Lawmakers move bills on transgender students in sports, redistricting, voting, and laundry list for federal pandemic aid expenditures
Now in its third week of the third special session, the Legislature pushed through legislation that would discriminate against transgender student athletes and further suppress the vote.
Last week Gov. Greg Abbott added a new item to the special session to increase penalties for illegal voting—including honest mistakes—despite the fact that he signed a bill less than a month ago that would reduce these penalties. House Speaker Dade Phelan signaled that he was not interested in taking up this issue during the current legislative session, but the Senate passed SB 10, which would increase the penalty for voting illegally from a Class A misdemeanor back to a felony.
HB 25, which would restrict transgender athletes from competing in athletic competitions with their own gender groups, was passed out of the House Constitutional Rights and Remedies Select Committee. In the past three legislative sessions, similar versions of this bill have been sent to the House Public Education Committee but ultimately failed to pass. The bill still requires approval from the full House before going through the entire process again in the Senate.
On Monday, the Senate approved newly redrawn maps redistricting the State Board of Education (SBOE) and the Senate itself. Both the 15 district SBOE map and the 31 district Senate map have drawn criticism for not fairly representing Texans. Although over 95% of the state’s population growth this past decade came from communities of color, the senate did not draw any new districts in which people of color would represent a majority. It was especially noteworthy that the Senate map, which drew out Democratic Senator Beverly Powell (D-Fort Worth), was supported by three Democratic Senators.
On Monday, the Senate Redistricting Committee approved a new map dividing the state into 38 U.S. Congressional Districts. Due to population increases over the past decade, Texas was allocated two more congressional districts. In the proposed map, 60.5% of the 38 congressional districts would have a white majority. The map also would redraw districts in Houston such that Democrat Representative Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee would now inhabit the same Congressional district, effectively pitting the two incumbents against each other. Both representatives are black and represent districts where the vast majority of voters are people of color. Both have represented their communities in Congress for over 15 years each. This version of the map faces a more uncertain future in the House.
The House Redistricting Committee also met for more than 16 hours this Monday to accept testimony on a new map dividing the state into 150 Texas House Districts. The committee revised the map and approved it the next day without any support from Democrats. The full House is set to consider its map on Tuesday.
The new maps create fewer districts where Black and Hispanic people make up a majority of eligible voters. Contact members of the Texas House and Senate and tell them to adopt fair redistricting guidelines! Join with our allies at All on the Line to take action.
This week the Legislature discussed plans to allocate funds granted to the state by the American Rescue Plan. HB 145 was heard in the House Appropriations committee and would appropriate $286 million to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS). This bill was left pending in committee. A similar bill, SB 8, was heard in the Senate Finance Committee this Thursday. The Texas AFL-CIO, with input from Texas AFT, announced a list of recommendations for over $16 billion in ARPA allocations.
The House Youth & Safety Select Committee met this week to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health needs of Texas youth and identification of effective treatment strategies. The committee received several hours of invited testimony from children’s mental health experts and public education officials but took no action.
AFT lawsuit settlement will put hundreds of thousands of educators on the path to student loan forgiveness
Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education announced major changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, finally addressing the serious problems AFT members have faced in accessing student loan forgiveness. The changes, in part, were spurred by a lawsuit AFT filed against the department and then-Secretary Betsy DeVos, who stood by doing nothing as thousands of educators brought complaints of unfair practices and broken promises.
This lawsuit settlement is a game-changing victory for educators, healthcare professionals, and public employees and will allow millions of Americans to discharge their student debt sooner, offering them increased economic mobility and access to opportunities to thrive.
Texas AFT has also taken the lead in our state by sponsoring statewide Student Debt Clinics training hundreds of members to get their loans forgiven and reduce payments.
Does this settlement apply to you?
If you have worked in public service for 10 years or more and made 10 years of payments on your student loans, you are likely eligible to have your debt discharged under PSLF. Even if you were denied PSLF in the past OR your loan servicer said you do not qualify, under this settlement, your application will be reconsidered. In the past, only on-time payments made on direct loans using income-driven repayment plans or standard 10-year repayment plans counted toward PSLF.
Here’s what is new:
The department will retroactively count your past payments toward your 120-payment requirement for PSLF, even if they were made on the wrong loan type or on the wrong payment plan. This means your loan payments WILL count, even if you made those past payments on:
Current or prior Federal Family Education Loans; or Graduated or other types of payment plans that did not previously count. Other types of payments, such as past rolling late payments, will also count.
This is a huge win for AFT members struggling with student debt. If implemented correctly, this settlement will help ensure that millions of people, including tens of thousands of educators, nurses, and public employees, will have their loans completely forgiven or be given credit for years of past payments, putting them much closer to full forgiveness.
The Bid en administration continues to work on implementation of these changes, with input from the AFT, to ensure a fast, clear, and simple process so public service workers can get full credit for the payments they have made toward PSLF and soon see a zero balance on their student loan statement.
What you need to do now to get help from the AFT:
- Sign up for AFT notifications now at Summer, an AFT member benefit that helps you navigate the loan forgiveness/reduction process. Scroll down to the enter-your-email-address box here and we’ll notify you as soon as you can apply.
- AFT members can sign up for a free account with Summer here.
- If you’re not an AFT member yet, be sure to sign up today here (Texas) or here (other locations).
Rules on contract abandonment, virtual observations, and CPE take stage at SBEC meeting last week
Contract abandonment rules
The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) last week gave initial approval to rules related to contract abandonment and the circumstances under which teachers may resign from an employment contract without penalty. Specifically, the rules implement HB 2519, authored by Rep. Drew Darby, to allow for reduced sanctions for educators resigning between 30 and 45 days prior to the first day of instruction. Patty Quinzi, Texas AFT legislative counsel, testified in support of the rules, which allow the SBEC to consider mitigating factors unique to every case.
After the start of the pandemic, SBEC implemented temporary rules allowing for virtual observations of educator preparation program (EPP) candidates doing their fieldwork. However, a law pushed by for-profit EPP providers now permanently allows for virtual observations in place of an in-person observation if the virtual observation is “equivalent in rigor” to an in-person observation. SBEC’s proposed rules for the law make no technical requirements to conduct virtual observations and ensure equivalence.
Patty Quinzi, Texas AFT legislative counsel, testified that the rules should be strengthened to require that virtual observations include the entire classroom in the frame of vision for the observer. This is critically important to observe a teacher’s control of a classroom and interaction with students. Student interaction with the teacher is particularly important to observe for those studying to be certified in special education or bilingual education. Virtual observations should include the requirement for observers to view the interaction with students during their fieldwork.
Virtual observations will not allow teacher candidates to receive valuable, live, in-person feedback from the observer in the same room. Unless there are substantial requirements that require virtual observations to truly be “equivalent in rigor” to an in-person observation, an EPP should not be allowed to use it.
Continuing Professional Education requirements
Texas AFT also submitted testimony regarding proposed revisions to CPE requirements for teachers. We, along with members of other education advocacy groups, served on a panel put together by the lieutenant governor’s office to review and reduce the amount of CPE requirements for educators. The compression of coursework is critical given the new requirements on teachers like reading academies, which have proved to be considerably more time-consuming than promised. After hearing from stakeholders, SBEC will return in December to revise these rules.
Texas AFT testifies against two crucial accountability rule changes for charter schools: ESL and Special Education indicators
On Monday, Texas AFT Legislative Counsel Patty Quinzi testified at the Texas Education Agency about the proposed Charter School Performance Framework (CSPF) for charter schools. The indicators within the CSPF are supposed to evaluate each charter school’s compliance with federal law, state law, state rules or regulations, and/or the charter contract.
However, the proposed changes strike program indicators for bilingual and special education populations from the operations standards. In other words, this CSPF focuses on school operations and not on academic performance for these two major student groups, which charters have a record of under-serving. Quinzi testified that rather than abandoning these student groups, the CSPF needs stronger indicators—including those ensuring teacher qualifications, and to hold charter schools (with no elected board oversight) accountable for properly serving these student groups.
Without a locally-elected school board to oversee charter school operations, there must be much stronger indicators in place to catch patterns of undeserving these students—many of which charter school whistleblowers have reported in the past. Texas AFT joined 20 other education and policy organizations in a letter to TEA with comprehensive comments and recommendations on the CSPF rules.
IDEA charter schools sues state to keep public records on extravagant spending hidden
IDEA charter schools sued Attorney General Ken Paxton last week to halt the release of records of its expense accounts sought by a local news outlet. The Progress Times—a publication covering the lower Rio Grande Valley—filed an open-records for those documents more than a year ago. In particular, it sought records for an IDEA executive paid $169,000 a year and, according to his contract, “the actual and incidental costs incurred by the Chief Financial Officer related to the bi-weekly commuting to/from California and/or as otherwise necessary, and the reasonable living and transportation expenses while in the Rio Grande Valley performing his duties for IDEA.”
While the attorney general agreed that some of the documents should be released—since the state funds charter schools with taxpayer dollars—IDEA stymied that order by claiming its central office in McAllen had been closed from July 2020 to June 2021. When employees returned to the office, IDEA still refused to release the records and instead filed the lawsuit.
IDEA previously faced widespread criticism for its extravagant spending, and this lawsuit is a prime example of an unscrupulous tactic used by charter schools—claiming to be public schools when seeking taxpayer dollars, then claiming to be private entities when trying to shield themselves from public scrutiny.
Department of Education finalizes $33 million penalty to state over special education services
The U.S. Department of Education last week made a “final determination” that the Texas Education Agency would have to pay back $33 million in grants after the government determined Texas broke a federal statute against decreasing special education funding. The department ruled that TEA, while addressing many of the deficiencies in special education funding and services, had not completed all the steps required to be in compliance. The ruling comes after a four-year dispute between TEA and the department involving hundreds of millions of dollars granted to Texas. A Houston Chronicle investigation first put the spotlight on TEA when it revealed a cap on the number of students eligible to be evaluated for special education services.
Department of Justice takes action on violence against educators, mask lawsuits
On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the Justice Department and FBI to launch an effort to curb an increasing trend of “harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers in our nation’s public schools.”
A task force will also develop training to “help school board members and other potential victims understand the type of behavior that constitutes threats, how to report threatening conduct to the appropriate law enforcement agencies, and how to capture and preserve evidence of threatening conduct to aid in the investigation and prosecution of these crimes.” The increase in threat to educators has risen with local conflicts over mask rules and irrational objections to supposed instruction of “critical race theory.”
Last week, the Justice Department also weighed in on legal actions against the state of Texas for the governor’s order prohibiting mask mandates in schools. The nonprofit Disability Rights of Texas had filed suit in federal court saying the state’s actions discriminate against disabled students by not allowing them to safely participate in schooling. The Justice Department filed a brief in the lawsuit supporting that claim.
Bridges Institute offers Mindfulness Essentials series
The Bridges Institute will be hosting the Mindfulness Essentials series via Zoom next month. The series started on Wednesday and will continue each Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., throughout the months of September and October. These free instructive webinars will help participants better understand their mind and emotions. CPE credit will be issued per hour of participation. Sign up for the webinars here.
In addition to the instructive webinars, The Bridges Institute will also host weekly practice sessions in which participants can take part in guided meditation. These sessions begin September 20 and occur on subsequent Mondays, from 6:15 p.m. to 6:45 p.m., throughout the months of September and October. Sign up for the practice sessions here.