March 22, 2021: Now it’s 3 feet; Take Action on power grab for charter schools; Texas to gain billions…stop the swap and invest in public ed

Educators from across the state use spring break day to urge continued investment in public education

Vaccine phone banks reach out to school employees

Three teachers with signs in front of State Capitol

School employees from more than a dozen local unions, as well as members from across the Associate Membership Program, participated in the Texas AFT Day of Action last Monday with car caravans, park rallies, webinars, and vaccine phone banks.

Our message to Texas Legislators was to stop money-wasting pursuits such as STAAR, and instead ensuring our investments in public education from 2019 are maintained and the billions of dollars in federal stimulus money go directly to our schools. You can see some of the media and social media from the events on our website.

Hundreds of Texas AFT staffers and members also joined online phone banks to call school employees across the state to ensure they have been scheduled for vaccine appointments and to assist them if they hadn’t. A first step in locating vaccine appointments is searching vaccinefinder.org.

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Stop the Swap: don’t let the state take federal funding intended for schools

three legged stoolTexas AFT is calling on state officials and legislators to ensure $12.4 billion in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan stimulus package go where intended: directly to school districts trying to recover from the added costs of the pandemic and prepare for the next school year. “The 12.4 billion in federal funding needs to be distributed directly to districts to help them recover now and thrive next fall,” said Zeph Capo, Texas AFT president.

Texas chose to supplant the $1.3 billion in Cares Act funding to schools last spring—meaning it used those dollars to plug existing holes in the state budget instead of sending new funding to school districts. The nonprofit education advocacy group, Raise Your Hand Texas, views full recovery for schools as a three-legged stool: maintaining the school finance investment of HB 3 from 2019, keeping the “hold harmless” provision funding districts on projected enrollment instead of attendance, and ensuring the stimulus money flows to our schools.

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Action Alert: Don’t Give Charter Schools Free Rein in Texas


House Bill 1348, which passed out of committee last week, would severely restrict — if not outright eliminate—the role our elected officials play in decisions on the locations of charter school campuses.

We need your help to stop this bill in its tracks. Can you send a letter to your state representatives?

Unlike public school districts, charter schools are run by self-selected, often out-of-state boards. And those boards can decide on new charter campuses with zero community input. No bond elections. No board of trustees elections. And, with HB 1348, no restrictions.

Rather than empowering cities, counties, and local officials, lawmakers in Austin want to send more power to a third-party school system. Send a letter to your legislators and tell them to OPPOSE House Bill 1348 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 487.

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CDC updates guidelines on distancing in schools

Zeph Capo quoteThe CDC updated its guidelines for schools on Friday to advise that “at least 3 feet” (instead of 6 feet) between students in a classroom would be acceptable in many situations, although the guidelines still encourage as much distancing as possible.

  • Texas Education Guidance continually waffled over distancing and other safety rules, noting that they should be implemented when “feasible” and that districts should “consider” other protocols. So many Texas students already are spaced at 3 feet.

Texas AFT President Zeph Capo responded to the changes Friday by stating: “This is a worrisome distraction. We need to concentrate on ways for our state and districts to make it truly safe to send kids and teachers into a school—lifting mask requirements and trying to squeeze more kids in a class is not going to do that.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten stated: “Until today, the literature on reducing distancing has been inconclusive at best and misleading at worst. The studies so far have often approached distancing in a vacuum, without measuring the effect of changes to other mitigation strategies, including masking.”

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Legislative Update:

In the House
The House Public Education Committee met Tuesday for bill hearings. Bills supported by Texas AFT include:

  • House Bill (HB) 129 by Mary González (D-Clint) would include civics education in the 6th-grade social studies curriculum. As originally filed, the bill called for adding digital citizenship to the high school graduation requirements. González presented a committee substitute version of the bill that instead moves that curriculum down to lower grades.
  • HB 725 by Jared Patterson (R-Frisco) would add children who were in foster care in another state or territory to be eligible for prekindergarten in Texas.
  • HB 1603 by Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) would remove the expiration date from the law providing for individual graduation committees so that they can continue to be an option for students in perpetuity.

The committee also passed bills heard during previous hearings, including:

  • HB 690 by Will Metcalf (R-Conroe) would require school board members to take a course on school safety created by the Texas School Safety Center and the State Board of Education.
  • HB 773 by Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) would add an indicator into the school accountability system for students who successfully complete a program of study in career and technical education (CTE).
  • HB 1147 by Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) would add students who enlist in the Texas National Guard to the definition of military readiness, which is part of the College, Career, and Military Readiness Outcomes Bonus authorized last session.

Texas AFT supported HB 1552 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) heard in the Pensions, Investments & Financial Services Committee on Wednesday. The bill would waive the TRS contribution fee that school districts must cover when rehiring a retired school district employee if that employee comes back to work as a full-time bus driver.

On Tuesday, the House Public Education Committee is scheduled to hear several good bills by friendly lawmakers that cover protections for teacher certifications, individual graduation committees, and mental health services.

  • View the archived broadcast of the hearing (March 16, House Public Education Committee, two parts).

In the Senate
The Senate Education Committee met Thursday for the first time this session and heard from Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who discussed more than $17 billion in federal funds that TEA has that are supposed to become available to our schools. Alarmingly, during a discussion with Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), Morath indicated he would like to use some of these federal funds to further expand the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA), the merit pay provision created last session. Texas AFT continues to have grave concerns about how the program effectively ties pay to standardized test scores.

Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) pressed the commissioner about why the STAAR test is needed now, when the millions spent on it could be better used elsewhere and when teachers already have tools that inform them on their students’ performance. Notably, Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) raised the point that although many children have to rely on virtual education right now, there is no substitution for face-to-face instruction with a qualified educator, who Schwertner thinks should be paid more.

Texas AFT supported the following bills:

  • SB 89 by Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) would require a written supplement to a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) detailing whether a full evaluation was completed in the 2019-2020 school year or the 2020-2021 school year, whether or not the services available to the student were interrupted, reduced, delayed, suspended, or discontinued. The bill expires in 2023.
  • SB 178 by Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) would gradually create a student-to-counselor ratio of 300:1 in all schools within districts with a student enrollment of 300 or more students. Current law requires a ratio of 500:1 students to counselors, and only in elementary grades.
  • SB 179 by Sen Eddie Lucio, Jr. would require districts to adopt a policy requiring counselors to spend at least 80% of total work time on duties that are components of the statutorily mandated counseling program. This would exclude time spent administering assessment instruments.

We opposed SB 442 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) because it would take sexuality education curriculum out of the hands of subject matter experts and would politicize the process. The bill would require school boards to appoint all School Health Advisory Committee (SHAC) members. The SHAC would then be required to adopt a policy establishing the process for adopting curriculum or curriculum materials for the district’s human sexuality instruction, including a provision allowing for public comment.

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Local Leader Spotlight: Rena Honea, president of Alliance-AFT in Dallas

Rena Honea is a Dallas ISD graduate who now serves as president of Alliance-AFT local union,Rena Honea which represents some 5,000 members in Dallas ISD. In our Local Leader Spotlight, she explains what makes her job meaningful:

“It’s important to me because over the years I’ve seen the education field change because we have non-educators trying to dictate what happens in classrooms, schools, and universities in a business way. They don’t understand education, child development, or all the things that go into teaching and learning that make it such a great experience.”

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Good bills of the week:

Jessica GonzalezWe can continue our weekly series of good bills filed by legislators, many of whom you helped to victory at the polls last November. These legislators are helping achieve Texas AFT’s legislative agenda by demonstrating that they prioritize educators and students.

Two great examples include House Bill 4483 by Rep. Jessica Gonzales (D-Dallas) and its Senate companion, SB 1789 by Roland Gutierrez (D- San Antonio), would require school districts’ employee contracts to define educators’ workday to not be longer than 510 minutes during each day of service. This breaks down to an 8.5-hour workday and sets a reasonable standard for the time educators are expected to be on the clock.


Education Briefs

Ruling keeps injunction against state takeover of Houston ISD
The Texas Supreme Court affirmed Friday that an appellate court could maintain an injunction temporarily stopping the state from removing the Houston ISD’s School Board and replacing it with a Texas Education Agency Board of Managers. The ruling is by no means a final say on the matter, and the Houston ISD lawsuit against the state will continue. Read the Houston Federation of Teachers statement on the ruling.

TEA report reveals bogus claims from charter chains’ ‘waitlists’
In the past, the charter industry often claimed there were anywhere between 150,000 to 200,000 students on a “waitlist” they maintained and used this number to argue for even more state dollars for a duplicate education system—one that is more costly than real public schools and lacks any voter accountability.

A new law required TEA to request waitlist information from charters and found only 55,000 on this self-reported “waitlist.” The numbers still seem inflated considering the millions that charter schools spend on television advertising (including Super Bowl and World Series ads), glossy mailers, and even billboards on IH-35 trying to attract students.

Morath responds to lawmakers on STAAR opt-out request
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath finally responded to a February 8 letter from 68 House members asking the commissioner to develop a process for parents to opt-out their students from the STAAR exam. Morath’s March 9 reply notes that state and federal laws require testing and that the U.S. Department of Education, while giving increased flexibility, is still requiring testing in certain subject areas this spring. (The House members wrote their letter before the federal government made that determination.)

Morath continues to weave the myth that STAAR is instrumental in helping teachers assess their students, as he writes: “Teachers need information on how students are doing relative to a consistent set of state standards, which is hard for individual classroom assessments or even entire courses to do, given all the other factors teachers must take into account when evaluating student work (e.g., effort, completion, etc.).”

TRS trustee election underway”
Ballots went out last week for the Teacher Retirement System of Texas election for the public education employee position on the Board of Trustees. The top three vote-getters from the six candidates will be submitted to the governor, who appoints his pick for a term from the fall of 2021 to 2027. The March TRS newsletter includes candidate profiles, and TRS members may vote online.


Events

Bridges Institute webinars on trauma-informed practices

The Bridges Institute for Professional Development invites you to attend our five-part webinar series on trauma-informed practices. Each session will begin at 6 p.m., and CPE credit will be issued for each session attended. The next session in the series will be Wednesday, March 24 (focus on support for grieving students), and the subsequent sessions will occur on Wednesdays throughout the rest of this month. Register for the free event here.

2021 Share My Lesson Virtual Conference
Registration is now open for AFT Share My Lesson’s ninth annual Virtual Conference on March 23 through 25. Be a part of the best online professional development event of the year for pre-K through12 teachers, school staff, and parents.

This three-day virtual conference features more than 40 free, for-credit webinars on issues that are top of mind for supporting students, including learning recovery, social and emotional recovery, civic engagement, cross-curricular instructional strategies, and trauma-sensitive practices. Register for free here.


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