Tag Archives: vouchers

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 23, 2020

Here are this week’s education news highlights from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


The governor has decided to use federal coronavirus relief funds to create a new voucher program for students with disabilities. On Oct. 21, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced the Supplemental Special Education Services (SSES) program, which uses CARES Act money to fund accounts for parents of students with special needs to buy education-related goods and services. The $1,500 accounts are strikingly similar to “education savings account” voucher proposals for students with special needs previously rejected by the Texas legislature. Abbott will use $30 million in taxpayer dollars in his Governors Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund for the program.

ATPE swiftly expressed concerns over the SSES program. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes said, “ATPE is extremely disappointed the governor has made the unilateral decision to spend our state’s GEER funds in such a manner. Not only does this action ignore the Legislature’s clear opposition to vouchers, but also it denies public schools access to this $30 million allocation. Public schools are better positioned to equitably and efficiently provide for the needs of all students with disabilities.” Read ATPE’s full press statement here and ATPE’s blog post on the development here.


ELECTION UPDATE: There is one more week of early voting in Texas, through Oct. 30. Already, Texans have set a record for voter turnout. Election Day is just 11 days away on Nov. 3. This week the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the Texas GOP in a lawsuit, deciding Harris County can continue using drive-thru voting locations. Read other election news, including polls and candidate fundraising analyses, in this week’s Texas election roundup blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

We celebrated Educator Voting Day Monday and enjoyed seeing the many educators who posted their “I Voted” selfies on social media. Let us know why voting is important to you by sharing your own photo or video on social media using #WhyIVoteTXEd and tag @OfficialATPE and @Teach the Vote. Find additional voting tips here, and don’t forget to check out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard shows an increase in the number of positive cases reported last week for both students and staff. Districts update their submissions as they are informed of positive test results, causing data delays. The updated data show that between the weeks ending in Oct. 4 and Oct. 11, the number of positive cases rose by 31.7% among students and 37.7% among staff. Positive test results are only included for students and staff who participate in on-campus instruction and activities.

As parts of the state deal with alarmingly high case counts and hospitalization rates due to COVID-19, some school districts are asking state officials for additional flexibility on when they must resume in-person instruction. ATPE has recommended and continues to emphasize the importance of using objective health-related criteria to guide local decisions on reopening school facilities rather than a one-size-fits-all approach or arbitrary timelines. Weighing the input of school employees and parents of students is also essential in the decision-making process.

As reported this week by the Texas Tribune, some Texas teachers been asked to return to school even though they had a previously approved accommodation. Find information related to this situation and more on ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQs and Resources. Here are additional ATPE resources:

  • Learn how to manage pandemic anxiety in this ATPE-hosted webinar by therapist Kathryn Gates.
  • Get answers to legal questions about COVID-19 and earn CPE by watching ATPE’s webcasts on our professional learning portal.
  • Use ATPE’s Advocacy Central website, exclusively for our members, to share your coronavirus-related concerns with state officials, including the governor and commissioner of education.
  • Check out our Parent-Teacher Toolkit, featuring a video on helping kids thrive in today’s world.
  • See the pandemic and ATPE’s response evolve through our interactive timeline.

When the coronavirus forced schools to close their doors this spring, state and federal officials wisely called off plans for the administration of standardized tests and school accountability ratings tied to test results. ATPE has been lobbying for a waiver of testing and accountability requirements for the 2020-21 school year. The ATPE House of Delegates adopted a resolution in July calling for STAAR and TELPAS testing to be suspended due to educational disruptions caused by COVID-19. This week, school board members in the Austin-area Eanes ISD passed a resolution of their own calling for Gov. Abbott and TEA to suspend the STAAR this year. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter spoke to CBS Austin Thursday about the difficulty of administering standardized tests in a non-standardized environment. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins also spoke today to KXAN News about the growing calls for a testing waiver.


 

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.

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.

ATPE urges Congress to keep private school vouchers out of COVID-19 relief legislation

On Sept. 8, Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate shared their latest proposal for COVID-19 relief legislation, termed the “Delivering Immediate Relief to America’s Families, Schools and Small Businesses Act.” The Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House have been deadlocked since May on negotiations for additional relief from the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) shared details of the new GOP proposal Tuesday and announced his intent for the Senate to pass the bill by the end of this week. However, amid criticism that the bill does not go far enough to help those affected by the pandemic, the legislation was considered highly unlikely to move forward, and a preliminary vote taken today in the Senate fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to proceed.

The latest Senate bill would shield businesses against lawsuits related to COVID-19 and spend $500 billion on initiatives that would include debt forgiveness for the postal service, additional paycheck protection loans for small businesses, partial continuation of enhanced unemployment benefits, and funding for coronavirus vaccine development and testing. Schools would be eligible for additional funds under the bill, too, but the Senate proposal reserves two-thirds of the K-12 money for schools operating in person. Unlike the most recent U.S. House proposal, states would see no additional direct funding that could be used to offset anticipated budget cuts in public education and other areas.

To the dismay of the education community, the Senate GOP bill also calls for funneling $5 billion in tax dollars toward private school voucher programs favored by the Trump administration and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The proposal would offer federal tax credits to bolster state voucher programs and fund private school tuition “scholarships.” Additionally, the bill would expand access to 529 savings accounts, typically reserved for college costs, to pay for private and home schooling. The voucher language in the McConnell bill mirrors similar legislation filed by U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) to subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling costs with tax credits and other federally funded incentives.

Responding to Tuesday’s announcement, ATPE issued a statement criticizing the inclusion of the controversial private school voucher funding in a bill that purports to provide COVID-19 relief. ““Congress should be focusing on helping our nation’s public schools that are dealing with unprecedented challenges,” said ATPE State President Jimmy Lee. “We cannot afford to divert our limited resources from public schools to private entities  during a global crisis,” Lee added. View ATPE’s full press statement here.

“School choice” in the spotlight as presidential election approaches

The 2020 general election is rapidly approaching, with early voting slated to begin in Texas just over six weeks from now on October 13. Now that the presidential slate of candidates has been finalized, the focus is shifting to the candidates’ views on particular issues, including some related to education. One education-related issue, in particular, is being mentioned frequently.

President Donald Trump said Sunday, Aug. 23, he will make “school choice” a top priority if he is reelected for four more years in the White House. The Trump campaign followed up the next day with a 49-point bullet list that broadly outlines things the president hopes to do if reelected. The education section states, “Provide school choice to every child in America.” During the Republican National Convention taking place this week, First Lady Melania Trump also used her Tuesday night speech to highlight the president’s commitment to “fight for school choice to give parents the option to have their school flourish.”

While “choice” is an enticing word, and there are choices of varying educational settings that exist within the public school system, the phrase “school choice” has been used by private school proponents to market the defunding and privatization of public schools. Whether described as “school choice” or with more specific verbiage, the goal has been diverting public taxpayer dollars to private and for-profit entities through vouchers, tax credits, school choice “scholarships,” education savings accounts, and other initiatives. All of these proposals are designed to deny public schools the funding they desperately need to provide quality instruction to all students and transfer it instead to subsidize private entities that are not subject to state accountability standards, taxpayers, or voters. For many years, ATPE members have included a position in our Legislative Program expressing our association’s opposition to private school vouchers or “choice” initiatives. Currently, the ATPE Legislative Program most recently approved by our House of Delegates in July states, “ATPE opposes any program or initiative, tuition tax credit or voucher system that would direct public funds to private, home or for-profit virtual schools.”

This is not the first time President Trump has expressed support for privatization. “We’re fighting for school choice, which really is the civil rights of all time in this country,” the president said in a June 2020 speech about police reform and national protests over the killing of unarmed African-Americans. That same month, Trump accused schools of “extreme indoctrination” of children.

President Trump is also not the first to attempt to market private school vouchers by invoking the Civil Rights movement, despite the fact that vouchers originated as an attempt to avoid desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Texas) made the same civil rights argument for school choice in the 2017 legislative session and blocked attempts at providing needed resources for public schools by tying their funding to a school voucher bill. It was the push for privatization and the failure to address school funding in 2017 that led educators to dominate the 2018 midterm elections, which temporarily halted the push for vouchers in Texas and paved the way for the 2019 school finance legislation, House Bill 3.

While the president may be showing a renewed emphasis on privatization, it is not a new issue for his administration. Trump appointed wealthy GOP megadonor and privatization activist Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education during his first year in office. DeVos faced criticism for her promotion of privatization in Michigan that resulted in a dysfunctional school system and the proliferation of low-quality charter schools. She has used her federal cabinet post to continue to push privatization, including using COVID-19 relief funds as an opportunity to promote private school voucher programs and to force public schools to spend an unprecedented amount of money on private school services.

As reported in in the Austin American-Statesman last month, Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden’s campaign has described his position on “school choice” as follows:

“Joe Biden opposes the Trump/DeVos conception of ‘school choice,’ which is private school vouchers that would destroy our public schools. He’s also against for-profit and low-performing charter schools, and believes in holding all charter schools accountable. He does not oppose districts letting parents choose to send their children to public magnet schools, high-performing public charters or traditional public schools.”

While ATPE does not endorse candidates, we encourage voters to learn more about their candidates’ views on public school funding and private school vouchers or “choice” programs. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and with the 2021 legislative session on the horizon, there have already been calls for expanding privatization initiatives right here in Texas. On Teach the Vote, we profile all candidates for the Texas Legislature and invite them to participate in ATPE’s candidate survey, which includes the following question:

“Would you vote to create any type of voucher, tax credit, scholarship, education savings account, or other program aimed at paying for students, including any subpopulation of students, to attend non-public K-12 schools, such as private or home schools?”

We also track incumbent legislators’ voting records, which have included votes on privatization bills in many prior legislative sessions. Use the search tool here on Teach the Vote to research your candidates’ views on private school vouchers and other education issues ahead of the November 3 election.

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.