Tag Archives: U.S. Secretary of Education

Dispute over CARES Act funding for private schools intensifies

Secretary DeVos testifies before U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee, Feb. 27, 2020.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued guidance in late April that directed public school districts to use their federal emergency funds under the CARES Act to provide “equitable services” to all non-profit private school students in their bounds. After building strife among education stakeholders and leaders, DeVos has now announced that her department will be “issuing a rule on the topic in the next few weeks and inviting public comments.”

There are two main differences between DeVos’s new interpretation of equitable services under the CARES Act and its strict interpretation under federal education law. Under various titles of federal education law (Title I, Part A; Title II, Part A; Title III, etc.), a school district’s duty to provide equitable services is based on students residing in a public school’s attendance area and the proportion of children who meet the criteria of that title, such as students who are from low-income families, migrants, or English language learners. The provision of services, such as tutoring or teacher professional development, is meant to make the private school option commensurate with the public school option for those students. DeVos’s novel interpretation argues that these eligibility criteria don’t apply for CARES Act funds, even though 90% of the funds are distributed by Title I formulas.

As reported last week by Politico, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, agrees with many others that DeVos’s interpretation differs from what Congress intended. “My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distribute Title I money,” said Alexander, adding, “I think that’s what most of Congress was expecting.”

DeVos has received negative feedback on this issue from members of Congress, state education leaders, and other groups. Among them is the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which has argued that the department’s new interpretation is inequitable. Some states, including Maine and Pennsylvania, for instance, have decided to ignore the secretary’s guidance. Others such as Tennessee and Texas plan to require their school districts to heed the secretary’s recommendations, as we have reported here on Teach the Vote. The threat of rulemaking to formally codify DeVos’s interpretation is clearly meant to bring in line those jurisdictions that have objected to expanding the CARES Act funding eligibility.

In a May 22 letter (written in the form of a reprimand), DeVos responded to the opposition from CCSSO, using it as an opportunity to announce her intent to initiate the rulemaking process. The announcement marks a shift in tone and intensity, as the department’s move to a formal rule instead of guidance is much more binding. In the letter, DeVos argues that for purposes of the CARES Act, an interpretation of equitable services that only acknowledges students traditionally served by the provision under federal education law would discriminate against all other private school students, including those who are wealthy or otherwise advantaged. The secretary notes that 90% of the emergency funds appropriated by Congress through the CARES Act are directed toward public school students. While seemingly acknowledging that the CARES Act funds were based on the enrollment of students in public schools and flow through a Title I-based formula, DeVos insists in her letter that all students have been impacted by the pandemic. “The virus affects everyone,” writes the secretary.

As many educators know, equity is not equality. Equity makes up for inequalities in society by directing more resources and supports to those who need them the most. Providing “equitable services” to advantaged students on the grounds that these students are otherwise being discriminated against effectively nullifies the entire intention of equity. The federal government’s new approach to equitable services is actually more likely to widen the opportunity gap between our nation’s students.

ATPE has already communicated with our state’s congressional delegation about this issue will continue follow the rule-making process closely as it develops. Check back on Teach the Vote for updates and follow Teach the Vote on Twitter.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 8, 2020

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week! Hardworking educators have been in the spotlight this week, but soon the attention will shift to graduating seniors. Who is ready for virtual graduation ceremonies from home and honking parades of whooping high school seniors down the street? We are excited for the good news this week that teachers and students can celebrate their accomplishments (safely). Here is more of this week’s education news from the ATPE lobby team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: For a comprehensive look at the intersection of COVID-19 and education, from the first major event cancellation to the road ahead, ATPE’s lobbyists have compiled a new summary this week of the legislative and regulatory developments since the crisis began. Read the coronavirus recap in this May 8 blog post.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott expanded the types of businesses that can reopen in his phased plan to reopen Texas. Today, salons, barbershops, and pools will join malls, movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants, museums, and libraries as those that can reopen their doors to limited numbers of customers. This development is a change from Abbott’s previous declaration that the state would wait two weeks before expanding which businesses can open. It is still expected that gyms, office buildings, and non-essential manufacturing facilities will open (with occupancy limitations) on May 18. Abbott also modified his previous order by allowing weddings with social distancing guidelines.

Commissioner Morath speaks at Gov. Abbott’s press conference, May 5, 2020.

Education Commissioner Mike Morath joined Abbott at his press conference Tuesday to talk about graduation ceremonies. Under Abbott’s orders, graduation ceremonies and grade promotion ceremonies must be approved by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and adhere to certain stipulations. Outdoor ceremonies are allowed in rural counties between May 15 and May 31, and only with social distancing protocols in place. On or after June 1, outdoor ceremonies will be allowed in any Texas county. TEA has also suggested other options such as hybrid ceremonies (where students are video-recorded receiving their diplomas one-by-one and these videos are stitched together for a virtual ceremony), all-virtual ceremonies, and vehicle-based parades and drive-in ceremonies. Perhaps you’ve heard (literally) of some districts already honoring their seniors through “honk lines” or seen yard signs popping up to celebrate graduating seniors. TEA has provided guidance on graduation ceremonies here.

Also this week, TEA updated its main coronavirus resource page on nearly every topic and added new superintendent debriefs. Among many other things, TEA has provided updates to the protocol for employees who are accessing school buildings, the FAQ on optional end-of-year assessments (which will NOT be used for accountability), and the educator certification and preparation FAQ (including answers to questions about probationary certificates, rescheduling cancelled tests, and continuing professional education requirements for educators), plus new guidance on school calendars and start dates for this fall. (Read more on this topic below.)

Yesterday, Commissioner Morath sent a response to ATPE’s April 2 letter asking for a statewide suspension of educator appraisals for the 2019-20 school year due to challenges associated with COVID-19. In his reply, Morath declined to issue a statewide order and stated that, ”The decision to pursue waivers of appraisal requirements is strictly a local decision.” ATPE has yet to receive a response to our joint letter with 17 other organizations regarding a moratorium on costly charter school expansion during the pandemic.

For more resources related to the pandemic, visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page, and follow the ATPE lobby team via @TeachtheVote on Twitter.


Last week, we reported that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has allocated $180 million of the funding approved by Congress through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act for private school vouchers. In response, ATPE sent a letter in opposition of this development to every member of the Texas congressional delegation, including U.S. Senators John Cornyn (R) and Ted Cruz (R). In particular, ATPE asked for strong congressional oversight of this use of funds and for continued diligence regarding federal funding for vouchers in any future legislation passed by Congress.

At the state level, the Coalition for Public Schools, of which ATPE is a member, sent a letter this week to Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to address recent suggestions made by Republican members of the Texas Senate Education Committee that the state should try to expand virtual school options in Texas, despite the data showing that virtual schools do not perform as well as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.


ELECTION UPDATE: With all the coronavirus news, it’s easy to forget that another election is slowly creeping up on us. On July 14, Texans in various parts of the state will be able to vote in primary runoff elections to choose which candidates will be on the general election ballot this November.

The runoff elections were originally scheduled for May 26, but were postponed by Gov. Abbott over concerns about the safety of voters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the election has been postponed, many of the deadlines leading up to it have also been shifted. For example, the deadline for registering to vote in time to participate in the runoff elections is now June 15, 2020. Check out this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins for a list of important deadlines as we get closer to voting time.


One of the biggest questions on educators’ minds right now is what the return to school in the fall will look like. The variety in plans being contemplated by school districts for the 2020-21 school year was the topic of a recent article from the Texas Tribune, which ATPE republished here on our our Teach the Vote blog this week. Also this week, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) provided updated guidance on start date and calendar changes to account for student learning loss and a potential resurgence in virus cases this fall.

In particular, the agency has suggested that districts can become Districts of Innovation (DOI) or add an amendment to their existing DOI plans to allow for an exemption from the law preventing schools from starting earlier than the fourth Monday in August. This exemption is already the most popular one among DOIs, as many districts prefer to start their school year earlier, insert more breaks throughout the year, and end the year later. TEA suggests that this format of an “intersessional” calendar could help to build in breaks that may be used for remediation of students who have fallen into a steep loss of learning on the “COVID slide.”

Other districts may choose to implement a year-round school calendar, which in many ways is easier than obtaining DOI approval. Under this route, districts need only obtain board approval for a new academic calendar and designation as a year-round system, and they must notify their Education Service Center PEIMS coordinator of their intent to operate through a year-round system.

TEA has also suggested using the flexibility in additional school days for elementary students as provided by House Bill (HB) 3 passed in 2019. HB 3 adds half-day formula funding for school systems that want to add up to 30 instructional days beyond the minimum of 180 days, but only for grades PK-5 and only after September 1, 2020.

Related: The COVID-19 pandemic has already dealt an enormous economic blow to our state, resulting in declining state revenue from oil and gas as well as sales taxes. This has many educators worrying about budget cuts next year. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter discussed the financial uncertainty with KXAN this week in this news story about how school districts in Central Texas are preparing for the future.


When SXSW EDU was abruptly cancelled back in March 2020, many in the education community were disappointed to miss the week-long learning event in Austin, Texas. Since then, SXSW EDU has gone virtual. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier attended this week’s virtual keynote address on growth mindset in education  The presentation, entitled “A Science of Human Motivation for the Next Decade,” is viewable here. Read Chevalier’s blog post about the session here.


ATPE member Morgan Castillo received an H-E-B Excellence in Education Teaching Leadership Award.

This week, ATPE member Morgan Castillo of Woodgate Intermediate School in Midway ISD received an H-E-B Excellence in Education Teaching Leadership Award. This award honors teachers with 10 to 20 years in the classroom. Castillo received a $10,000 award for herself and a $10,000 grant for her school. She was one of eight educator winners announced this week and chosen from a group of 40 finalists who received smaller cash awards earlier this year. Castillo and the other award recipients were recognized Tuesday during a virtual “Toast to Texas Teachers” organized by the #TeachersCan initiative as part of several Teacher Appreciation Week festivities.

ATPE has been featuring our “Work from Home Classroom Makeover Contest” during Teacher Appreciation Week. Visit ATPE’s Facebook page to view the entries and cast a vote for your favorite between now and May 13. Winners will be announced on May 15.

Recapping education changes due to the coronavirus

Two months have passed since Austin’s cancellation of the popular South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival became national news as one of the first major events in the country called off because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also one of the first developments that made many of us wonder how serious the novel coronavirus was. As school districts embarked on their spring breaks, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) began to send out notices advising deep cleaning of school facilities, heightened hygiene practices, and protocols for students and families who might be traveling on vacation. In an interview with the Texas Tribune on March 6, 2020, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath jokingly advised students not to go around licking doorknobs.

Since this preliminary incubation phase (to borrow a term from the virus world), we’ve witnessed a barrage of press conferences, executive orders closing school facilities through the end of the school year, and a triage-like approach to maintaining educational services. New information surfaces daily amid an ever-developing curve of cases, while educators work speedily to learn and implement effective distance learning methods. To help you navigate everything that has happened, the ATPE lobby team offers a recap of the coronavirus-related education developments so far in this blog post, broken down into these categories:


State action in response to the pandemic

On March 13, 2020, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of public disaster in Texas — the same day President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency. At the time, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath erred on the side of local control in letting school districts decide whether or not they wanted to extend their spring breaks or temporarily close down their facilities. Among many worries, school administrators struggled with how they would feed students who relied on school meals.

At a time when over half of Texas school districts had closed and under pressure from both Democratic and Republican legislators, Gov. Abbott agreed on March 16 to cancel this year’s administration of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests. The College Board also cancelled March and May test administrations and has since announced plans to offer the SAT test starting in August. The College Board also is offering online Advanced Placement (AP) exams.

Around the time of these events, TEA launched a new section of its website containing FAQs and guidance aiming to provide some degree of certainty to educators. This site has grown to include links to other web pages that offer meal locations for students and home learning resources. ATPE also launched its own Coronavirus FAQ and Resources web page for educators in early March.

Gov. Abbott explained a new coronavirus executive order during a press conference with other state leaders, March 31, 2020.

On March 19, Gov. Abbott announced the physical closure of schools, gyms, bars, and restaurants through April 3, which included all Texas public and private K-12 and higher education institutions. This order was extended by another month on March 31, when Abbott issued a more restrictive executive order that closed school buildings across Texas until May 4. The order also followed federal guidelines for “essential workers.” Included within the federal definition of essential workers were “Educators supporting public and private K-12 schools, colleges, and universities for purposes of facilitating distance learning or performing other essential functions.” TEA reminded school officials that continued funding during closure of their campuses would be dependent on students receiving instructional support even when they are unable to physically attend school.

On April 17, the governor extended school facility closures through the end of the academic year and announced preliminary plans for reopening Texas in gradual phases. While sharing designs for reopening various businesses, Abbott stated that schools would remain physically closed through the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, although teachers could still access school buildings in order to carry out their duties (including facilitating distance learning). TEA quickly issued its guidance on entering school buildings for more information.

On April 27, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a phased plan to reopen Texas businesses, starting May 1 with limited capacity at malls, movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants, museums, and libraries. Establishments are currently limited to 25% occupancy, although those in counties with five or fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases are allowed up to 50% occupancy. Abbott stated that after two weeks, if there has not been a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the state will move into its next phase, loosening restrictions and opening hair salons, barbershops, gyms, and bars. However, Abbott on May 5 announced that wedding venues, salons, barbershops, and pools may reopen on May 8, with gyms being allowed to open with reduced occupancy on May 18. The state has yet to allow bars to reopen.

State regulatory entities such as the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC), State Board of Education (SBOE), and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) have moved to online meeting platforms to continue fulfilling their duties. The SBOE met via video-conference in mid-April to take up an abbreviated agenda, which included a discussion of funding concerns related to the pandemic. The TRS Board of Trustees also met in mid-April for a truncated online meeting that included a discussion of delaying office space changes until the real estate market stabilizes. TRS was one of the first state bodies to change its practices at the beginning of the pandemic by restricting in-person visits and moving its staff to a tele-working environment. The SBEC board met May 1 to discuss a variety of issues, including the impact of COVID-19 on current and future educators.

Elections have also been affected by the pandemic. Most local elections, including a number of school board races around the state, originally slated for May 2, 2020, were postponed to November. The runoff elections for the Texas primaries have also been postponed from May to July 14, 2020.


Federal action in response to the pandemic

On March 13, President Trump declared a national state of emergency. Five days later, he signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which was the second coronavirus-related aid bill passed by Congress. (The first coronavirus bill signed by the president was a supplemental appropriations package that sent $8.3 billion to federal agencies to promote their work in combating the developing coronavirus crisis in America.) The higher profile FFCRA included, among other provisions, expanded paid sick/family leave and authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to waive federal provisions regarding the National School Lunch Program, allowing schools to continue providing food service to qualifying students while they are not on campus. Read ATPE’s information about the FFCRA here.

On March 27, Congress passed and the president signed a third coronavirus aid package. The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act contains $13.5 billion in funding for K-12 education, plus additional amounts for child nutrition and child care. The bill also included temporary deferment on payments and interest for federal student loans and  a cash assistance program, which has begun to deliver one-time direct payments to qualifying individuals and families. Read ATPE’s information about the CARES Act relief for individuals here.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at a White House press conference in March 2020.

The CARES Act also authorized the U.S. Secretary of Education to provide flexibility to states in the form of waivers of various federal laws, such as student testing and accountability requirements. CARES also provides $3 billion in relief through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund. Read more about the new funding available to Texas under this provision in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. The additional $13.5 billion in dedicated education funding under the CARES Act has yet to be distributed.

On April 27, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced that it will use some of the funding approved by Congress through the CARES Act for competitive grants to states that may use the money for private school vouchers. The $180 million “Rethink K-12 Education Models” or “REM” grant would be available for implementation of voucher programs, statewide virtual learning, or other models of remote learning. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a vocal proponent of vouchers, had previously said her department would urge Congress to approve a form of voucher termed a “microgrant,” but many lawmakers were surprised by her decision to preemptively use the CARES Act funding, intended to provide coronavirus relief, in this manner. Read more about the voucher proposal in this blog post from the ATPE lobby team. Working with our federal lobby team in Washington, D.C., ATPE continues to address this issue with Texas’ Congressional delegation.

A fourth coronavirus aid package was approved by Congress and signed by the president on April 24. Known as the “Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act,” this $484 billion dollar package is focused on loans for small businesses, with other much smaller pots of money for hospitals and increased virus testing. More federal legislation is anticipated in the coming months, which ATPE hopes will include additional funding related to public education.


Waivers are everywhere

At both the state and federal level, waivers have been the preferred method of responding to the challenges facing education during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Waivers are quick, easy, and in some cases can provide automatic relief from mandates that may make an already tough situation tougher. For instance, thanks to a waiver granted to Texas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, parents can pick up meals from ISDs for their children without the children being present. Gov. Abbott also issued several waivers related to educator preparation that will assist candidates in moving forward with their careers while testing centers are closed. More long-term fixes such as funding take longer to roll out, and remedies that require state legislation will have to wait until Texas’ next legislative session in 2021, absent a special session being called by the governor.

TEA has compiled a list of all state and federal waivers. Some waivers don’t require any action by school districts or individuals, as they apply automatically. Others require documentation. For instance, in order to avoid being penalized financially for missed school days, districts must attest that they are providing off-campus instruction to the best of their ability and submit supporting documentation. Additionally, districts must proactively request to waive educator, principal, and administrator appraisals. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes wrote a letter to Commissioner Morath asking for statewide action to suspend appraisals this year for all districts. (See ATPE’s press release here.)

Among the most popular statewide waivers is the assessment and accountability waiver, provided first by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and subsequently (in a streamlined fashion) as part of the CARES Act. Texas received approval from ED that freed our state from student assessment and accountability requirements under federal law. As a result, all districts will officially receive a rating of “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster” for the 2019-20 school year, and the list of schools previously identified for improvement will essentially freeze in place.

The federal government is also offering a spending flexibility waiver that allows states to move money around as they anticipate new expenditures and potential shortfalls. For instance, under this waiver, school districts could carry over as much Title I money from this school year to the next as necessary, spend more Title IV money on technology infrastructure, spend federal funds over a longer period of time, and take advantage of a broader definition of professional development that allows funds to be used on remote instruction training. On April 10, Texas received approval from ED for these waivers and two other waivers that will allow districts to spend federal funds more readily.

Secretary DeVos announced on April 27 that ED would not seek additional waiver authority from Congress for the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Additionally, the Department is not requesting further waiver authority from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), but it is requesting various waivers under other federal education statutes such as the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the IDEA, and the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act that mostly pertain to flexibility in using federal funds. The CARES Act required DeVos to notify Congress 30 days after its passage on any additional requests for waiver authority.


Changes to educators’ work

COVID-19 continues to impact educators’ work lives. ATPE’s lobbyists previously reported on uncertainty around educator preparation and certification procedures during the pandemic since certification tests were suspended through April 30, 2020. TEA has posted information about certification testing and announced that out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension. Solving this issue for those in other situations will likely require rulemaking by SBEC and potential legislation during the next legislative session.

TEA’s educator support page features guidance for individuals pursuing educator certification, including details on a waiver from Gov. Abbott that allows certain educator certification candidates to apply for a one-year probationary certificate. If they haven’t already, these candidates will have to complete the fingerprinting process, which — while safer for students — will also create some hiccups as many fingerprinting locations are closed or offering limited appointments. Certification candidates will also have to pay the probationary certificate fee now, plus the standard certificate fee later on when they pass the required examinations. Additionally, candidates must meet all requirements for initial certification, which are outlined in the Texas Administrative Code (TAC) Chapter 230, Subchapter B, General Requirements (230.11), with the exception of passing the certification exam. These requirements include having a bachelor’s degree and submitting to a criminal history review. Out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension.

On April 2, ATPE sent a letter to Commissioner Morath asking for a statewide suspension of educator appraisals for the 2019-20 school year in light of the closure of school facilities and resulting disruptions to normal classroom instructional practices. Citing the inability to conduct classroom observations, fears of adverse employment actions, and the high stakes attached to teacher evaluations, ATPE urged the commissioner to issue a statewide moratorium rather than allowing evaluations to be conducted in an inconsistent manner at each district’s discretion.

Commissioner Morath wrote a response to our letter on April 23, which was not transmitted to ATPE until May 7. In his reply, Morath declined to issue a statewide order, noting that TEA has offered schools districts opportunities to apply for waivers of certain requirements pertaining to evaluations. TEA posted guidance documents in late April advising that school districts may apply for waivers of educator evaluation requirements found in Sections 21.351, 21.352, 21.354 and 21.3541 of the Texas Education Code, plus related commissioner’s rules in Title 19, Chapter 150 of the Texas Administrative Code, if the districts find that they are unable to complete aspects of the appraisal process.”The decision to pursue waivers of appraisal requirements is strictly a local decision,” the commissioner wrote in his letter to ATPE.

School districts around the state have taken varying approaches to the issue of evaluating their staff during this crisis, and ATPE maintains that educator appraisals conducted in an incomplete or truncated manner are unlikely to yield fair and valid results under current conditions.


The Texas budget

On April 7, 2020, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar sat down (virtually) with Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey, to confirm that Texas is in a recession. Hegar said that Texas will be able to meet current budget obligations through August 31, 2021, despite the recession.

State Comptroller Glenn Hegar was interviewed by the Texas Tribune, April 7, 2020.

On May 1, Hegar announced that state sales tax revenue totaled $2.58 billion in April, which is 9.3 percent less than the $2.8 billion brought in by the state in April 2019, the steepest decline since January 2010. In the summer, Hegar will release an updated revenue estimate that will likely be several billion dollars less. Because the state pumped billions into education during the last legislative session, educators worry that the continued funding commitment might be hard to maintain.

In light of these budget concerns, ATPE joined 17 other organizations calling on Commissioner Morath to place a moratorium on charter school 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 while reducing the amount of funding available to local school districts. 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 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.


The road ahead

What lies ahead for Texas education is murky. Many graduation ceremonies this spring will be virtual, socially distanced, and involve a lot of honking car processionals. We still don’t know what a return to school in the fall will look like, or even if there will be a physical return at all should the virus rebound. Will students start back to school earlier in the summer? Will social distancing guidelines still be in place? Will schools implement extended school days or staggered instruction?

With each new piece of guidance or set of rules and policies that agencies and bodies such as TEA, SBEC, SBOE, and TRS develop, we get a little bit more clarity. Rest assured, the ATPE lobby team is involved in this process to make sure the voices of public educators are heard. As developments occur, check ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources and watch for updates here on Teach the Vote and via our @TeachtheVote Twitter account.

One thing we know for sure is that educators are resilient and abundantly caring individuals, which is why each Friday we are featuring a positive educator story in our “Week in Review” blog post. here on Teach the Vote. Thank you to all educators who are still brightening their students’ days, all while taking care of their own needs and the needs of their families. #TeachersCan

Share 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.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 24, 2020

Educators won’t see their classrooms filled with students anytime soon, so “emergency remote learning” and teacher parades will have to suffice in the meantime. Here is a look at this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: As we reported on our blog last week, Gov. Greg Abbott is slowly rolling out plans for a gradual reopening of Texas businesses, with more information expected to come from the governor on April 27. Abbott has ordered schools to remain physically closed through the end of the school year, while allowing educators to access school buildings to carry out their duties. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has shared guidance on entering school buildings, which states that teachers should self-screen, maintain social distancing, and wear a face covering, among other things.

TEA has also added to its website a COVID-19 Support page for Texas educators. This resource page has a more limited scope than TEA’s main coronavirus resource section, focusing on topics of interest to educators, such as certification and evaluation.

The educator support page features new guidance this week for individuals pursuing educator certification, including details on a waiver from Gov. Abbott that allows certain educator certification candidates to apply for a one-year probationary certificate. These candidates will have to complete the fingerprinting process, which – while safer for students – will also cause some hiccups as many fingerprinting locations are closed or have limited appointments. TEA announced last week that out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension. Next Friday, the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) is set to discuss other COVID-19-related educator issues, stay tuned to Teach the Vote and @TeachtheVote on Twitter for coverage. Find the May 1 SBEC agenda here.

As we previously reported, the State Board of Education (SBOE) briefly discussed funding concerns associated with COVID-19, a thought that is on the minds of many educators. ATPE is monitoring the Texas economy and has taken action by sending a joint letter to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath requesting the suspension of charter school expansions during this pandemic. Current charter expansions could cost the state $90 million dollars at a time when state agencies and other public institutions foresee budget cuts on the horizon. ATPE has not received a reply to this request, though there was affirmation at the SBOE meeting that TEA would provide a response.

ATPE also hopes to hear back from the commissioner on our request for statewide action in the application of educator appraisals. Several other states have suspended appraisals, while others, like Texas, have left the decision up to individual school districts. Many educators have expressed that they feel like first-year teachers again and some say they haven’t heard from certain students since they last saw them in school. While feedback is essential for professional growth, this unique situation is likely to yield unfair and invalid appraisal results.

For more resources related to the pandemic, visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for frequently updated information for educators, and follow the ATPE lobby team via @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest legislative and regulatory news. Also, keep reading below for updates on federal developments pertaining to COVID-19.


FEDERAL UPDATE: More COVID-19 developments at the federal level occurred this week as the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released the long-awaited application for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act funding. The CARES Act provides waivers of various federal laws and $13.5 billion in education-dedicated funding, 90% of which is divvied up through Title I formulas. According to the Learning Policy Institute, Texas is expected to receive on average $264 per pupil for a total of over $1.4 billion dollars from the CARES Act. This amount includes the Texas portion of the $13.5 billion and assumes half of the Texas portion of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, which could send over $307 million to Texas, will go to PK-12 with the other half going to higher education. Without any additional federal funding, a statewide cut to education of just 6% would zap the boost from the CARES Act. Texas has also been approved for federal spending waivers, which will allow districts to move federal funds around more freely to address new expenditures and potential shortfalls in the future (though this will not solve overall cuts).

Congress also passed a fourth coronavirus aid package this week, which sends hundreds of billions of dollars to small businesses and provides assistance for hospitals and COVID-19 testing needs. For more information about how the other coronavirus aid packages impact you, including paid family/sick leave and cash rebates, visit ATPE’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) page here and the CARES Act page here.


ELECTION UPDATE: With Texas’ July 14 primary runoff elections on the horizon, many Texans are contemplating the safety of voting in person. The option of mail-in voting, while recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has become a partisan issue. Ruling on one of two lawsuits filed by the Texas Democratic Party, a Texas district judge sided with voters last week by effectively allowing all Texans to vote by mail. This decision is expected to be appealed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has already refuted the arguments used by the district judge. Do you think all Texans should be allowed to vote by mail? Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

Related: This year’s state legislative elections have even more significance with redistricting on the horizon. The 87th Texas Legislature is set to redraw district boundaries during the 2021 legislative session that begins in January. That’s why it’s important for Texans to respond to the 2020 U.S. Census. Talk to everyone you can about completing the census online, especially if they have small children. The census is crucial for funding public schools and informing redistricting decisions next year. Learn more about the 2020 Census and find FAQs here.


Master Teacher certification was eliminated last year as part of House Bill (HB) 3 passed by the 86th Texas legislature, reportedly to avoid avoid naming confusion with the “master teacher” designation in the new Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) program. This has left Master Teachers wondering if they can keep their current teaching assignments once their certificates expire. The ATPE lobby team has been working on this issue with state leaders to find a solution and has made significant progress. Read more in this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


ATPE member and award-winning, 17-year teaching veteran Amy McKee of Leander ISD planned to have her annual show week for her dance students this week. McKee’s spring show is the culmination of months of hard work, growth, and team spirit, and is an emotional capstone for seniors who ceremoniously hang up their uniform hats at the end of the show. Not about to let her students miss out on the joys of show week, McKee put her creative skills to work and curated a series of special, “socially-distanced” events to honor her students.

Thank you to all educators who are transitioning to the unique needs of students during this time! #TeachersCan

Do you have a story to tell? 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.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 17, 2020

Across Texas and the nation, educators are rising to the occasion to provide distance learning for their students. It is no easy feat to keep students engaged from afar, especially with absenteeism on the rise (including a crop of high school seniors with severe senioritis). Hang in there because this won’t last forever! Here is a look at this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Today, Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference to announce several executive orders related to strategically reopening Texas in gradual phases. While sharing a plan to open businesses, Abbott stated that schools are to remain physically closed through the remainder of the school year, although teachers can still access school buildings in order to carry out their duties (including facilitating distance learning). Gov. Abbott’s executive orders issued today follow President Trump’s release of guidelines for a state-led, phased reopening of the country. For more detail, read today’s breaking news post on Teach the Vote here.

Gov. Abbott gives a press conference at the Texas State Capitol, April 17, 2020.

In the new Executive Order EO-GA-16 issued today, Gov. Abbott writes, “Public education teachers and staff are encouraged to continue to work remotely from home if possible, but may return to schools to conduct remote video instruction, as well as perform administrative duties, under the strict terms required by the Texas Education Agency.” This afternoon, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) swiftly released new guidance on entering school buildings following today’s press conference.

Gov. Abbott added that he will issuing updated guidance for the state on April 27, 2020.

COVID-19 continues to impact educators’ work lives. As we reported last week, educator preparation and certification procedures stand in limbo with certification tests suspended through April 30, 2020. This week TEA posted updated information about certification testing. TEA also announced this week that out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension. Solving this issue for those in other situations will likely require rulemaking by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) and potential legislation during the next legislative session. Meanwhile, ATPE awaits a response from the commissioner of education to our request for statewide action in the application of educator appraisals, which are unlikely to yield fair and valid results under current conditions, as well as the recent request by a consortium of education groups including ATPE to suspend the expansion of charter schools during this pandemic.

As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, recent congressional action is making emergency funding available to individuals, businesses, and state governments during the pandemic. Read ATPE’s information about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) here and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act here. The CARES Act provided flexibility in the form of waivers of various federal laws, such as student testing and accountability requirements. CARES also provides $3 billion in relief through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund. Read more about the new funding available to Texas under this provision in this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

Here are some additional resources to help educators dealing with the pandemic:

  • The TEA coronavirus resource page offers a plethora of resources. New guidance added to the site this week includes information on instructional continuity, special populations, accountability, English language learner guidance, waivers and funding, educator and staff issues, remote counseling, and more.
  • Also, TEA is assisting in the promotion of a meal finder tool and a home-learning website with resources for parents, educators, and school districts.
  • Visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for frequently updated information for educators dealing with the pandemic.
  • Follow the ATPE lobbyists and @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest legislative and regulatory news related to this crisis.

ELECTION UPDATE: This week, a Texas district judge expanded the eligibility criteria for absentee ballots to include those who risk exposure to the coronavirus if they vote in person. The ruling effectively allows all Texans to vote by mail, but it is expected to be appealed. This is a temporary win for the Texas Democratic Party, which has filed two lawsuits against the state and the governor seeking expanded opportunities for mail-in ballots amid the risks associated with in-person voting during the pandemic.

According to a report in the Texas Tribune, Texas Democrats were concerned by the party-line decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that resulted in Wisconsin voters being forced to vote in person in contradiction to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19. 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.


SBOE conducted its April meeting by video conference.

This week, the State Board of Education (SBOE) met virtually to consider an abbreviated agenda. The board added a May 2020 meeting to its calendar to take up postponed items, including a discussion of the health and physical education TEKS.

The SBOE gave final formal approval this week to the new African American Ethnic Studies course after lengthy discussion over the past year. Additionally, members of the board’s standing committees discussed concerns about charter school expansion and the health of the Permanent School Fund (PSF) during the pandemic.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins has reported on this week’s SBOE meetings for our blog: read his Thursday blog post and Friday blog post for more.


The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) Board of Trustees also met virtually this week, covering a wide range of topics during its truncated meeting on Friday, April 17, 2020. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that the board adopted TRS-ActiveCare rates and benefits, as well as plans to improve ActiveCare in response to information gleaned from outreach to employers and stakeholders.  Also of note, the board received a report on the TRS pension trust fund’s remarkable resilience during the current economic downturn.

TRS staff shared steps the agency has taken to protect the health of its employees while remaining  open and able to serve members during the COVID-19 Pandemic. On a related note, TRS has hit the pause button on resolving it leasing and sub-leasing plans surrounding the need to house the TRS investment division until markets stabilize. While rents at their current location, which they plan to release after a change of course, may come down, the ability to sublease the space at the Indeed Tower location may be greatly reduced. Additionally, TRS will reevaluate its broader plan to ensure it has adequate space in light of lessons learned throughout this period of forced telecommuting.

For more on today’s hearing, view this Twitter thread by Exter who live-tweeted today’s hearing. You can also review the TRS board meeting materials or watch an archived video of today’s hearing.


As of yesterday, the 2020 U.S. Census national self-response rate was tracking close to 50%. There was a slight bump in responses after Census Day (April 1), and responses have been slowly increasing since then but appear to be leveling off now. Though Texas’ response rate is up to 45.1%, it is still under the national count. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is more important than ever to push online/phone/mail census completion options.

This week, the Trump administration proposed delaying the date that census counts would be delivered to the states, which would push redistricting decisions in Texas into the 2023 legislative session. The proposed 120-day extension would have to be requested of Congress by the U.S. Census Bureau. While having conversations about the census, it is important to not politicize the intent of the counts, which are meant to ensure a fair and representative democracy, plus funding for public benefits such as schools and roads. Learn more about the 2020 Census, including timeline delays already in place, in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and find census FAQs here.


ATPE member James Butler of Austin was featured during the last two weeks in news stories by KUT and KXAN for his daily “Mindful Moment” postings on social media. Butler is the social emotional learning mindfulness specialist for Austin ISD. He works with children (and adults) to instill a routine that includes breathing, journaling, naming your feelings, and showing gratitude in order to be mindful and present. Check out his post today, shown below, for a quick reset and some good feelings.

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.