Tag Archives: vouchers

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.

Another round of federal stimulus inching closer to reality

Another round of federal relief money is one step closer to becoming a reality, as Republicans in the U.S. Senate on Monday presented their proposal two months after Democrats passed theirs out of the U.S. House of Representatives. With substantial differences between these latest two COVID-19 relief proposals, however, there is much work to be done to negotiate a plan that can pass out of both chambers.

The $1 trillion Republican proposal, dubbed the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act, includes $105 billion for education, $70 billion of which would go to K-12 schools specifically. However, two-thirds of that funding, roughly $47 billion, would only flow to schools that reopen for in-person instruction and would not be available to schools that only offer virtual instruction in response to high levels of local COVID-19 infections. Schools that delay in-person instruction for safety reasons could receive some of the remaining one-third of the funding that would be split among all schools, regardless of whether they open in-person or through distance methods. Similar to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed by President Trump on March 27, the new proposal also includes $5 billion for state governors to spend on K-12 and higher education.

Even though states would receive funds under the Republican HEALS Act proposal based proportionately on their previous school year’s Title I funding, states would have to reserve a proportional portion of the federal funding for private schools. Private schools receiving federal funds would not be subject to the same requirements under the GOP proposal as public schools. The new proposal does not include a requirement to provide “equitable services” to private schools under the new funding as was included in the CARES Act.

The Republican proposal also includes immunity from liability intended to shield school districts and businesses that reopen amid the pandemic from lawsuits by employees or customers who are exposed to the virus or become infected as a result.

Another major headline of the Senate plan includes lower monthly unemployment payments. Payments would decrease from the current $600 per week down to $200, which could be combined with state unemployment benefits for up to 70% of a person’s wages before losing their job due to the pandemic. Those unemployment payments, created by the CARES Act in March, are scheduled to expire this weekend unless extended by Congress. The GOP plan would extend the moratorium on evictions, a provision from the first CARES Act that has already lapsed, and would provide another round of stimulus checks using the same criteria as under the CARES Act. Each individual earning up to $75,000 per year would receive $1,200, and decreasing amounts would be paid to those earning up to $99,000.

The Republican plan is part of a larger package of legislation that includes a stand-alone voucher bill filed by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and cosponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would create a permanent program providing up to $5 billion in tax credits for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations (SGO) that transfer public school dollars to private institutions. This is a perennial proposal advocated by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in her quest to privatize education. The new voucher bill would also direct emergency education funding meant for public schools to SGOs for private use. Expansion of these voucher programs remains a top priority of the Trump administration and Secretary DeVos, as they continue using the pandemic to promote these proposals despite repeated failures to pass them through the Congress.

The House, under Democratic leadership, passed the $3 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act back in May. The House bill would provide $90 billion directly to education, including $58 billion for all K-12 schools. Unlike the Senate plan, the House bill provides a separate $950 billion in emergency funding to state and local governments aimed at preventing budget shortfalls that could lead to layoffs of teachers and other public employees.

The HEROES Act would also provide another round of stimulus checks to individuals, and would additionally raise the payout for each dependent to $1,200 up from $500 under the CARES Act. The bill would extend the full $600 weekly unemployment payments into next year, extend the suspension of student loan payments, provide up to $10,000 in student debt relief, and prohibit Secretary DeVos from imposing restrictions on populations of students who receive emergency financial relief under the CARES Act.

Each of these proposals represents the opening bid in negotiations between the two chambers and the Trump administration. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has expressed a desire to vote on the Senate bill before members leave for recess August 7. The Senate bill was originally expected to be unveiled last week, but was reportedly delayed amid ongoing negotiations with the White House, which supports the Senate’s proposal. House Democrats passed their bill in May, but Senate Republicans ignored it and declined to take action on another relief package until recently.

Federal relief for schools would come at a critical time as the 2020-21 school year begins. Regardless of whether instruction is being delivered virtually or in person, school buildings across Texas will once again fill with teachers and staff, necessitating costly safety protocols. Virtual instruction poses added technology costs to districts, which are already looking at potential budget shortfalls due to declining tax revenues caused by the pandemic-induced recession.

Texas is estimated to face a $4.6 billion budget shortfall by the end of 2020, and the 2021 legislative session is already expected to feature drastic cuts in state spending. Federal relief dollars would go a long way in reducing the pressure to cut education spending here in Texas. House Democrats, Senate Republicans, and the president all will have to approve any additional relief package from Congress.

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 22, 2020

As the 2019-20 school year winds down, state leaders continue to open Texas back up. While parents, students, and teachers focus on end-of-year tasks and COVID-modified celebrations, many education leaders are already focused on summer learning and how school will roll out next fall. This Memorial Day weekend, we hope our readers will get to take a much deserved break before starting the next chapter.


Gov. Abbott’s May 18th press conference

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Monday, May 18, Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference to announce the further reopening of Texas. Child care centers and youth clubs were allowed to reopen that day, and businesses were allowed to have a limited number of employees back in the office. Today, restaurants may increase their capacity to 50% and bars can open at 25% capacity. On May 31, day camps and certain professional sports (without in-person spectators) can resume activity.

On June 1, schools can reopen to students, according to the governor, but with enhanced safety measures and physical distancing requirements in place. As noted in this article from the Texas Tribune republished on our site this week, Texas schools cannot require students to attend in the summer. Districts can make summer school attendance a condition for grade promotion, but only if they offer a distance learning option.

In conjunction with the governor’s announcement about summer school, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) outlined health and safety considerations for reopening schools next month, such as taking students’ temperatures daily and having students eat lunch at their desks. These overlap with the more comprehensive CDC school considerations, which also emphasize using masks and direct school systems to train their staff, have a back-up staffing plan, and strengthen paid/sick leave policies.

For more coronavirus-related resources from TEA, click here. Visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page and follow the ATPE lobby team via @TeachtheVote on Twitter for developments on the response to COVID-19. Also, check out our recent recap of legislative and regulatory developments impacting Texas and education since the pandemic began.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) is attempting to respond to numerous questions about what next year’s school calendars will look like. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has spoken several times recently about flexible school years, urging schools to consider starting the 2020-21 school year earlier, ending it later, and building in flexible “breaks” to accommodate pandemic-related issues.

TEA’s new school calendar FAQ stresses that calendar changes are local school board decisions, but that the calendar is a “key lever” in addressing student learning loss, even if this causes financial strain on the district. Teacher pay and contracts are also briefly addressed in the new FAQ, which states that, “in most cases, a district can require its teachers to work the extra days if the district: 1) provides additional compensation under existing contracts that permit extended calendar/number of days worked flexibility to the teachers for the extra time required to complete the adjusted school year; and 2) extends by agreement the existing teacher contracts to address the extra time and any associated compensation.”

ATPE member and former Texas Teacher of the Year Stephanie Stoebe told CBS Austin news this week, “I could support us having longer breaks. I could support year-round school, but I definitely believe we need to be in the classroom.” Also featured in the story, ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell noted that difficult school calendar decisions involve considerations such as childcare arrangements and the potential need for more funding that some districts may not have. Read ATPE’s recent press statement about school calendar concerns here.


TEA released new guidance yesterday on CARES Act funding for school districts, which includes information about using federal stimulus funds to provide services to private school students and the ability of districts to use the emergency funds to supplant, not supplement, obligations in their current budgets.

Commissioner Mike Morath

As expected, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sided this week with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s interpretation of “equitable services” under the CARES Act. DeVos asked states to instruct their public school districts to use Title-I-based federal emergency education funds to provide services (such as teacher professional development and technology) to all non-profit, private school students in their bounds, regardless of income or student residence location. This interpretation differs from the long-established intent behind the equitable services provision in Title I of federal education law, which requires equitable services only for students who reside within a public school’s attendance zone located in a low-income area and are failing or at risk of failing to meet achievement standards.

Read more about the development in this Teach the Vote blog post.


ELECTION UPDATE: The on-again/off-again saga of mail-in voting in Texas continues, but appears to be off again for now. The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments this week on whether to expand mail-in voting in light of concerns about the spread of COVID-19. A state district court and appellate court both ruled in favor of expanding mail-in voting, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) appealed the rulings.

Also this week, a federal judge ruled that the state’s current restrictions on voting by mail violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and that all registered voters in Texas could apply to vote by mail. Again, at the request of Paxton, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed one day later to temporarily stay the expanded vote-by-mail ruling while it decides whether to substantively overturn the decision.

Read more on the dispute in this week’s Texas election roundup blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) sent a letter this week to state agencies and institutions of higher education asking them to submit a plan to reduce their budgets by 5% for the current biennium.

State leaders suggest cutting administrative costs that are not “mission critical.” The Foundation School Program, school safety, and employer contributions to the Teacher Retirement System, among other essential government functions, are excluded from the call for a reduction.

Looking ahead to the next two-year state budget that lawmakers will adopt in 2021, the letter from “the big three” leaders also warns of additional belt-tightening in the months ahead.

“Every state agency and institution should prepare to submit reduced budget requests as well as strategies to achieve further savings. Furthermore, when the state revenue picture becomes clearer in the coming months, it may become necessary to make additional budget adjustments.”


ATPE wants to hear from you regarding your concerns about returning to campus for the 2020-21 school year. We invite educators to take our short, confidential survey to share your feedback. Your input will help us develop resources and provide support for Texas educators and students during this uncertain time.

This survey is open to any Texas educator, so please share it with your colleagues. The survey may be taken only once from an IP address and will remain open through June 3.

Texas signals it may send federal K-12 dollars to private schools

This post has been updated from its original version to reflect new guidance issued by the Texas Education Agency on May 21, 2020. See details at the bottom.

Federal stimulus funding appropriated by Congress to help states and school districts deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic could find its way into the coffers of private schools and virtual education vendors. Even though public schools sorely need the federal emergency funding for their own students, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is calling for districts to set aside an unprecedented amount of their CARES Act funds for use by private schools. While other states have pushed back against that guidance, Texas officials seem more inclined to go along with Devos’s plan.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocated $13.5 billion for the K-12 Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund and another $3 billion for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund for K-12 and higher education needs. While both streams of funding are based to some degree on the number of low-income students, 90% of CARES Act funding aimed at K-12 schools will be distributed using Title 1 formulas. Second only to California, Texas is set to receive $1.29 billion in CARES Act ESSER funds and $307 million in GEER funds.

At the end of April, DeVos issued guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) directing school districts to use their federal emergency funding under the CARES Act to provide “equitable services” to all students attending private schools in their districts, which is a dramatic expansion of the population qualified to receive such services. As districts look to use these funds, questions remain as to whether Texas officials will press districts to adhere to ED’s questionable guidance.

“Equitable services” is a term that has existed in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) since its passage in 1965. It refers to a school district’s duty to a specific population of students — those who live in the attendance zone of a Title I school, are low achieving on the basis of multiple, educationally related, objective criteria, and attend a non-profit private school. After a consultation process and an equitable services agreement with a private school, districts must provide equitable services to eligible students. Services include such things as counseling, professional development for the students’ teachers, or other instructional services that would improve their academic outcomes. DeVos, a long-time supporter of private school vouchers, wants to expand the population of eligible students from those described above to cover all private school students, including those from wealthy areas or not at risk of poor educational outcomes.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

Under federal law, the proportion of funds districts set aside to pay for equitable services agreements is determined based on the number of eligible students living in the attendance zone of the public school district as a percent of total Title I eligible students. DeVos and her ED colleagues, however, have interpreted the CARES Act in such a way as to divorce it from the ESEA’s standard eligibility criteria for equitable services. The interpretation effectively requires public school districts to offer equitable services to all non-profit private school students living in the district. This includes private schools that have never participated in an equitable services agreement in the past. To illustrate the change, the ED guidance includes a simple proportional example in which 10% of the children in a school district’s attendance zone are enrolled in private schools, which would be eligible now to receive 10% of that school district’s ESSER and GEER funds.

The secretary’s privatization efforts are no surprise to the education community, which has witnessed numerous privatization and anti-public school proposals being pushed from the start of DeVos’s tenure, from partnering with Sen. Ted Cruz to promote his federal voucher legislation to her most recent call for microgrant vouchers using federal emergency funds. Unable to garner congressional approval for the Trump administration’s voucher ideas, DeVos appears to be circumventing the legislative process by exploiting perceived ambiguities in emergency legislation that was intended to help public schools address the coronavirus crisis.

An electronic board in the Texas House chamber showed legislators’ votes for a budget amendment prohibiting vouchers in 2017.

The decision on how to use federal emergency funds meant for public schools is now mostly up to governors, state education agencies, and local school districts. As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, ED’s parameters for implementation of the CARES Act give governors significant discretion over how their state will spend the stimulus money. There are fears that Gov. Greg Abbott will allow the state’s set-aside of federal emergency funds to be used for private school voucher or virtual voucher programs here in Texas. Such an executive action would fly in the face of numerous polls that have shown little appetite among Texas voters for private school vouchers, not to mention repeated decisions by Texas legislators to reject voucher bills.

We expect to hear soon, perhaps this week, more detail on how state officials intend to use Texas’s CARES Act funds. The Texas Tribune reported in an article published today that Texas will adhere to DeVos’s plan for making at least a portion of the stimulus money available for all private school students, according to the Texas Education Agency. Unlike the other states that have rejected DeVos’s guidance, it appears that Texas state officials are poised to direct school districts to adhere to the ED recommendation, or possibly even take state-level action to funnel CARES Act funds to private schools prior to sending the remaining money to public school districts.

Stay tuned to our blog and @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest as developments occur.


UPDATE as of May 21, 2020: The Texas Education Agency published new guidance on CARES Act funding for school districts on May 21, 2020. Confirming the state’s decision to abide by the direction from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to expand eligibility for equitable services, the agency explains in its FAQ document that school districts must use their stimulus funding to offer equitable services to all private nonprofit schools within the attendance zone. TEA adds that the district must provide the services, as chosen by the private school, to any of the private schools who opt to participate. Under this guidance, school districts would not be forced to send the stimulus money directly to the private school for its own discretionary use, but the districts would have to pay for services requested by the private school

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: May 1, 2020

If we’ve learned anything from COVID-19, it is that teaching is more than content; it is relationships. It is important to keep your friends and family relationships strong too. For more on what has happened this week, check out the latest installment of education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a phased plan to re-open Texas businesses, starting today with limited capacity at malls, movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants, museums, and libraries. Establishments are limited to 25% occupancy, although those in counties with five or fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases are allowed up to 50% occupancy. After two weeks, if there has not been a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the state will move into the next phase, loosening restrictions and opening hair salons, barbershops, gyms, and bars. Phase two could go into effect as early as May 18. One concern expressed by some Texans is that workers heading back to work in phase one are not considered “essential” and may not have access to child care, especially since Abbott has ordered schools to remain physically closed through the end of the school year.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) this week updated its main coronavirus resource page on educator support, academics, student assessment, special populations and waivers, finance, and grants. TEA’s guidance on educator certification and preparation answers questions mainly oriented to last week’s announcement that certain educator certification candidates will be able to apply for a one-year probationary certificate. In particular, candidates will pay the probationary certificate fee now, plus the standard certificate fee later, once they pass the required examinations. Candidates must also 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 an examination. These requirements include having a bachelor’s degree and submitting to a criminal history review, though candidates who have already been fingerprinted will not have to repeat that process.

Educators in some districts may be confused and even alarmed by renewed talk of end-of-year student testing. Even though this year’s STAAR tests were waived due to the difficulty of administration, and despite the reality that any test results gathered in the current environment would be unreliable, TEA is still encouraging districts to conduct voluntary end-of-year assessments. In addition, the agency will ask districts for another round of voluntary assessments at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. The agency wants these assessments for the purposes of gathering classroom data.

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.


FEDERAL UPDATE: The U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced this week that it will use some of the funding approved by Congress through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act for competitive grants to states that may used 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, has 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 use the CARES Act funding, intended to provide coronavirus relief, in this manner. Read more about the development in this blog post here on Teach the Vote.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

DeVos also announced this week that ED would not seek additional waiver authority from Congress on 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.


ELECTION UPDATE: We reported last week on a Texas district court’s ruling that effectively allowed all Texans to vote by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has now appealed that decision, notifying county officials in a letter today that his appeal prevents the district judge’s ruling from taking effect in the meantime.

By state law, mail-in ballots in Texas have generally been restricted for use only by individuals who are over the age of 65, absent from the county during the election, or suffering from an illness or disability. Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak issued injunctive relief last month to expand opportunities for mail-in voting, treating fear of contracting COVID-19 under the disability portion of the statute and noting in his order, “Time is of the essence.” Representing the state, the attorney general has taken the position that a healthy person’s fear of contracting the coronavirus does not constitute a disability and therefore does not entitle such person to vote by mail. Paxton also used his letter today to warn that anyone advising voters that they can apply for a ballot by mail because of a fear of contracting the virus through in-person voting may be subject to criminal penalties.

In other news, a new poll by Public Policy Polling shows Joe Biden (D) with a narrow 47% – 46% lead over Donald Trump (R) in Texas if the November presidential election were held today. The same poll shows a slim majority of Texans disapprove of the president’s job performance, with 49% expressing disapproval compared to 46% approval. Gov. Greg Abbott’s approval was higher at 58%.

Asked about their feelings regarding the coronavirus pandemic, 45% of Texans said they are “very concerned” about being around others. Another 33% said they are “somewhat concerned,” while 21% said they are either “not very concerned” or have “no concerns.”

A 53% majority of Texans said they are in favor of allowing all registered voters to vote by mail due to health safety concerns, compared to 38% who oppose the idea. Sixty-three percent of Texans said they are either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about voting during the outbreak, yet 88% answered they still plan to vote in person in the November election if voting by mail is not an option.

Most local elections originally slated to take place tomorrow were postponed to November. The runoff election for the Texas primaries, which also would have occurred this month, has been rescheduled for July 14. Check out ATPE’s election resources and candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote to learn about candidates running for office in your area.


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) held its first-ever virtual board meeting today, May 1, 2020. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier testified live during the video-conferenced meeting, conveying our support for options to address unintended consequences of last year’s House Bill (HB) 3 for Master Teacher certificate holders.

ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier

HB 3 eliminated the Master Teacher certificates and barred them from being renewed, which means that without action by SBEC, some Master Teachers may not be able to keep their teaching assignments once their certificates expire. SBEC expressed agreement today with ATPE’s position.

The board also voted to approve several proposals to implement the Science of Teaching Reading requirements of HB 3 and discussed effects of the coronavirus on educators. Read a comprehensive summary of today’s SBEC meeting in this blog post today from Chevalier.



May is National Foster Care Month. Did you know there are nearly 17,000 Texas public school students and over 437,000 children and youth in foster care across the nation?

Students in foster care are subject to higher mobility, more absences from school, greater rates of trauma, and are 2.5 to 3.5 times more likely to be identified for special education services. The adverse childhood experiences that children in foster care experience can make learning difficult, which is why it is more important than ever to promote awareness this month as children are separated from some of the only constants and love they may know: their school and teachers.

To learn more about foster care in Texas, view the Texas Education Agency’s foster care student success resources here, information from Texas CASA here, and resources from the Child Welfare Information Gateway including an outreach toolkit with shareable graphics and messaging tools here.


Social distancing is kind of the antithesis of teaching, so teachers are finding creative ways to stay close to their students. From reading to students at a safe distance in the driveway, to special signs in students’ yards and art lessons on the lawn, teachers know their students need love as much as they need content. ATPE member Victoria Norris of Aubrey ISD in northeast Texas shared on social media this week that she made mini cutouts of her Bitmoji to send to students, along with a fun and sweet note. Special actions like these remind students how much their teachers care and lay the foundation for engagement and learning. Thank you, Victoria!

ATPE sends our thanks to all educators who are transitioning to meet 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.

DeVos uses federal coronavirus aid to fund “microgrant” vouchers

As we previously reported here on ATPE’s Teach the Vote blog, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a longtime champion of privatization, has been advocating for federal funding of “microgrants,” a relatively new term for a voucher that could be used for private schooling. When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act in late March, which included an infusion of federal cash into an Education Stabilization Fund, it was at best questionable whether Secretary DeVos could use the federal relief funds provided by the act for her “microgrants” pet project. This week, however, it has become clearer that DeVos intends to use the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to circumvent congressional approval and plow forward with a publicly-funded voucher plan using CARES Act funds.

On the heels of last week’s release of the application for CARES Act funding, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) swiftly announced this week that an additional $180 million would be available to states under a new  “Rethink K-12 Education Models” or “REM” grant program. The department pointed to a provision in the CARES Act that allows it to use 1% of the $30.75 billion allotted to the Education Stabilization Fund for “grants to states with the highest coronavirus burden to support activities under the Act.” The department’s description of the grant program states that it is intended to “address specific educational needs of students, their parents, and teachers in public and non-public elementary and secondary schools.” The funding would flow directly to state education agencies, such as the Texas Education Agency (TEA) here in our state, without any requirement that the state agency send the funding on to local school districts. This raises the distinct possibility of CARES Act relief funds being allowed to flow from states to private schools or vendors.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

Because this is a new program, DeVos has applied a waiver to the REM grants that allows the department to avoid the need for a national public comment period on the grant proposal. The REM grant application package explains that state education agencies must use the grant money for implementation of “microgrant” voucher programs, statewide virtual learning, or other models of remote learning. Each state must also have the written approval of its governor, but it appears that no public comment will be gathered at the state level either.

Congress clearly intended CARES Act funding to be funneled to states that have faced the greatest challenges as a result of the pandemic. However, ED has announced that in awarding funds under this new competitive grant program, only 40% of an applying state’s score will be based upon its “coronavirus burden,” which takes into consideration factors such as the number of COVID-19 cases per capita. In a table provided by ED to quantify the coronavirus burden for each state, Texas ranks in the 41st to 60th percentile, behind 22 other states that could apply for the $180 million in REM grants.

Some members of Congress, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle, have been quick to criticize DeVos for using the coronavirus relief act to fund, without direct congressional approval, other priorities of the secretary and the Trump administration, such as vouchers. Through our federal lobby team in Washington, D.C., ATPE has reached out to our congressional allies to express our concern and opposition to this coronavirus relief program being used for funding either traditional voucher programs or virtual voucher programs. We will be closely monitoring Texas’ actions with regard to seeking this money either as a way to fund a statewide voucher program or statewide virtual schools, which have had a dubious track record on fostering student academic achievement. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates as developments unfold.