A big week for public education, regarding masks, vaccines, and school funding
Major pronouncements came out this week on masks, vaccines, and funding. Here’s the lowdown:
- Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded requirements for masks and capacity limits for businesses. With no mention of the impact on masks in schools, we stated that the ill-advised decision could throw school districts into chaos wondering what they could require. The Texas Education Agency came out the next day with updated guidelines keeping mask requirements but also noting that “the governing board of a school system may modify or eliminate by formal action the above mask-related requirements.” Texas AFT is urging all districts to keep mask requirements, and early indications are that most will do so.
- After spending Tuesday afternoon answering media calls on the governor lifting the mask mandate, Texas AFT heard the great news that President Joe Biden had directed all states to vaccinate all school employees at pharmacies—with the goal of vaccinating all educators by March 31. CDC guidelines put school employees in the first tier for vaccinations, but Texas opted not to. AFT’s insistent advocacy on the issue led to Biden’s directive. Texas AFT President Zeph Capo outlines the details of this incredible victory in a letter to members.
- More good news came Thursday as Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that the state would hold harmless districts for attendance for the entire school year. The hold harmless provision allows districts to be funded by projected enrollment for the year rather than attendance, which has dropped because of the pandemic. Without the provision, many schools could have suffered significant funding losses while still incurring significant additional expenses because of the pandemic. One concerning requirement is that districts must maintain or exceed their existing levels of on-campus students. While we are relieved to see the hold harmless, it makes no sense to hold districts responsible for whether students are on campus or remote, when the decision is entirely up to parents.
- The U.S. House passed the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion package of funding meant to come to the aid of Americans, schools, and businesses hurt by the pandemic. In addition to giving many Americans $1,400 checks, the plan would send $130 billion to schools nationwide. AFT has launched an intensive campaign to help the act clear the Senate, which is currently debating the bill. You can send an online letter to your congressional representatives urging them to support the plan.
- By a vote of 64-33, the U.S. Senate on March 1 confirmed Dr. Miguel A. Cardona as education secretary. After four long years of a billionaire lobbyist undermining our public education system at the expense of students and teachers alike, Cardona will usher in a new perspective as both a former public school teacher and a member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
Day of Action: Texas AFT members highlight school funding and health and safety
Across the state on the morning on March 15, educators and school employees will take part in a Day of Action, drawing attention to school funding and health and safety during the Texas Legislature. Normally, public school employees from across the state would gather at the Texas Capitol to advocate for our schools, ourselves, and our students. Given our pandemic reality, that’s not an option this year.
Day of Action: (Evening Edition) Texas AFT Members Highlight School Funding and Health and Safety
Texas AFT President Zeph Capo will lead members in an educational phone bank during the evening on our Day of Action. We will call members around the state letting them know that educators are now prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine and help them get signed up for an appointment. Join us if you want to make some calls to your fellow educators!
Survey shows strong opposition to STAAR
Some 97% of Texans surveyed are in favor of canceling STAAR testing this year.
State Sen. José Menéndez launched the survey to gauge support for and opposition to the test, and all categories of the more than 13,000 respondents—teachers, parents, and students—opposed the testing by at least a 95% mark.
House Public Education Committee hears from education commissioner
The Texas House Public Education Committee heard invited testimony from Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. Commissioner Morath’s presentation consisted mostly of updates on COVID-19 and the implementation of last session’s school finance bill, House Bill 3. Several committee members questioned the state’s usage of the STAAR test this year and expressed concern over what it will measure, fearing that the state will be collecting data that is greatly skewed by learning conditions and not a fair representation of what students have actually learned. Morath insisted that the test will help the state and school districts better understand learning loss and give parents valuable information on where their student is academically.
The House Public Education Committee will meet again next Tuesday to begin hearing bills. One to watch this week is AFT ally Rep. Jon Rosenthal’s bill, HB699, which would allow students receiving treatment for a life-threatening illness to be excused from being absent at school.
House Appropriations Subcommittee talks higher ed
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Article III met several days this week to focus on higher education. They took testimony from most major Texas university and college systems and the Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). The discussion and questions centered on how higher education was navigating the 5 percent in cuts required by the state last year and how they were working to keep enrollment up in the time of COVID (there has been a 3.7 percent decline in enrollment from 2019 to 2020). According to Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller, the largest drop-off is being seen at community colleges.
Good bill of the week:
HB 672 Armando Martinez (D- Hidalgo) calls for an ongoing cost-of-living adjustment for the benefits being paid by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. Identical legislation, HB 625, has been filed by Rep. Ana Hernandez. This legislation would require the TRS Board of Trustees to set the rate of adjustment for the next calendar year to equal the annual percentage increase each year in October. Rep. Sergio Munoz filed HB1124, which would give retirees a one time cost-of-living-adjustment next year. All three bills would provide retirees a much-needed raise.
$500 Disaster Relief Grant from Union Plus
Have you, or a union member you know, been affected by the severe winter storms in Texas? Union Plus Disaster Relief Grants of $500 are available to eligible members who have a Union Plus Credit Card, Union Plus Life or Accidental Death Insurance, Union Plus Auto Insurance, or Union Plus Mortgage. The Union Plus Disaster Relief Fund has provided nearly $1 million in assistance to union members facing hardships following Hurricanes Michael and Florence, floods, and other natural disasters. Learn more on if you qualify and how to apply.
The Corpus Christi American Federation of Teachers won a $21,000 Innovation Grant to establish a Wellness and Calm Room for educators at Zavala Elementary School. This week CCAFT President Nancy Vera and members presented the funds and kicked off a Drive-Thru Care Fair for Zavala students and families giving away books, healthcare essentials, and food boxes.
Supporting School Personnel Town Hall
Texas AFT members include school employees like bus drivers and cafeteria workers, whose contributions too often go unnoticed and whose needs too often go unaddressed. We want to support these invaluable workers and highlight their interests in our union’s legislative agenda. Texas AFT is working to make sure the voices of school employees are heard in the 87th Legislature, so we have invited Reps. Michelle Beckley and Terry Meza to join us for this important discussion on March 18th at 6 p.m. Register here.
TLEEC Town Hall Part 2: Assessments and Accountability
Members and friends of the Texas Legislative Education Equity Coalition are holding a series of three community conversations about how we can work together to strengthen public education, particularly for students of color. Part 2 will focus on meaningful assessment and fair accountability and on preparing all students for college readiness. Register for the free conversation here.
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 next Wednesday, March 10, 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.