Tag Archives: U.S. Department of Education

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.

Equitable services saga ends following court decision against DeVos rule

As we reported here on Teach the Vote a couple weeks ago, a federal court nullified a controversial federal rule that would have funneled additional public dollars to private schools under an “equitable services” provision of the CARES Act. With a statement that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will not appeal that decision, it seems as though the equitable services saga has finally come to an end. Here’s the story from start to finish:

On March 27, 2020, the CARES Act was signed into law. It provided Texas public schools with federal aid meant to combat extra costs associated with COVID-19. The CARES Act requires public school districts to use a portion of their emergency funds to provide equitable services to certain private schools, following long-standing federal education law practices.

Leave it to DeVos to disregard Congressional intent and interpret the equitable services provision in the CARES Act to send an unprecedented amount of public school emergency funds to private schools. Deviating from the prior practice, DeVos issued April 30 guidance directing school districts to calculate their equitable services allocation using ALL students at ALL private non-profit schools in their bounds. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) held districts to this questionable guidance while other states chose to ignore it.

Two main points make this interpretation egregious: Number one, equitable services allocations are typically calculated based on eligible students (low-income, English learners, etc.) who live in the district’s bounds but who attend a private school. Number two, CARES Act funds were 90% based on Title I formula-funding. Under DeVos’s interpretation, a student who lives in a wealthy neighborhood but attends a private school in another part of town would now get the benefit of federal emergency dollars that were calculated based on low-income children. The “poor must share with the rich” is not equitable.

After much consternation from the education community, the department issued an interim final rule (IFR) on July 1 that gave three options to school districts. On the one hand, the rule gave districts an option to follow the long-standing interpretation of equitable services, which was good. However, the rule meant that the DeVos interpretation now held the effect of law, which was bad. ATPE submitted formal comments opposing the new rule in July, but the department did not change any of its practices. Meanwhile, TEA conducted new trainings to inform districts of the changes.

A slew of court cases and a final summary judgement leads us to the beginning of September. The September 4 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Dabney L. Friedrich vacated the IFR nationwide. TEA updated its equitable services guidance the following week but cautioned districts that DeVos had 60 days to appeal the decision.

On September 25, DeVos issued a letter to all chief state school officers stating that the department would not appeal the decision. TEA held a new training this week instructing districts to revert to the original interpretation of equitable services, as intended by Congress.

Betsy DeVos

While DeVos argues, “all schools and all students have borne the pandemic’s burden and need support,” Congress has provided small business assistance that private schools and even some public charter schools have taken advantage of already. Should Congress wish to specifically fund private schools, they could consider a separate piece of legislation that is not tied to Title I formula-funding.

The back-and-forth over the equitable services issue this year reminds us of the power struggles that can arise at the state and federal level between elected lawmakers, agency heads appointed by a governor or the president, and the courts that provide much-needed checks and balances in our democracy. The Secretary of Education is appointed by the President of the United States and is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Not only are there many state and federal legislative races being decided this year, but the presidential election in 2020 will shape the next four years of education policymaking at the federal level.

ATPE encourages you to make sure you are registered to vote by October 5 and research your ENTIRE ballot using resources such as the candidate profiles on Teach the Vote (for Texas House, Texas Senate, and State Board of Education races on the ballot this year) and vote411.org, where you can build and print out a sample ballot of your own. Early voting for the general election begins October 13.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 25, 2020

Here is this week’s recap of the latest education news from your ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Schools around Texas continue to tackle difficult decisions on reopening and whether to offer virtual or in-person instruction. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) slightly modified its COVID-19 guidance this week on attendance and enrollment, aiming to address some recent questions about school reopenings and remote learning options. Many school boards are deciding whether to request waivers from the state that would enable their districts to operate in a remote environment longer than the initial four-week transition approved by TEA for all districts.

The new TEA guidance indicates that the agency will consider granting additional flexibility based on metrics announced recently in Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan for business reopening. Specifically, TEA will “take into consideration” whether a school district lies within one of the hospital regions where COVID-19 patients make up more than 15% of all hospitalizations. While we appreciate state officials’ recognizing the importance of considering objective health-related data on COVID-19, as ATPE has recommended, new guidance remains vague and leaves the ultimate discretion to unelected state leaders. Read more about the updated guidance and how school districts are approaching the return to campus in this post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.

Last week, ATPE launched an anonymous member-only survey through our Advocacy Central section of the ATPE website that asks two questions about how educators feel their health and safety is being ensured. Join hundreds of other survey responders and share your responses by Sunday, September 27. Here are additional coronavirus resources from ATPE:


FEDERAL UPDATE: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reiterated her support for school choice and in-person schooling this week during a U.S. Department of Education webinar on school reopening. The panel presentation featured private, public, and charter school administrators who shared best practices on how they have reopened their schools this fall. Some of the strategies may be unattainable for the majority of public schools who need increased funding for pandemic-related increased costs. Read more about the presentation in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


A few upcoming events are scheduled that are geared toward educators who are retired or considering retiring in the near future. First, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) has opened registration for its 2020 TRS-Care virtual information sessions. These webinars are intended to help retired public education employees, or those considering retirement, learn more about the TRS-Care Standard and TRS-Care Medicare Advantage plans for 2021. They will also introduce the new providers that will administer TRS health plans starting Jan. 1, 2021. You can register for these webinars at trs.texas.gov/trs-care-events.

Next week the Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) plans to host two virtual townhalls on teacher retirement issues. The first townhall will feature incumbent U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) on September 29 at 4 pm. The second townhall will feature Cornyn’s challenger, retired U.S. Air Force combat veteran M.J. Hegar on October 3 at 2:15 pm. Find more details on the two events here.


The Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) are sharing with the public data on the prevalence of the coronavirus in Texas public schools. The online dashboard shows Texas public schools have reported 6,295 COVID-19 cases on their campuses. According to the data, 3,445 students have tested positive for COVID-19 out of 1,101,065 on campus. The agency reported 1,212 new positive cases during the week ending September 20, up from 1,046 new cases the previous week. The agency reported 2,850 school staff members tested positive. Of those, 660 were new cases during the week ending September 20, down from 859 new cases reported the previous week. The agency has not maintained a count of how many staff are present on campus at the moment.

It’s difficult to draw conclusions from this data. Relatively few students are on campus at the moment, and social distancing measures will become more difficult to maintain as more students return to classrooms. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes weighed in on the numbers in this article by the Houston Chronicle.

Jimmy Lee

RELATED: As schools deal with COVID-19 occurrences on campus and their employees’ fears of catching the virus, some districts are worried about finding enough substitute teachers. ATPE State President Jimmy Lee was interviewed this week in a story on CBS Austin about the concern. Lee shared his own experience working as a sub and highlighted challenges faced by rural districts . Watch the full story here.


A federal judge ruled Thursday, Sept. 24, that President Donald Trump cannot stop the U.S. Census count next week, ordering it instead to continue through October 31. This is the deadline U.S. Census Bureau originally requested before the Trump administration decided to shorten that window. You can read more about the court decision in this article by the Texas Tribune.

The census is constitutionally required every 10 years in order to apportion seats in the U.S. Congress. Many important decisions, including how federal funding is distributed, depend on how communities respond to the census. The census also determines how much power each state wields in Congress, and Texas is on track to add representatives if everyone responds on time. Read more about the census in this recent blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


ELECTION UPDATE: Today is the last day of early voting in Texas Senate District (SD) 30, where a special election is scheduled for next Tuesday, Sept. 29. This election is to finish the term of outgoing state Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), who is running for U.S. Congress.

Earlier this week we recognized National Voter Registration Day. October 5 is the deadline to register to vote in time for the November 3 election if you are not already registered. Click here to find out if you are registered and your information is correct, especially if you have moved. Early voting for every position from president on down begins October 13 and lasts for three weeks through October 30. Find more voting dates and reminders here.

Voting is the only way to ensure people who support public education are the ones making the decisions about public education. For more on who makes those decisions, check out this post by our partners in the Texas Educators Vote coalition. Also, click here to learn about candidate forums being sponsored by Raise Your Hand Texas starting next week.

U.S. Department of Education hosts webinar on school reopening

The U.S. Department of Education hosted a virtual panel presentation today, Sept. 23, on successful strategies to reopen schools this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The live webinar opened with a statement from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos who reiterated her support for school choice by saying that parents need options more than ever during this time. DeVos also maintained her position that every school should offer an in-person option for parents who want that for their children.

Next, a panel of invited witnesses shared best practices in how they have re-opened their schools during the pandemic. Panelists included the following:

  • Sue Blakeley, founder and administrator of Lake Mead Christian Academy in Nevada, a private school
  • Shane Robbins, superintendent of Kershaw County School District in South Carolina
  • Jeremiah Newell, superintendent of MAEF Public Charter Schools in Alabama
  • Nisha Gupta, administrator and teacher at Homestead Montessori School in New York, a private school
  • Glen East, superintendent of Gulfport Schools in Mississippi
  • Frank Brogan, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Newell shared that his charter school, a specialty charter for students age 16 and older who have dropped out or fallen behind, is offering parents the option on selecting in-person learning, synchronous/asynchronous virtual instruction, or night schooling for students who need to work to support their families. He also stressed that sitting in front of a computer is not an effective form of learning for students.

Blakeley’s private school created a task force to bolster communication between stakeholders in her school community and consulted with an infectious disease expert regularly. Her school also staggered reopening and conducted “rehearsals” by gradually opening the school’s day care and early childhood facilities.

East said his public school district opened at 30% capacity and has since increased capacity to 100%. The district also hired additional instructional support staff so that there are two adults in each classroom, in order to support students.

Gupta’s private school simplified classrooms by removing furniture and marking the floor with dots. The number of personalized materials was increased, too, including some materials that the school 3-D printed and laser-cut on their own. Spaces were organized to isolate cohorts, along with scheduling changes, and experiential learning was moved outdoors. Teachers moved classroom furniture outdoors and a local Native American leader donated additional outdoor space so that students could learn in weather-proof teepees.

Robbins said his public school district was already an e-learning district and that the transition was a little bit easier because of this fact. The district created a task force that formed subcommittees made up of healthcare professionals, parents, and teachers. Robbins said responding to the pandemic has created an expensive situation, especially with the new learning environments and need to ensure health and safety. His district has partnered with local businesses to provide internet access to students and has created a COVID-19 dashboard to show the number of cases in their schools.

Several of the panelists said they created videos in order to best communicate with their families.

A few things come to light in analyzing these comments from school leaders across our nation.

  1. The pandemic is costly to school systems and has created new costs that should continue to be reimbursed by the federal government.
  2. Teachers are rarely included in the considerations and conversations engaged in by school leaders. In this panel at least, leaders did not express a balance of concern for their educators or share best practices on how to engage educators.

ATPE has continuously advocated for the involvement of educators throughout the pandemic. For resources and support for educators, please visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources. To share your opinions on back-to-school health and safety, ATPE members can visit ATPE’s Advocacy Central to fill out a quick two-question survey open until Sept. 27, and also use the communication tools there to share input with their elected officials.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 11, 2020

Here is a look at this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Education Agency (TEA) adapted its guidance on equitable services this week to reflect a recent U.S. District Court ruling vacating the U.S. Department of Education’s interim final rule that directs public school districts to spend an unprecedented amount of taxpayer dollars on private school students. The court ruling issued last Friday makes the department’s rule unenforceable nationwide, but Secretary Betsy DeVos still has time to appeal the decision.

TEA also updated several other sections of its COVID-19 Support and Guidance page, including new intern and emergency certification waiver information that continues the suspensions on face-to-face requirements for candidates completing their internships, clinical experiences, field-based experiences, and practicums. Also, be sure to check out the new Project Restore training on resilience that was posted this week.

ATPE State Treasurer Jayne Serna and ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier participated in an educators’ town hall on COVID-19 and teaching this week. The Wednesday night event was hosted by U.S. Congressional District 10 candidate and former teacher Mike Seigel. Serna was the opening speaker for the event, sharing the difficulties educators are facing this school year and highlighting the importance of voting to elect pro-public education candidates. Chevalier provided an overview of COVID-19-related federal funding issues facing educators and students, federal waivers, and the need for congressional oversight of the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Also this week, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter spoke with The Texas TribuneThe Dallas Morning News, and KBMT’s 12 News Now about the current state of teaching, learning gaps, and how spending cuts prompted by COVID-19 could impact students.

As a reminder, ATPE offers educators a gamut of resources:

  • Find answers from our legal team to frequently asked questions on our COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page.
  • Earn CPE by watching informative webcasts on topics such as educator rights, leave options, disability accommodations, and school safety through ATPE’s professional learning portal.
  • Explore an interactive pandemic timeline.
  • Take our survey on parent-teacher collaboration.
  • ATPE members only: Use Advocacy Central to communicate with elected officials about your concerns.

ELECTION UPDATE: Don’t let the November 3 general election creep up on you. Election Day is less than eight weeks away and early voting starts in one month. This means other deadlines for registering to vote or requesting a ballot-by-mail are even sooner! Remember that if you have moved recently or changed your name, you need to update your voter registration. Here are important dates to add to your calendar:

  • September 19: If your vote-by-mail application is received by this day, you are guaranteed to receive your ballot at least 30 days before Election Day.
  • September 22: National Voter Registration Day
  • October 5: Deadline to register to vote
  • October 13: First day of early voting
  • October 19: Educator Voting Day
  • October 23: Last day that a vote-by-mail application can be received (not postmarked)
  • October 30: Last day of early voting
  • November 3: Election Day! Mail-in ballots also must be received by this date.

If you happen to live in Texas Senate District 30 and are a registered voter, you’ll be eligible to vote early starting Monday, Sept. 14, for the special election to replace Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper). Read more about the race in this previous blog post, and check out profiles of the SD 30 candidates here on Teach the Vote.


FEDERAL UPDATE: In addition to the above-mentioned court ruling against Secretary Betsy DeVos’s effort to send more public money to private schools, there was activity on Capitol Hill this week. U.S. Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully to advance a new coronavirus aid package that included a $10 billion private school voucher provision. ATPE released a press statement opposing the voucher language in the Senate bill, which failed during a preliminary vote held in the Senate yesterday. Read more about the legislation and ATPE’s press statement in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) met this week to take up hefty agenda items including the revision of science, physical education, and health curriculum standards (TEKS). The revisions garnered hours of testimony from the public, as did the discussion of eight new charter applications before the board.

ATPE and other organizations urged the board to reject the new charters due to the increased costs the state would incur by granting the applications. SBOE Member Ruben Cortez asked Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, “Is now the time to be playing Shark Tank?” Read this week’s blog posts from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins to learn more about Morath’s defense of the charter applicants, the board’s Thursday split decisions to preliminarily approve just six of the proposed charters, and the ultimate veto of three charter operators during Friday’s full board meeting.


Per usual, the annual Texas Tribune Festival has an impressive education strand of events. This week, Texas Tribune education reporter Aliyya Swaby moderated a panel of Texas public school teachers, superintendents, and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. The teachers expressed how the pandemic impacted their interactions with students, the superintendents talked about budget and enrollment concerns, and Morath stuck to his usual admiration of data and the need to continue standardized testing. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


The Texas Senate Democratic Caucus incorporated ATPE recommendations regarding COVID-19 and schools into a letter it sent to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath earlier this week. The letter was influenced by a task force of education stakeholders including ATPE. Among other requests, the senators’ letter urges Morath to seek a waiver of federal testing and accountability requirements for 2020-21. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Did you know that high schools are legally required to offer students who will be age 18 by election day the opportunity to register to vote? In Texas, students may register to vote at 17 years 10 months. Students can print, fill out, and mail in an application obtained from VoteTexas.gov or fill out a voter registration application online and have it mailed to them.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals has partnered with dosomething.org to create the “Democracy Powered by (You)th” voter registration competition. By doing things like racking up voter registrations, students can win scholarships, school grants, and trophies. Pace High School in Brownsville, TX is currently in third place!



Today we remember the tragic events of September 11, 2001. On that day, some of our members were in the classroom as teachers, while others were still just students themselves. On this Patriot Day, we honor the lives lost that day and the heroic efforts by first responders, service members, and citizens who risked their lives that day and in the aftermath of the tragedy. We will never forget.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 4, 2020

This weekend we celebrate Labor Day in America. The essential work of public education has never been more prominent, and ATPE thanks all educators and staff for their service! Here is a summary of this week’s education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: This week, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) launched “Project Restore”– a six-part webinar series that provides trauma-informed mental health training to teachers. The training is meant to help teachers not only reach their students, but also work out their own COVID-induced stresses. TEA also made several smaller updates to other aspects of its COVID-19 resource page. Read ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier’s blog post for more.

ATPE has been working hard to facilitate information-sharing during the pandemic. Be sure to check out our COVID-19 FAQs and Resources for new answers to commonly asked questions, watch our easy-to-understand webcasts on educator rights and leave options and disability accommodations, and explore our interactive pandemic timeline. For opportunities to take action, ATPE members can use Advocacy Central to communicate with elected officials, and anyone can take our survey on parent-teacher collaboration.


ELECTION UPDATE: H-E-B grocery store owner and public education advocate Charles Butt wrote  to the Texas Supreme Court this week, supporting Harris County’s decision to send vote-by-mail applications to its residents. Butt says in the letter, “It’s always been my impression that the more people who vote, the stronger our democracy will be.” For more on the letter and the Texas Senate District 30 special election on September 29, see this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


States and schools should not expect a federal waiver of testing requirements this year, according to President Trump’s education secretary. Betsy DeVos wrote a letter to chief state school officers on Wednesday with this warning, urging them to demonstrate their “resolve” by continuing to administer standardized tests to students. ATPE is among countless organizations that have called for a waiver of testing requirements this year amid lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more in this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.


With more Texans considering mail-in voting for the November general election, ATPE has developed a set of tips and social media graphics to help voters understand what is required. Check out our new resources on applying for a mail-in ballot in this new blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter. Find out if you meet the eligibility requirements to apply for a mail-in ballot, and submit your application by Sept. 19 to ensure you will have enough time to cast your vote.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) held a virtual meeting this week where they received an update on the performance of the permanent school fund (PSF) and advanced a new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) subchapter on positive character traits, as required by House Bill (HB) 1026 passed by the 86th Texas Legislature in 2019.

According to Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff and outside consultants hired to help monitor the fund’s investments, the PSF is in good health and slowly recovering from the economic recession sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Focus has recently turned to management of the fund, which is split between the SBOE and another state agency. An outside consulting firm delivered a report to the board this week with recommendations aimed at improving management.

The board’s 15 members are scheduled to return to Austin in person on Tuesday for a week-long meeting that will address curriculum standards for science and health education, as well as whether to open more charter schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more about this week’s SBOE meeting in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


ATPE is asking state officials to take a closer look at planned education spending cuts that could unnecessarily hurt at-risk students. An article in the Austin American-Statesman this week revealed a summary from the Legislative Budget Board that shows how state agencies plan to cut their spending by 5% this year, as directed by state leaders back in May. The planned reductions in K-12 education spending for 2020-21 include across-the-board cuts to several state-funded programs and initiatives, although most of the education budget was exempted from the order to withhold funds. The Windham School District and Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs (JJAEPs) would see reduced funding this year, as would Communities in Schools programs that serve at-risk students. ATPE issued a press statement today urging state officials to consider more strategic reductions in this year’s spending that would cause fewer negative impacts on Texas’ most vulnerable students.

ATPE meets virtually with Texas Congressional delegation

Submitted by ATPE Contract Lobbyist David Pore of Hance Scarborough, LLP

Tonja Gray

Jimmy Lee

Newly inaugurated ATPE State President Jimmy Lee and immediate Past President Tonja Gray spent time in July joining me and the ATPE Governmental Relations team for a series of online roundtable policy discussions with key members of the Texas Congressional Delegation and their staffs.  Although perhaps not as effective (nor as much fun) as the annual state officer trip to Washington, DC, we made progress in our federal advocacy efforts and built on existing relationships with the delegation. Our goal was to provide input to the members who sit on the key committees of jurisdiction on the policy issues important to Texas educators, parents, and students. We focused our discussions on safely returning to school, federal COVID-19 relief funding for education, and the GPO/WEP Social Security offsets that continue to reduce the benefits of retired educators and other public servants.

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX 20) sits on the House Education and Labor Committee that has oversight over the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and how they spend the money appropriated for K-12 and higher education by the Congress. The congressman and his Education Legislative Assistant Kaitlyn Montan joined us for a great discussion of the challenges facing Texas educators, administrators, parents, and students as we work to return to the classroom safely. ATPE leaders stressed the importance of local, district-level decision making and the need for flexibility for school districts to be able to return virtually, in-person, or with a hybrid model where appropriate. The congressman agreed that federal money should not be used to incentivize one return model over another and that ED should not divert limited federal taxpayer money appropriated for COVID-19 relief for public schools to private schools or for the virtual voucher pet projects of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Rep. Castro committed to using his role on the committee to conduct robust oversight and make sure the department follows the law as Congress intended.

Rep. Van Taylor (R-TX 3) also sits on the House Education and Labor Committee and represents a North Texas district with over 4,000 ATPE members. The congressman’s Legislative Director Jett Thompson met with us, and while less enthusiastic about the need for strong oversight of ED, he did agree that Secretary DeVos should stick to congressional intent when implementing the COVID-19 relief bills, including in how taxpayer money is distributed to private schools.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX 35) sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and has been a long time cosponsor and champion for legislation completely repealing the WEP and the GPO. The repeal bills have never made it out of committee due to their enormous costs to the Social Security trust fund and the inequities that would be created for private sector beneficiaries. Rep. Doggett’s Legislative Assistant Sarah Jones met with us and informed us that the congressman does not support the more limited bill repealing the WEP that has been authored by Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX) or the version introduced by committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA). Surprisingly, Jones stated that Rep. Doggett did not support the Neal bill because it “is not paid for,” despite his long-time support for the full repeal bill that costs the Social Security trust fund much more than either the Brady or Neal WEP repeal bills. Although she did express support from the congressman on our position regarding how ED is spending COVID-19 relief funds, we let Jones know that Congressman Doggett’s opposition to the WEP repeal bills was inconsistent with his previous positions on the issue and extremely disappointing to Texas public educators, both active and retired.

ATPE state officers and lobbyists met with Rep. Jodey Arrington via Zoom, July 28, 2020, to discuss COVID-19 considerations and Social Security reform.

Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX 19) also sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and has emerged as a champion for legislation to repeal the WEP and replace it with a proportional formula. We discussed with him the partisan breakdown of previously bipartisan legislation authored by committee Chairman Neal and Ranking Member Brady that has now devolved into two separate bills bogged down and unlikely to move before the election in November. Tonja Gray relayed on-the-ground concerns about the return to school from Abilene ISD, which lies in Arrington’s congressional district, while Jimmy Lee spoke from his unique perspective as a retired career educator, statewide leader, and the husband of a superintendent. While we agreed to disagree with the congressman on his position that it is appropriate to use federal relief money to incentivize in-person teaching this fall, regardless of the health and safety concerns of the district, we expressed our sincere appreciation for his open line of communication with ATPE and his strong support in the Ways and Means Committee for addressing the WEP. Arrington also praised ATPE for its professional approach to working with officeholders, expressing his belief that the national union groups “are not winning anyone over” in Washington.

Unfortunately, our senior U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) was unavailable to meet with ATPE’s statewide leadership and the governmental relations team. Although his Legislative Assistant Clair Sanderson met with us, she was unable to commit the senator to a position on how ED is implementing the CARES Act and spending federal taxpayer money appropriated for COVID-19 relief for education. We also discussed the Senate companion to the Brady WEP bill that Senator Ted Cruz has introduced, which to date, Senator Cornyn has not cosponsored.

It is important for our elected officials at every level to hear directly from professional educators about the issues you face, such as returning to school safely, how our tax dollars are spent on education, and how federal Social Security laws affect your retirement. I am grateful to Tonja and Jimmy for taking the time to participate in these roundtable discussions. They both are outstanding ambassadors for ATPE and for public education as a whole. Thank you, Tonja and Jimmy!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 31, 2020

State officials released information this week that sends mixed messages to educators and school leaders, yet again. Read more about this and other developments in this week’s wrap-up from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: School districts around the state continue to discuss and revise plans for starting the new school year amid funding and enrollment uncertainty and with guidance from elected officials that has raised more questions than answers. As we have been reporting here on our blog, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) initially urged school districts to start the 2020-21 school year earlier to allow for extended breaks during the year. With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, TEA walked back that position in early July, suggesting a delayed reopening and offering districts a three-week transition period to move from virtual to on-campus instruction. On July 17, as several of the state’s largest cities were adopting orders that would attempt to delay a return to campus until COVID-19 cases subsided, TEA extended the allowable virtual transition period to four to eight weeks (with school board approval) and also said districts would continue to be funded if they were forced to operate virtually under closure orders from local officials. But this week saw yet another round of guidance from TEA and statements by other elected officials calling into question the validity of such local orders.

A new, non-binding legal opinion voiced by Texas Attorney General (AG) Ken Paxton and updated public health and attendance guidance from TEA on Tuesday only added to the confusion school district leaders, their staffs, and the parents of students are trying to sort through. The AG’s letter to a Texas mayor attempts to nullify local health authorities’ previously assumed ability to issue school closure orders in a preventative fashion. TEA updated its attendance and enrollment guidance the same day to reflect Paxton’s interpretation, warning that schools districts that offer only remote instruction based on local health authority orders (outside of the approved transition window in which instruction can be fully virtual) may risk losing their funding. Read more about Tuesday’s developments in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell, and read ATPE’s press statement here.

On Friday, a joint press release from Governor Abbott, Lt. Governor Patrick, Speaker Bonnen, Chairman Taylor, and Chairman Huberty defended TEA’s updated guidance, saying the agency has provided flexibility through various means and that it is up to local school boards to decide when and how to open schools. ATPE responded to the press release in a statement complaining about the unclear and often contradictory directives and stating, “ATPE reiterates that uniform, science-based metrics guiding reopening or closure decisions based on health and safety are needed right now—not shifting perspectives, platitudes, or power struggles.”

Knowing the frustrations that this back-and-forth causes for educators, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter told News 4 San Antonio this week it would be helpful to have consistent guidance from TEA. While the news about teachers and students returning to campus often takes the spotlight, support staff across Texas are also concerned, as the Texas Tribune reported this week. Cafeteria, custodial, and transportation staff face unique challenges this fall as they tend to be paid hourly, and their jobs, by their nature, cannot be performed remotely. In a recent CNN interview, ATPE’s Mitchell cited the need to add bus routes in order to reduce passenger loads as an example of steps school districts are finding it difficult to implement without additional financial resources from the state and federal government. Unfortunately, the ever-changing regulations communicated by state leadership make creating a safe plan, and sticking to it, difficult. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins sat down with Fox 7 Austin this week to talk about the issue, saying we are past due for local control guided by educators, parents, and public health officials.


This week Gov. Greg Abbott announced he has eliminated the requirement that STAAR test scores be used for fifth and eighth grade promotion decisions, a step in the right direction towards reducing the impact of testing in the 2020-21 school year. Additionally, according to TEA correspondence, only one test administration in fifth and eighth grade will occur this year. The change places educational decisions back in the hands of expert educators, who can easily determine without STAAR if a student is ready for the next grade. Yet more flexibility is needed. In an interview with NBC DFW this week, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier expressed that eliminating the STAAR tests in their entirety for the 2020-21 school year would save valuable time and resources that will be needed for remediation and helping those students who need it the most. Read more about this development in this blog post by Chevalier.


ATPE held a legal webinar on COVID-19 this week that included educators’ questions answered by ATPE Managing Attorney Paul Tapp. In case you missed the live webinar, you may view the recorded version to hear Tapp’s easy-to-understand explanations of the many issues facing educators during the pandemic.

Visit the ATPE COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page for constantly updated answers to common questions from educators. ATPE members can also use Advocacy Central to communicate with their elected officials regarding concerns about school reopening and other issues.


FEDERAL UPDATE: Republicans in the U.S. Senate revealed their new proposal for coronavirus aid and relief this week, which includes an updated education proposal directing two-thirds of $70 billion in K-12 funds to schools that physically reopen for in-person instruction. The remaining one-third would be split among all public schools. The legislative package also includes a separate bill that aims to instate U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s longstanding wish for $5 billion in dollar-for-dollar tax credits for a private school voucher system. The GOP proposal comes months after House Democrats passed theirs. Read more about Congress’s progress in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

The U.S. Department of Education this week announced winners for the “Rethink K-12 Education Models Grant” this week, which includes a nearly $20 million award for Texas. The grants were awarded based on priorities, the first of which was for states that opted to create “microgrant” voucher programs. Texas did not opt for microgrants and instead will use the federal money for its statewide learning management system and framework, announced to districts this week to include a free two-year subscription to Schoology.


ELECTION UPDATE:  President Donald Trump made headlines yesterday when he put out a tweet that suggested postponing the November 3 election. Many experts were quick to point out that the president does not have the legal authority to postpone the election; only Congress has that power. The suggestion drew unanimous criticism even among the president’s Republican supporters, who confirmed that there is no chance of the presidential election being postponed for the first time in American history. It’s also worth noting that mail-in voting is, in fact, a form of absentee voting; and while the primary elections revealed significant processing problems presented by record numbers of people taking advantage of the option to vote by mail, allegations of widespread voting fraud have not been proven.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) announced this week that early voting for the Nov. 3 election will be extended by an additional week. Early voting will now run from October 13 through October 30, 2020. That leaves three full weeks for early voting, which is intended to relieve crowding at polling locations. Gov. Abbott similarly extended the early voting period for the July runoff elections.

In the Senate District 14 special election, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) announced this week that he is withdrawing from the runoff against former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who finished first in the special election held this month. Rodriguez will retain his Texas House seat. Eckhardt will now fill out the remainder of former state Sen. Kirk Watson’s (D-Austin) term, which ends in 2022. Watson retired from the Texas Senate earlier this year.


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) held a special meeting Friday, July 31, to discuss rules relating to educator certification candidates facing challenges during the pandemic. The rules proposed for adoption will allow candidates to complete their educator preparation program (EPP) requirements for the 2020-21 school year in a virtual setting and will allow face-to-face observation requirements to be carried out in a synchronous virtual setting. After hearing testimony from EPP representatives during the past couple of months, the board voted to amend its proposal to include asychronous observations in addition to those carried out synchronously. Read more about the meeting in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

Governor removes STAAR requirements for grade promotion, but state leaders show no intent to waive testing in 2020-21

On Monday, July 27, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced that STAAR scores would not be required factors in determining fifth and eighth grade promotion next year. Additionally, students in fifth and eighth grades will only take their STAAR assessments one time, as re-takes will not be necessary. This is a welcome development for the upcoming school year, providing some relief of both educators’ and parents’ anxiety knowing that student scores will not be accurate indicators of learning due to the pandemic.

The sentiments provided by state leadership in Abbott’s announcement indicate that the state has no intention at this time to fully waive standardized testing, even as calls from stakeholders and state legislators have increased over the past month to suspend this year’s testing cycle. While districts are set to be rated “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster” for the 2019-20 school year, Abbott said in his press release, “The traditional A-F rating system will remain in place, albeit with certain adjustments due to COVID-19.” It is unclear what these adjustments will be.

Other states, such as Georgia and South Carolina, have already taken steps toward requesting a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) from federal standardized testing requirements. Based on the statements of Texas state leaders, who want to maintain testing for diagnostic and accountability purposes, Texas does not seem likely to make such a request from the federal government unless the legislature takes action on the matter in the 2021 session. Furthermore, Jim Blew, an assistant secretary at ED, told reporters last week that assessments provide transparency on school performance and that the department’s “instinct” would be to decline testing waivers.

As previously reported here on our blog, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has touted diagnostic benefits of STAAR when asked by other elected officials about seeking another waiver of federal testing requirements. Morath also highlights the fact that TEA has already extended the online assessment windows for STAAR and STAAR Alternate 2, allowing anywhere from two- to six-week testing windows for the 2020-21 school year. These optional extensions only apply to online test administrations and have not yet been announced for the TELPAS tests. TEA has also stood up optional beginning-of-year assessments that use released STAAR questions to test prior year content.

In accordance with a resolution adopted by our 2020 House of Delegates during the recent ATPE Summit, ATPE has been urging state leaders to suspend 2020-21 STAAR and TELPAS testing requirements. Because it may be left up to state legislators to take action on this issue, it is important that they hear from their constituents who care about this issue. Visit ATPE’s Advocacy Central (member login required) to share your voice with your elected officials on testing or any other education issues.

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

With the start of school just around the corner, it’s been another busy week for ATPE and the education community. Read about this week’s developments below from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: ATPE’s incoming State Vice President Karen Hames and Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell spoke on CNN’s Chris Cuomo Prime Time show Thursday night, July 23, to contribute their perspectives on school reopening. Hames and Mitchell stressed that teachers care about their kids and want to be in school with them, but that educators have concerns about being exposed to the coronavirus in a classroom setting. Hames shared reasons why school choice would not provide any real solutions to parents’ concerns about COVID-19, and Mitchell emphasized the need for additional federal funding and better guidance at the state level to help school districts prepare for reopening amid the pandemic. Watch video of the CNN segment here.

In other news related to COVID-19, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) released a long-awaited announcement this week that delays the schedules of 5A-6A conferences. Additionally, UIL shares that marching band practice in all conferences may not begin until September 7, 2020. Updates to TEA’s COVID-19 Support and Guidance Page this week included a new summary of the agency’s reopening guidance, several new “Strong Start” resources, and new CARES Act and attendance and enrollment information.

Visit the ATPE COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for constantly updated resources and answers to common questions from educators. ATPE members can also use Advocacy Central to communicate with their elected officials regarding school reopening and other issues.


This week, ATPE submitted formal public comments on the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) interim final rule directing how districts spend their CARES Act federal emergency dollars on equitable services for students in private schools. The interim final rule, effective July 1, 2020, is estimated to cause public school districts to spend over $44 million of their Title I-derived emergency funds on private school students regardless of poverty — more than $38 million more than they would normally spend under the longstanding interpretation of equitable services in federal law. ATPE’s comments urge the department to rescind its inequitable and distorted interpretation of the CARES Act, which goes against congressional intent. Over 5,200 comments have been submitted, but the department is not required to respond to them because of the emergency rulemaking process. Read more about the new federal rule in this recent Teach the Vote blog post. Read ATPE’s public comments here.


ELECTION UPDATE: Last week saw one of the most unusual elections in recent memory: A runoff postponed due to a global pandemic that proceeded to intensify in Texas as the new election date approached. Early voting was expanded from the usual one week to two weeks in order to reduce the load on polling locations. Some voters also took advantage of alternative methods of casting their ballots to avoid contracting COVID-19 at the polls, although Texas broke ranks with other parts of the country by refusing to expand the ability to vote by mail amid the pandemic. Despite the failure of lawsuits aimed at expanding mail-in ballot options, Texas saw a substantial increase in mail-in voting during this runoff election, which caused official results to be delayed by a few days but did not result in changes to any of the unofficial race outcomes revealed on election night. The July 14 election also exposed troubling voting issues that will have to be corrected before the November election.

With double the time to vote early, this month’s runoffs saw double the turnout over the primary runoff elections in 2018, 6.61% to 3.22%, respectively. After all of the debate over voting by mail, 30% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans who voted early cast their ballots by mail. That’s actually down from 36% of all early voters who cast mail-in ballots in the 2018 runoffs. Democrats had a huge turnout — nearly 956,000 voted in the primary runoffs, but comparable statewide numbers aren’t available for Republican turnout because there wasn’t a statewide GOP runoff like there was on the Democrats’ ballot. Party turnout in primary elections is not always an accurate predictor of turnout in the general election. But based on the turnout for a runoff election in July, in the Texas heat, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, it’s probably safe to assume that overall turnout for the November general election will be enormous. That makes researching candidates and making your voting plan for November more important than ever! See more election results in last week’s recap by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


CONGRESSIONAL UPDATE: The U.S. House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education met Thursday, July 23, for a hearing on the safe reopening of schools. The discussion bounced back and forth between the health risks for children and health risks for teachers and staff, with implications across the board for future funding to get schools on the path to a safe reopening. Get the full rundown on the meeting in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

While a proposal for additional federal emergency aid (dubbed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions or “HEROES” Act) was approved by the U.S. House several weeks ago, the U.S. Senate has now agreed on its own $105 billion aid package for education, which includes $70 billion for K-12 schools. The proposal would tie the K-12 funding to in-person instruction by sending $35 billion to schools that open for in-person instruction and splitting the remaining $35 billion among all schools, regardless of their method of instruction. The $30 billion for colleges will not be tied to in-person instruction, and governors will receive the last $5 billion to spend on either K-12 or higher education. The details of the proposal are expected to be made public on Monday.



After a week-long delay, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released updated guidance for the reopening of public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. The brunt of the new guidance issued last night, July 23, consists of justifying the push to reopen schools for in-person instruction. New items include recommending that schools group students and teachers into isolated cohorts or “pods” meant to limit in-person contact. There is also a checklist intended to assist parents in deciding  whether to send their children to school. A new mask guidance document suggests masks can be worn by anyone older than two years old, though some groups of students may need special adaptations and alternatives. Even as the guidance encourages reopening, it urges caution to those considering to do so in areas of substantial, uncontrolled transmission. Furthermore, the guidance recommends tying operational decisions to local epidemiological conditions. The guidance states as follows:

“Schools should be prepared for COVID-19 cases and exposure to occur in their facilities. Collaborating with local health officials will continue to be important once students are back to school, as they can provide regular updates about the status of COVID-19 in the community and help support and maintain the health and wellbeing of students, teachers, and staff.”

All of the CDC guidance documents, including the latest guidance as well as recommendations dating back to May, can be found here.


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) met today, July 24, to take action on several items implementing the Science of Teaching Reading exam requirements from last year’s House Bill (HB) 3 and to discuss COVID-19 considerations related to certification. Additionally, the board approved a proposal to transition Legacy Master Teacher certificate holders into lifetime certificates, as HB 3 barred the Master Teacher certificate from being issued or renewed. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier testified before SBEC in support of this proposal, continuing our months-long advocacy for a fix for Master Teachers. Read more about today’s SBEC meeting in this blog post from Chevalier and read the written testimony here.


SCHOOL FINANCE UPDATE: Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar created buzz this week with the release of his certification revenue estimate, which shows that the state faces a $4.6 billion deficit due to both COVID-19 and the largest drop in oil prices in decades. While some revenue sources have helped to soften the blow, including federal coronavirus aid and new revenue from online commerce, the uncertainties ahead will make the state budget lawmakers’ top concern in the upcoming 2021 legislative session. Read more about the revenue esimate and Hegar’s interview with the Texas Tribune this week in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.  

In other school finance news, Just Fund It, a non-partisan group of parents, students, and community members across Texas advocating for increased public school funding, has begun a petition aimed at urging Gov. Abbott to ensure stable and predictable school funding. Specifically, the petition asks the governor to extend the 12-week “hold harmless” period for calculating funding based on attendance as recently announced by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for the coming school year. The group presents a compelling argument for extending the hold harmless to cover the entire 2020-21 school year.