March 8, 2024: Public Schools at the Polls

Header reads: Texas A-F-T. The Hotline.

Friday, March 8, 2024

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee with H-F-T President Jackie Anderson.

This is what democracy looks like

It’s been quite a week. On Tuesday, Texans went to the polls to vote in primary elections, setting up a muddled outlook for public education in the 89th Legislature next year. Yesterday, meanwhile, President Joe Biden delivered the State of the Union address, his last before he faces a re-election battle this November.  

In attendance at last night’s address were several educators and AFT members from across the nation, including Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson, who attended as the guest of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (above). Overall, Texas labor was well-represented, as Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy attended the State of the Union as the guest of Rep. Greg Casar.  

The presence of these folks, our union family members and ambassadors from Texas’ working class, was more than a nice gesture. It was a reminder of who our democracy is supposed to work for — and who it is currently failing.  

You’ll see that in our recap of Tuesday’s primary election here in the Lone Star State, where dark-money PACs flooded Republican races. And you’ll see it in a Newsweek article penned this week by AFT President Randi Weingarten, in which she writes:  

“In 2023, at least 14 states enacted 17 restrictive voting laws, which will be in effect for the 2024 general election. These laws range from putting new restrictions on vote-by-mail, banning or limiting drop boxes, and creating stricter voter ID requirements. Congress has yet to pass meaningful reforms to secure the right to vote and protect the integrity of our elections. If we care about our democracy and our way of life, we cannot sit idly by. 

Tuesday wasn’t the end of a fight for a thriving Lone Star State democracy; it was the first stretch of a marathon. Are you ready to lace up?  

In this week’s Hotline:  

  • Get the highs, lows, and whoa’s from the Republican and Democratic primary elections in Texas.  
  • STAAR exams are now quietly being graded by AI. What does that mean for educators and students? 
  • Here’s a riddle: how many private planes, luxury suites, and boutique hotels does IDEA charter schools need to buy to earn a TEA takeover? We finally have an answer.  
  • Which districts decided to implement Senate Bill 763 and its allowance of chaplains to act as school counselors? We now have that answer too.  

— Disaster Relief

Image reads: make a donation today.

Donate Today to Texas AFT’s Disaster Relief Fund 

Multiple wildfires in the Texas Panhandle have merged, forming the largest blaze in our state’s history. The Dallas Morning News reports that 1 million acres have been burned so far, and one person, a former substitute teacher, has been killed. Texas AFT is reaching out to members in the area to ensure their safety and assess any needs. Our union’s Disaster Relief Fund stands ready to help, but we rely on the generous donations of our members and their families to keep the fund healthy. Please consider a small donation today; all proceeds go directly to affected members and educators — of this disaster and future ones. 

— Elections

Left: Texas AFT members joined a Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation canvass for educator-endorsed candidate for HD 146 Lauren Ashley Simmons in February. Right: Southwest Dallas AFT members invited Aicha Davis, member of the State Board of Education and educator-endorsed candidate for HD 109 to a local union event in February. 

Primary Election Recap: Voucher Money Won Some Races. Vouchers Themselves Did Not. 

After facing decades of fierce bipartisan resistance to the idea of using taxpayer dollars to pay for private school tuition, school voucher supporters “in Texas” — more on that in a moment — emerged from the March 5 primary election claiming victory. But should they? Let’s dig deeper into the results … 👇

— Event

Educating Texas: All Organizing Is Local

Tuesday, March 19 

6 p.m. CT 

Texas has the eighth-largest economy in the world and a $32.7 billion budget surplus, but our schools are starved for resources. How did this happen? What can we do to fix it? Can it be fixed? 

Head back to school with Texas AFT for a brush-up on your civics education. In this bimonthly Zoom series, we’re walking through who holds the power in this state, what they’re doing with it, and what we need to build thriving public schools — and a thriving Lone Star State democracy. 

Our next session is Tuesday, March 19, when we’ll be joined by a diverse group of folks from parent, student, and ally groups to talk about important, impactful organizing happening on the ground in school districts across the state. Educators participating in this session can earn one hour of professional development credit.

Sign up for this and all other sessions on our Mobilize page. Missed our previous sessions? Watch the recordings on our YouTube page. 

— Standardized Testing

Computers Scoring STAAR Essays: Is Texas Sacrificing Quality for Efficiency? 

Texas Education Agency logo

Texas has quietly implemented a major change to the scoring of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams, a move that signals a concerning shift towards machine-driven evaluation and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in education. 

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) now uses automated scoring engines, powered by natural language processing and machine learning, to grade approximately 75% of student essays. While presented as a solution to address grading challenges resulting from the increased volume of writing assessments in the redesigned STAAR, which now includes essay questions at all grade levels, this change has ignited a fierce debate among educators deeply concerned about transparency, algorithmic bias, and the impact on both writing instruction and student learning. 

— School Counselors

Texas Schools Say “No” to Chaplain Counselors 

Despite the passage of Senate Bill 763, which allows hiring religious chaplains as counselors, Texas school districts have overwhelmingly rejected implementing a new chaplain program. Texas public schools faced a March 1 deadline to decide whether to implement the controversial bill locally.  

While an exact count of which of Texas’ more than 1,200 school districts approved the implementation is unavailable, on-the-ground tracking from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty notes just three small districts that approved the use of employed chaplains as school counselors: Angleton ISD in the Houston area, Paducah ISD near Lubbock, and Waskom ISD in far East Texas. 

The state’s 25 largest districts (which serve one third of all Texas public school students), along with many smaller ones, have decided to maintain their existing volunteer policies. This means chaplains can participate in school activities like any other volunteer, but they cannot replace qualified school counselors. 

— Privatization

Finally. After 9 Years of Scandals, TEA Commissioner Appoints 2 Conservators to Supervise IDEA Charter Schools. 

It has taken years of documented financial scandals by IDEA charter schools to finally force the Texas Education Agency to act by appointing two conservators to supervise operations. The public allegations of improper spending and conflicts of interest at IDEA charter schools, the single largest recipient of recaptured local tax dollars, started with a whistleblower’s complaint back in 2015. 

Since then, reporters have spent years documenting numerous IDEA charter school scandals after self-dealing administrators were caught misusing public dollars, like:  

— Solidarity

Texas AFT Joins Poor People’s Campaign Rally to End ‘Death by Poverty’ 

This past Saturday, hundreds of Texans attended a rally and march hosted by the Texas Poor People’s Campaign at the state Capitol. The rally was held with rallies at 32 other state capitols and the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C.

The coordinated events were intended to uplift the voices of economically insecure Americans and to demand that state legislatures take steps to end “death by poverty.” Happening on the Saturday before “Super Tuesday,” the coordinated events were also intended to mobilize millions of eligible voters from low-wage households before an important primary Election Day and in anticipation of the general election this November. 


Many organizations, including Texas AFT, sponsored and supported the Texas Poor People’s Campaign event in Austin. Two Texas AFT members also spoke at the rally: Phyllis Ruffin, a retired educator from the Houston area (top right photo), and Coretta Mallet-Fontenot, a teacher in Houston ISD (top left photo). 

— Immigration

Anti-Immigrant Texas Law SB 4 Heads to SCOTUS 

The Supreme Court has signaled its intent to weigh in on the contentious legal battle between Texas and the Biden Administration over Senate Bill 4, a controversial new law that vastly expands state authority over immigration enforcement. SB 4 is “one of the most extreme anti-immigrant laws ever passed by any state legislature in the country,” according to the ACLU of Texas. 


SB 4 criminalizes entering Texas outside of designated ports of entry and empowers state and local police to arrest and prosecute anyone suspected of entering the country illegally within the past two years, even far from the border. Individuals could face misdemeanor charges on the first offense and felony charges for repeat offenses. The law also creates a parallel state-level deportation procedure. If convicted of illegal entry under SB 4, state judges would be required to order a person’s removal to Mexico regardless of whether that person is eligible to seek asylum or other humanitarian protections under federal law.  


Immigration advocates and civil rights groups strongly oppose the law, warning it will lead to racial profiling. They also fear it could criminalize those fleeing persecution and disrupt the established federal process for handling asylum seekers. 

— LGBTQ+ Rights

Community Outrage Sparks Reversal of Keller ISD’s Cancellation of The Laramie Project 

After weeks of student, parent, and community pushback, Timber Creek High School’s student performance of The Laramie Project will go on in Keller ISD. The decision, announced via email on Wednesday, was a swift reversal of the district’s decision in February to cancel the production, which garnered national media attention and outrage. 

The Laramie Project,written by playwright Moisés Kaufman, centers on the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming. The district justified its initial decision to cancel the student production by saying: “The decision to move forward with another production at Timber Creek High School was based on the desire to provide a performance like the ones that have created much excitement from the community, like this year’s Keller ISD musical productions of Mary Poppins and White Christmas. The decision was a collaborative one made by many stakeholders. Students will still be studying, discussing, and analyzing The Laramie Project script at school.” 

— Survey

A-F-T children's health, safety and well-being

Educator Perspectives Needed: Mandatory Reporting & Support 

Share your perspective on mandatory reporting! AFT and the University of California, Irvine, are conducting an online survey to learn more about educators’ perceptions of reporting to Child Protective Services. Even if you haven’t reported to CPS, researchers are interested in hearing from you. Survey participants will be entered into a drawing to receive one of 65 Target, Staples, or Bookshop gift cards for $15. You can find more information and participate in the study here. Please invite other educators, as well.
Last year, our union launched an action guide on Mandated Support in Education. As we continue to learn more about what educators think and need in this space, we’re also excited to share information and resources. Please register for “The State of Mandated Support in Education,” Thursday, March 21, at AFT’s Share My Lesson Virtual Conference, where we will introduce new tools, including a guide prepared by the Coalition to Support Grieving Students. 

Recommended Reading

Texas education news from around the state that’s worth your time

🎧 The Voucher Scam Extra – The Voucher Fight Continues. It’s a new year and the Legislature isn’t even in session … but the voucher fight continues. When Gov. Greg Abbott lost the vote back in November, he promised to retaliate by primarying Republicans who wouldn’t vote for vouchers. Is Abbott making good on his promise? What kind of money is pouring into his coffers? (Mothers for Democracy Institute, Feb. 29)  


📖  SAISD to cut hundreds of positions in fall 2024 as federal COVID funding expires. The San Antonio Independent School District is cutting hundreds of staff positions as enrollment continues to decline, and the expiration of federal COVID-19 relief dollars signals grim financial headwinds for the next school year. (San Antonio Report, March 1)  


 📖 Houston ISD has hired at least 830 uncertified teachers for 2023-24 school year. Houston ISD has hired at least 830 uncertified teachers to fill vacant roles since being taken over by the state, according to district data. HISD announced in August that it was planning to seek waivers from the Texas Education Agency for the first time in at least a decade to hire uncertified teachers amid a nationwide teacher shortage. (Houston Chronicle, March 4)