically reserved for voters with disabilities who are not able physically able to enter polling locations without assistance or who may be likely to injure their health by doing so. The checklist also includes training and safety measures for poll workers and poll watchers, as well as overall sanitation guidelines for the polling place.

As a reminder, be sure to find what’s on your ballot here and mark the following election dates on your calendar:

  • June 15: Last day to register to vote in July 14 elections
  • June 29 – July 10: Early voting for July 14 elections
  • July 2: Last day to apply for a ballot by mail for the July 14 election. Applications must be received by the election administrator by this date (not merely postmarked).
  • July 14: Election day – Primary runoff elections and special election for Texas Senate District 14 (formerly held by Senator Kirk Watson, D-Austin). Last day for county election administrators to receive ballots by mail.

Find additional nonpartisan election information and reminders at the websites of Texas Educators Vote and the Texas League of Women Voters. Lastly, be sure to check out the candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote to see how your candidates answered the ATPE Candidate Survey and view voting records of incumbent legislators.

Texas election roundup: The mail voting seesaw

The back and forth over calls to expand mail-in voting peaked this week with a flurry of court orders, further confusing what has become a dramatic, partisan fight. One side of the debate believes voters should not be forced to risk their health and the health of their families in order to exercise their fundamental right to vote, while the other side argues there is too much risk of voter fraud to allow the expansion of mail-in balloting.

To bring you back up to speed, Texas faces several lawsuits by individual voters and interested organizations seeking to expand voting by mail. Because Texas law restricts mail-in voting to individuals who meet a narrow set of eligibility criteria, one of which is having a disability, many of the plaintiffs’ arguments call for treating voters’ health-related fears of exposure to the coronavirus as a disability. Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are leading the fight against opening up voting by mail to those voters who fear contracting COVID-19 but may not otherwise qualify for a mail-in ballot. Many states, with Republican and Democratic governors alike, have already decided to expand voting by mail in light of the pandemic-related concerns.

The seesaw through the courts began with a state district court ordering, first, that all Texans who are concerned about contracting COVID-19 should be allowed to vote by mail. Last week, a state appellate court upheld that order. Appealing the ruling on behalf of the state, Abbott and Paxton echoed President Donald Trump’s claim that expanding voting by mail would increase voter fraud, which many election experts say is “extremely rare” and preventable. The all-Republican Texas Supreme Court announced Friday the expansion of mail-in voting would be put on hold temporarily while it considers the case.

Health care professionals and institutions from around the state have since filed a brief to the Texas Supreme Court arguing that COVID-19 would almost certainly be spread at polling locations, even with protocols such as sanitizing voting machines and requiring PPE for in-person voting. According to the brief, “When the risk for injury to registered voters is so severe—potentially deadly—there is little to no benefit for in-person voting when a viable mail-in alternative is already available by statute.”

The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides on Wednesday, May 20, and Paxton has asked the state’s highest court to quickly issue a ruling.

Meanwhile, the dispute over mail-in ballots is simultaneously playing out in the federal courts, too. On Tuesday, May 19, a federal judge ruled on a similar lawsuit filed in U.S. district court, finding that the state’s current restrictions on voting by mail violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and ruling that all registered voters in Texas could apply to vote by mail. Judge Fred Biery wrote in his decision, “The Court finds the Grim Reaper’s scepter of pandemic disease and death is far more serious than an unsupported fear of voter fraud in this sui generis experience.”

Paxton immediately appealed the federal judge’s ruling to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upon Paxton’s request agreed on Wednesday, May 20, to temporarily stay Judge Biery’s ruling while it decides whether to permanently overturn the decision.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on the frequently changing status of this debate.

From the Texas Tribune: Are charter schools private? In Texas courts, it depends why you’re asking.

Texas charter schools are sometimes private and sometimes governmental — a legal framework that has helped them avoid costly lawsuits.

by Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune

May 7, 2018

istock.com

In 2006, in Dallas, a construction company sued a charter school, alleging that the school stiffed workers on a building contract to the tune of a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Eight years later, in Houston, a third grade teacher sued the charter school where she worked, alleging that it had falsified test scores, that it failed to properly provide for students with disabilities and that mold in her classroom had made her sick.

Their claims did not make it very far.

The teacher couldn’t sue the charter because, the Texas Supreme Court said, it’s not a government entity. The construction company couldn’t sue, the same court said years earlier, because it was.

Questions about the legal status of charter schools — which receive taxpayer money but are privately run, usually by nonprofit corporations — are broad, existential ones in Texas, where disputes over school funding are among the Legislature’s most contentious. But those categories take on intense practical significance in the courtroom, where the rules that govern private- and public-sector employers vary widely. In two significant Texas Supreme Court cases over the last decade, charter schools and their lawyers have sidestepped lawsuits over employment and contract issues by playing both sides of that fence. In some cases, charter schools can’t be sued because they’re government entities; in others, they’re immune because they’re private.

That difference is intentional. Charter schools were designed, as former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett wrote in the construction company opinion, to “operate with greater flexibility than traditional public schools, in hopes of spurring innovation and improving student achievement.”

Because of that aim, charter schools are not subject to all the same laws as their traditional counterparts. That legal structure helps charter schools retain their “freedom and flexibility,” said Joseph Hoffer, who argued successfully for the charter school in the Houston case.

But some advocates point out that the rules for charter schools seem to target the wrong things.

The Whistleblower Act — which did not allow the teacher to sue — is perhaps the best example.

“How is it innovative to ensure that your employees are silenced if you are doing something inappropriate?” questioned Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “I would think that you would want to have those internal watchdogs looking out for kids.”

“When do the rules apply to you?”

There are a lot of unresolved legal issues surrounding charter schools, which are still relatively young educational institutions. Most of them center, as former State Board of Education Vice Chair Thomas Ratliff puts it, on the question, “Is a charter school a public school or a private entity?”

“It’s not that easy,” Ratliff said. “The answer, in a lot of cases, is both.”

In 2015, lawmakers said that for the purposes of the law, charter schools should be considered government entities when the lawmakers say so — and only then.

Some of those “when”s are common sense. Charter schools are subject to the Texas Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. Their teachers can be covered by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. And they enjoy, for the most part, the same protections and immunities from lawsuits that traditional public school districts have, said David Anderson, who worked as the Texas Education Agency’s general counsel for two decades.

In other instances, charter schools are considered private; in many cases, they’re protected from suit. That’s a good thing, Hoffer said.

“Remember,” he said, “since they’re publicly funded, we want to protect the public funds from being attacked.”

But traditional public schools subject to whistleblower claims are also publicly funded. Employees who claim retaliation under the law can win monetary damages or even get their jobs back. That’s not the case with charter schools, and advocates say it’s unfair that those schools are given essentially all the protections of a school district while also enjoying some benefits of private employers.

“You have a charter school that can, in one breath, say, ‘Hey, we’re a public school, don’t sue us,’ and in the next say, ‘Hey, we’re not a public school, don’t sue us,’” said Lorna McMillion, who defended the would-be whistleblower in Houston. “If you’re a charter school who wants to get funding like a public school and wants to be treated like a public school, when do the rules apply to you and when do they not?”

The public-private dance has saved charter schools, in several cases, from lawsuits — like those filed by the third-grade teacher (the charter school’s lawyer dismissed her as a “serial litigator” — the TEA looked into a “testing security” complaint but determined it did not merit a full investigation) and by the construction company (the charter school’s lawyer in that case said the school followed its written contract). In the case of the few charter schools not run by nonprofit corporations, the legal waters are even murkier.

Lindsey Gordon, general counsel for the Texas Charter Schools Association, said the organization supports the Legislature’s current framework and protested that charter schools are not harder to sue than school districts. Every lawsuit, she argued, succeeds on its individual merits.

But would-be litigators have at least some options for suing a traditional public school that they can’t use to sue charter schools. McMillion said the Texas Supreme Court has made it impossible to sue charter schools using the most common legal avenues.

Meanwhile, charter schools have to follow some of the laws that many educators argue most directly impede schools’ ability to innovate. Charter schools are subject to the same test-based accountability system as school districts.

The legal exemptions, advocates said, seem not to foster creativity but rather to help the non-traditional schools avoid costly litigation.

“Charter schools are straddling the fence, on both sides, to make sure they have an advantageous legal position where it is harder to get them,” sad Evan Lange, a Dallas workers’ rights attorney who recently lost a case to an area charter school. “They take the benefits of being private and the benefits of being government. They’re choosing both.”

The Legislature has, in the past, added legal restrictions to charter schools when the need presented itself. In 2013, the Legislature brought nepotism laws for charter schools in line with those for other public schools. The change came after the Texas Education Agency investigated several potential abuses where charter school board members hired family members and paid them generous salaries.

The Whistleblower Act might very well go that way, said Thomas Fuller, a North Texas lawyer who works mostly with charter schools. While the law continues to develop on the relatively new species of school, there may be some “curious outcomes,” he said.

“It left a lot of us scratching our heads, too,” Fuller said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a number of those [bills] filed in the next session making charter schools subject to the Whistleblower’s Act.”

But in the meantime, advocates warn, the ruling could deter other charter school teachers from reporting abuse they see at work. Just this year, Michael Feinberg, the founder of one of the country’s most successful networks of charter schools, was dismissed following claims that he sexually abused a student in Houston in the 1990s. Cases like Feinberg’s make clear why it’s important for school personnel to feel safe bringing forward such allegations, advocates said.

And while the Legislature can go back and correct oversights that arise, it will be difficult for lawmakers to predict every possible legal fight that could ensnare a charter school — meaning more oversights are near-unavoidable.

“Not a good place to be an employee”

The peculiar legal status of charter schools has a particular impact on employees.

Teachers in traditional public schools enjoy a suite of protections that is not mandated for charter school teachers — including, for the most part, year-long contracts that grant teachers due process rights, Exter said. Texas charter school teachers don’t all have to be certified teachers, meaning they’re more easily replaced. They’re easier to fire in the middle of the year. And if they’re fired, they have even less recourse for challenging the decision.

And unlike teachers at private schools, charter school teachers don’t get the shield of the National Labor Relations Act, which contains some of the nation’s strongest protections against unfair labor practices. Texas charter schools — unlike other states’ equivalents — are not included in that protection because they are considered arms of the government. Texas is, so far, the only state whose charter school teachers are not protected by that act.

That’s thanks to a ruling that came down in March. The case made a difficult scenario worse for teachers in a state that’s already “not a good place to be an employee,” said Lange, the Dallas workers’ attorney.

Charter school supporters might argue that more freedom for the schools allows them to get rid of bad teachers and bring in better ones.

But in a sector of public education with far less oversight than traditional school districts, it’s easy to see how a teacher could find herself fired and out of options. A public school teacher who speaks out against a school practice she disagrees with — STAAR testing, say — is protected from government retaliation by the First Amendment.

But, Lange said, a charter school employee, who enjoys no such protection, could be fired more easily. Their schools, meanwhile, can in one breath claim the privileges of being public and in the next enjoy the freedom of the private sector.

“They literally want to have their cake and eat it too. That’s all charter schools do,” Lange said.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/04/20/texas-teachers-employee-benefits-dead-last-retirement-funding/.

 

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