Advocacy Blog

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The ATPE Government Relations Team is hard at work to push issues important for educators and public education in Austin and Washington DC.

Follow our advocacy blog (originally published at www.teachthevote.org) for all the latest education news and information:

 
September 26, 2020

By Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune
Sept. 25, 2020

The Texas Legislature eliminated straight-ticket voting in 2017. Photo Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Less than three weeks before early voting begins in Texas, a U.S. district judge has blocked the state from eliminating straight-ticket voting as an option for people who go to the polls this November.

In a ruling issued late Friday, U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo cited the coronavirus pandemic, saying the elimination of the voting practice would “cause irreparable injury” to voters “by creating mass lines at the polls and increasing the amount of time voters are exposed to COVID-19.”

Marmolejo also found that the GOP-backed law would “impose a discriminatory burden” on black and Hispanic voters and “create comparatively less opportunities for these voters to participate in the political process.”

She acknowledged the burden the decision could put on local and state election officials, who will have to recalibrate voting machines or reprint ballots. But she reasoned that the potential harm for those suing, including the Texas Association for Retired Americans, was “outweighed by the inconveniences resulting.”

The popular practice of straight-ticket voting allowed general-election voters to vote for all of the candidates of either party in an election by simply picking a straight-ticket option at the top of the ballot. But Texas Republican lawmakers championed a change to the law during the 2017 legislative session, arguing it would compel voters to make more-informed decisions because they would have to make a decision on every race on a ballot.

Most states don’t allow for one-punch voting, but its elimination in Texas met intense opposition from Democrats, who fear the change will be most felt among voters of color and lead to voter drop-off, particularly in blue urban counties that have the longest ballots in the state. In Harris County, for example, ballots can go on for pages because of the number of state district judges and other local officials up for election. Democrats worried that having to vote on each individual race would slow people down, causing longer lines at the polls.

Over the past four presidential elections, one-punch voting has generally proved more popular among Democrats in Texas’ 10 largest counties. About two-thirds of people who voted in Texas in the 2018 general election used the straight-ticket option.

Although the change was signed into law almost three years ago, a last-minute amendment to the legislation delayed its implementation until this year’s general election. The delay proved ill conceived for the majority party in 2018, when down-ballot Republicans faced a rout in urban counties where Democrats were aided by straight-ticket voting.

The Texas Democratic Party joined other Democratic groups and candidates in suing the state in March to overturn the law, but Marmolejo dismissed the case. Another suit was then filed, but with the Texas Association for Retired Americans added as plaintiffs and the state party removed. Nonetheless, Democrats celebrated the judge’s order Friday.

“Time and time again Republican leadership has tried to make it harder to vote and time and time again federal courts strike it down,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement after the ruling. “Texas Democrats will have to continue to win at the ballot box to protect the right vote. Until the new Texas majority wipes out these out-of-touch Republicans, Texas Democrats will never stop fighting for Texans in court.”

Despite the partisan split on the 2017 law, there was considerable uncertainty about how the elimination of straight-ticket voting would impact the 2020 elections in Texas. Some Republicans have privately expressed concern that Donald Trump supporters would vote for president and then leave the polls, hurting the GOP down the ballot. Democrats, meanwhile, worried that long lines in urban areas would deter their voters.

Multiple voting cases have ended up in court in Texas in the months since the coronavirus pandemic began. Democrats sued to expand eligibility for mail-in voting, but those attempts have failed so far. Meanwhile, in July, Gov. Greg Abbott added six days to the early voting period, moving the start date up to Oct. 13 from Oct. 19, citing the contagion. He is facing a lawsuit over the extension from members of his own party.


Federal judge blocks Texas’ elimination of straight-ticket voting” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

September 25, 2020

Here is this week’s recap of the latest education news from your ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Schools around Texas continue to tackle difficult decisions on reopening and whether to offer virtual or in-person instruction. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) slightly modified its COVID-19 guidance this week on attendance and enrollment, aiming to address some recent questions about school reopenings and remote learning options. Many school boards are deciding whether to request waivers from the state that would enable their districts to operate in a remote environment longer than the initial four-week transition approved by TEA for all districts.

The new TEA guidance indicates that the agency will consider granting additional flexibility based on metrics announced recently in Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan for business reopening. Specifically, TEA will “take into consideration” whether a school district lies within one of the hospital regions where COVID-19 patients make up more than 15% of all hospitalizations. While we appreciate state officials’ recognizing the importance of considering objective health-related data on COVID-19, as ATPE has recommended, new guidance remains vague and leaves the ultimate discretion to unelected state leaders. Read more about the updated guidance and how school districts are approaching the return to campus in this post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.

Last week, ATPE launched an anonymous member-only survey through our Advocacy Central section of the ATPE website that asks two questions about how educators feel their health and safety is being ensured. Join hundreds of other survey responders and share your responses by Sunday, September 27. Here are additional coronavirus resources from ATPE:


FEDERAL UPDATE: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reiterated her support for school choice and in-person schooling this week during a U.S. Department of Education webinar on school reopening. The panel presentation featured private, public, and charter school administrators who shared best practices on how they have reopened their schools this fall. Some of the strategies may be unattainable for the majority of public schools who need increased funding for pandemic-related increased costs. Read more about the presentation in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


A few upcoming events are scheduled that are geared toward educators who are retired or considering retiring in the near future. First, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) has opened registration for its 2020 TRS-Care virtual information sessions. These webinars are intended to help retired public education employees, or those considering retirement, learn more about the TRS-Care Standard and TRS-Care Medicare Advantage plans for 2021. They will also introduce the new providers that will administer TRS health plans starting Jan. 1, 2021. You can register for these webinars at trs.texas.gov/trs-care-events.

Next week the Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) plans to host two virtual townhalls on teacher retirement issues. The first townhall will feature incumbent U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) on September 29 at 4 pm. The second townhall will feature Cornyn’s challenger, retired U.S. Air Force combat veteran M.J. Hegar on October 3 at 2:15 pm. Find more details on the two events here.


The Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) are sharing with the public data on the prevalence of the coronavirus in Texas public schools. The online dashboard shows Texas public schools have reported 6,295 COVID-19 cases on their campuses. According to the data, 3,445 students have tested positive for COVID-19 out of 1,101,065 on campus. The agency reported 1,212 new positive cases during the week ending September 20, up from 1,046 new cases the previous week. The agency reported 2,850 school staff members tested positive. Of those, 660 were new cases during the week ending September 20, down from 859 new cases reported the previous week. The agency has not maintained a count of how many staff are present on campus at the moment.

It’s difficult to draw conclusions from this data. Relatively few students are on campus at the moment, and social distancing measures will become more difficult to maintain as more students return to classrooms. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes weighed in on the numbers in this article by the Houston Chronicle.

Jimmy Lee

RELATED: As schools deal with COVID-19 occurrences on campus and their employees’ fears of catching the virus, some districts are worried about finding enough substitute teachers. ATPE State President Jimmy Lee was interviewed this week in a story on CBS Austin about the concern. Lee shared his own experience working as a sub and highlighted challenges faced by rural districts . Watch the full story here.


A federal judge ruled Thursday, Sept. 24, that President Donald Trump cannot stop the U.S. Census count next week, ordering it instead to continue through October 31. This is the deadline U.S. Census Bureau originally requested before the Trump administration decided to shorten that window. You can read more about the court decision in this article by the Texas Tribune.

The census is constitutionally required every 10 years in order to apportion seats in the U.S. Congress. Many important decisions, including how federal funding is distributed, depend on how communities respond to the census. The census also determines how much power each state wields in Congress, and Texas is on track to add representatives if everyone responds on time. Read more about the census in this recent blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


ELECTION UPDATE: Today is the last day of early voting in Texas Senate District (SD) 30, where a special election is scheduled for next Tuesday, Sept. 29. This election is to finish the term of outgoing state Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), who is running for U.S. Congress.

Earlier this week we recognized National Voter Registration Day. October 5 is the deadline to register to vote in time for the November 3 election if you are not already registered. Click here to find out if you are registered and your information is correct, especially if you have moved. Early voting for every position from president on down begins October 13 and lasts for three weeks through October 30. Find more voting dates and reminders here.

Voting is the only way to ensure people who support public education are the ones making the decisions about public education. For more on who makes those decisions, check out this post by our partners in the Texas Educators Vote coalition. Also, click here to learn about candidate forums being sponsored by Raise Your Hand Texas starting next week.

September 24, 2020

Plans for resuming in-person instruction remain in flux across the state as many districts near the end of their allowed four-week transition period to move from virtual to in-person learning.

The latest Texas Education Agency (TEA) update to its statewide “Attendance and Enrollment” guidance reflects that some school districts may feel a need to request more than eight weeks of flexibility on resuming in-person instruction. “Any additional transition window will require board approval after preliminary TEA plan feedback has been received,” notes the TEA document released September 24, adding the agency will expect any district seeking additional transition time to be steadily increasing the number of students on campus during that period. But, despite assurances that the agency will take health-related metrics such as hospitalization data into consideration when reviewing such requests, the state’s decision-making remains discretionary and impossible to predict—leaving school districts grappling with how to proceed. ATPE believes this isn’t fair to administrators, teachers, parents, and certainly not students.

Since early summer, ATPE has urged the governor, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, and other state officials to use objective, health-related data as the basis for school reopening decisions that are made at the local level. While we are glad to see the state’s recognition of some data on COVID-19 infections as a valuable consideration, ATPE believes it is unfair to leave school districts guessing as to whether the state ultimately will grant them additional flexibility if they believe it is unsafe for students to return to campus.

As we have reported, Gov. Abbott announced last week an easing of restrictions on restaurants and certain other businesses, but the changes were not applicable to three areas of the state that remain “danger zones”: Victoria, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley. Gov. Abbott said further reopening decisions would be based upon COVID-19 hospitalization data in the area, noting that the hospitalization numbers remained too high in those three areas, which include 13 Texas counties.

Rio Grande Valley school district leaders have been pleading with the commissioner and elected officials for additional flexibility on resuming in-person instruction. Today’s updated guidance notes that when reviewing district requests for extension of the transition period, TEA will consider “whether school systems are located in whole or in part in areas” identified as hot spots under the criteria referenced by the governor.

ATPE issued a press statement today in response to the new information from TEA. ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell stated in the release, “ATPE is pleased that state officials are finally listening to our recommendations on the importance of basing reopening decisions on objective, health-related data. However, TEA’s promise merely to ‘take into consideration’ such data offers little comfort for schools being pressured to reopen their facilities before it may be safe to do so under local health recommendations.”

School district approaches to reopening vary widely. COVID-19 has not affected every community to the same degree, and differing political views about the pandemic have put pressure on school boards. Not surprisingly, many districts have revised their initial plans and may still be considering further changes. Several districts are announcing plans to terminate virtual instruction, while others are looking for ways to extend it. The shifting landscape and fluctuating directives from school district leaders have been frustrating for educators and parents alike, resulting in emotional debates on social media and in school board meetings. Also frustrating is the red tape surrounding the decision-making process: Districts seeking to stretch out their return timeline must first secure initial board approval, then submit a request to TEA for “preliminary feedback,” and then ask for another board vote.

A few examples from across the state:

  • Fort Worth ISD began its school year with four weeks of remote instruction set to expire October 5. Last week, the FWISD board voted 5-4 against a motion that would have extended the district’s remote learning plan an additional four weeks. But this week, the board held another meeting and voted 5-4 in favor of adding two more weeks to the transition period. The change came after educators and parents testified at the 10-hour meeting, with some circulating petitions and organizing rallies on both sides of the issue. ATPE submitted testimony urging FWISD to base its decision on local public health data, paying close attention to the recommendations of Tarrant County Public Health.
  • Hardin ISD posted a notice on its website this week stating, “Due to less than acceptable virtual participation and student results, please be advised that Hardin ISD will cease virtual learning on Friday, October 2, 2020.”
  • Louise ISD sent a letter to parents September 22 stating, “The effort required of our teachers and administrators will no longer be divided by the requirements of offering remote learning beginning Tuesday, September 29, 2020 … I am not mandating that your family chooses to return to school. Yet, I am suggesting that you make a decision that continues to provide the appropriate needs of your children.” Superintendent Garth Oliver lists “suitable” options for parents to consider: returning to school in-person, transferring to a district that offers remote learning, or withdrawing from the public school system to either home-school or enroll in private school.
  • Brownsville ISD’s superintendent has urged stakeholders to lobby TEA for more flexibility. The Brownsville Herald reported September 19 that Superintendent Rene Gutierrez asked the state to allow BISD “to continue at 100% distance learning so that we can ensure everyone’s safety,” but the district plans to begin hosting students on campus September 28 because of state limitations on the timeline for operating remotely.

Commissioner Morath clarified on a call with superintendents today that no school district is required to offer remote instruction, but any parent who wants their child to continue attending school virtually must be allowed to transfer to a school district that offers it.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among on-campus students and staff is being reported by each school district and shared via an online dashboard. There is a lag in the reporting time, however, and the numbers reflect only test-confirmed cases of COVID-19 among individuals who have been on the campus. TEA posted this updated FAQ document about the COVID-19 data reporting today.

September 23, 2020

The U.S. Department of Education hosted a virtual panel presentation today, Sept. 23, on successful strategies to reopen schools this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The live webinar opened with a statement from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos who reiterated her support for school choice by saying that parents need options more than ever during this time. DeVos also maintained her position that every school should offer an in-person option for parents who want that for their children.

Next, a panel of invited witnesses shared best practices in how they have re-opened their schools during the pandemic. Panelists included the following:

  • Sue Blakeley, founder and administrator of Lake Mead Christian Academy in Nevada, a private school
  • Shane Robbins, superintendent of Kershaw County School District in South Carolina
  • Jeremiah Newell, superintendent of MAEF Public Charter Schools in Alabama
  • Nisha Gupta, administrator and teacher at Homestead Montessori School in New York, a private school
  • Glen East, superintendent of Gulfport Schools in Mississippi
  • Frank Brogan, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Newell shared that his charter school, a specialty charter for students age 16 and older who have dropped out or fallen behind, is offering parents the option on selecting in-person learning, synchronous/asynchronous virtual instruction, or night schooling for students who need to work to support their families. He also stressed that sitting in front of a computer is not an effective form of learning for students.

Blakeley’s private school created a task force to bolster communication between stakeholders in her school community and consulted with an infectious disease expert regularly. Her school also staggered reopening and conducted “rehearsals” by gradually opening the school’s day care and early childhood facilities.

East said his public school district opened at 30% capacity and has since increased capacity to 100%. The district also hired additional instructional support staff so that there are two adults in each classroom, in order to support students.

Gupta’s private school simplified classrooms by removing furniture and marking the floor with dots. The number of personalized materials was increased, too, including some materials that the school 3-D printed and laser-cut on their own. Spaces were organized to isolate cohorts, along with scheduling changes, and experiential learning was moved outdoors. Teachers moved classroom furniture outdoors and a local Native American leader donated additional outdoor space so that students could learn in weather-proof teepees.

Robbins said his public school district was already an e-learning district and that the transition was a little bit easier because of this fact. The district created a task force that formed subcommittees made up of healthcare professionals, parents, and teachers. Robbins said responding to the pandemic has created an expensive situation, especially with the new learning environments and need to ensure health and safety. His district has partnered with local businesses to provide internet access to students and has created a COVID-19 dashboard to show the number of cases in their schools.

Several of the panelists said they created videos in order to best communicate with their families.

A few things come to light in analyzing these comments from school leaders across our nation.

  1. The pandemic is costly to school systems and has created new costs that should continue to be reimbursed by the federal government.
  2. Teachers are rarely included in the considerations and conversations engaged in by school leaders. In this panel at least, leaders did not express a balance of concern for their educators or share best practices on how to engage educators.

ATPE has continuously advocated for the involvement of educators throughout the pandemic. For resources and support for educators, please visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources. To share your opinions on back-to-school health and safety, ATPE members can visit ATPE’s Advocacy Central to fill out a quick two-question survey open until Sept. 27, and also use the communication tools there to share input with their elected officials.

September 22, 2020

September 22 is National Voter Registration Day across the United States. Are you registered to vote? When’s the last time you checked your voter registration status? Looking for voter resources? We’ve got you covered! 

First, the November 3 election is right around the corner. Don’t let it sneak up on you. Texans, be sure to mark these important dates in your calendars:

  • September 22 (today!): 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.

Visit votetexas.gov to check your voter registration status, download a ballot-by-mail application, find your polling location, and more. Do you have questions about voting by mail? Check out the “So, You’re Thinking about Voting by Mail” article on our Teach the Vote advocacy blog.

Below are a few more resources for Texas voters:

  • Have your students participate in Democracy Powered by You(th). Whether your students are eligible to vote or not, they can still lend their voice to the upcoming election and make a difference. Check out the first-ever Democracy Powered by You(th) voter registration competition, a multi-organization effort to build a coalition of youth voters.
  • Read our advocacy blog. For in-depth coverage of the upcoming election, including updates on key races and issues, read our advocacy blog at teachthevote.org/news.
  • Know your candidates. Information is power! Check teachthevote.org/races to learn more about the candidates and see how your state legislators voted on education issues.
  • Follow us on Twitter. For breaking news and advocacy insights, keep up with our lobby team on Twitter @TeachTheVote.
  • Check out TexasEducatorsVote.comThis website from our nonpartisan, educator-focused coalition offers a plethora of additional resources on participating in elections.
  • Prepare your ballot ahead of time. Use vote411.org to make a sample ballot to print out and take with you to the polls.

Don’t forget to share these dates and resources with your colleagues and friends. Only by coming together and acting as one voice can we truly advocate for public education! Make a plan, and vote for your public schools, your students, and your profession.

September 18, 2020

Texas is set to reopen further next week, just as most schools have started the new school year. For more on recent developments, here is this week’s recap from ATPE Governmental Relations:


Source: Office of the Texas Governor

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Governor Greg Abbott held a press conference Thursday to announce the further reopening of Texas businesses. Starting Monday, many restaurants and businesses will be able to operate at a capacity of 75%, up from 50% previously. Bars will remain closed. By September 24, designated caregivers will be allowed at nursing homes and other residential-type care facilities, with limitations. Hospitals can resume offering elective surgeries.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released official correspondence this week detailing the much-anticipated launch of a COVID-19 case reporting dashboard on the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) website. The data represent a statewide summary of all known, test-confirmed cases among school staff and students who participate in on-campus activities or instruction. Districts were instructed to report all such cases since the beginning of their instructional year and will continue to report every Monday. The website is expected to show district-level data by next week.

Don’t forget about ATPE’s frequently-updated COVID-19 FAQs and Resources, opportunities to earn CPE by by watching COVID-19/legal webcasts through ATPE’s professional learning portal, our interactive pandemic timeline, and Advocacy Central where ATPE members can easily communicate with elected officials about their concerns. Lastly, check out our newly-launched Parent-Teacher Toolkit, featuring a new video on the commitment required of parents who homeschool their children.


FEDERAL UPDATE: Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin), representing the 35th Congressional District of Texas, recently signed on to co-sponsor a Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) repeal bill, H.R. 4540. The WEP unfairly penalizes Texas educators and other government workers by arbitrarily reducing their Social Security benefits. Read ATPE’s press statement from last year in support of the bill and, if you are an ATPE member and a CD 35 constituent (find out here), send Congressman Doggett a big thank you through Advocacy Central here!


The annual Texas Tribune Festival continued this week with discussions focusing on public education and the budget heading into the next legislative session.

On Monday, House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Humble) and Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) spoke about what their committees will be grappling with when the legislature convenes in January. While both committed to maintaining existing funding under House Bill (HB) 3, they suggested the legislature is unlikely to do consider any expansion this time around.

On Tuesday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) and state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso), who sits on the subcommittee that oversees public education funding, gave a lighthearted preview of what budget conversations could look like next session. Again, the upshot is that legislators will be looking to craft a lean budget as the state faces a budget deficit driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and volatility in the oil market. Both Chairman Capriglione and Rep. Gonzalez sit on the powerful Legislative Budget Board. You can read the full rundown in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


What do you do if a census worker comes knocking at your door or asks you questions about your neighbors? With less than two weeks left until the 2020 Census operations end, census workers are trying their best to get as many people counted as possible. In this post, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier details what to expect if you encounter a census worker, where Texas stands in its enumeration, and why the census is so important.


The TRS Board of Directors met virtually this week for their regular fall meeting. Check out this post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, for a breakdown of TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie’s comments to the board, including a preview of the agency’s legislative appropriations request for the upcoming 2021 legislative session.


In light of a constantly evolving school situation, TEA announced extensions to key attendance and enrollment deadlines on its COVID-19 Support and Guidance page. The deadline for districts to submit 22:1 class size waivers for grades K-4 is now extended until December 1. The deadline for marking students as “enrolled” has also been extended by one month to line up with the October 30 “snapshot” date.

TEA also added other resources to its support page, including a new Operation Connectivity document that shares best practices for digital learning. The CARES Act equitable services FAQ has been further updated since last week to include guidance on how to calculate and allocate funds. A FEMA reimbursement update clarifies that the funds will only cover one cleaning that occurred in the spring and will not cover PPE. The Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM) will reimburse districts for 75% of 2019-20 coronavirus expenses, but the deadline to submit the application for reimbursement is September 30. In order to make budgetary predictions, TEA also plans to survey districts that are extending their instructional calendar, as the landscape of start dates is quite varied this year.

A new Project Restore training on understanding student experiences was also posted this week. As a reminder, the Project Restore trainings satisfies the Senate Bill (SB) 11 training requirements.


ELECTION UPDATE: The Texas Supreme Court handed down a pair of decisions this week that could have an impact on the November elections. One allows a handful of Green Party candidates back onto the ballot, while the other blocks a mail-in ballot application initiative in Harris County. The fight over these two issues illustrates the importance of every single vote in the upcoming election, since many races could be decided by a relatively small number of people.

In less somber news, the ABC network aired a special program this week, VOMO: Vote Or Miss Out. The program featured a who’s who list of celebrities offering a fun take on why voting is important. If you need to end your week on a laugh, check it out in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


September 18, 2020

Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas Executive Director, Brian Guthrie, presented his comments to the TRS Board of Trustees virtually today, the final day of the board’s fall meeting.

Since the last board meeting, representatives form Texas’ largest public trust fund have participated in the National Council on Teacher Retirement (NCTR) annual trustee workshop and the National Association of State Retirement Administrators (NASRA) annual conference. Both events were held virtually. Later this fall TRS will attend the NCTR annual meeting.

Conferences are not the only thing at TRS that has transitioned to a virtual format. To ensure the safety of its staff, retirees, and active members nearing retirement (the last two cohorts both falling into higher risk age brackets), TRS has been closed to the public and its employees have been working on a largely remote basis. Guthrie anticipates more employees and contractors physically returning to work in October and the agency opening to the public in January 2021. Guthrie reported that TRS members have been largely complimentary or at least understanding of the service they were receiving in the virtual environment. Additionally, TRS has implemented policies, such as virtual huddles, to counter the sense of disconnection that extended exposure to a remote environment can cause.

After briefing the board on these more internal issues, Guthrie turned to updates on the agency’s recent and upcoming interactions with the legislature.

TRS staff has been submitting a number of interim documents in response to legislative committee requests for information, which has been the primary method used by committees to collect public and agency comments in lieu of holding public interim hearings this year. So far TRS has presented comments to the House Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services Committee, the House Appropriations Committee, and the House Insurance Committee, and TRS will be submitting comments soon to the Select Committee on Statewide Health Care Costs. TRS is going through the sunset review process currently, and the agency will also likely participate in a Sunset Advisory Commission hearing in October. The postponed sunset hearing had originally been scheduled for April of this year.

In addition to requests for information, TRS is preparing to submit its biannual legislative appropriations request (LAR) to the Governor’s office on September 25. In working with key legislative and gubernatorial staff, the agency was instructed to include in its base budget request the planned increase in state contribution rates passed as a part of Senate Bill 12 from 2019. This is very good news as it signals the legislature’s intent to fund the $544 million increase in state contributions into the retiree trust fund.

The LAR also covers the TRS administrative budget. At 7.8%, the increase to the agency’s administrative budget is the smallest requested increase in the past decade. Unlike most other state functions that pay for administrative budgets out of either agency fees or state general revenue (tax dollars), TRS administrative costs are covered by the pension trust fund and make up less than 0.2% of the total pension trust fund balance. TRS will seek one exceptional item, a funding request outside of the base budget. That item is to seek blanket authority to cover costs associated with implementing sunset recommendations and bills related to those recommendations next year. One of the sunset commission recommendations relates to improved customer service, and if approved, this rider could allow TRS to hire more staff to handle increased call volume and decrease its on-hold times.

Video of the full TRS meeting and related board materials can be found here. The final TRS board meeting of 2020 is scheduled for December 9-11, 2020.

September 17, 2020

A pair of court decisions this week could make a significant impact on the November elections.

On Tuesday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that three Green Party candidates must be restored to the November ballot, despite a lower court’s order to remove them because they had not paid the required filing fees. The conventional wisdom is that Green Party candidates tend to attract some voters who may have otherwise voted for a Democrat, and their presence in a close race could tip the balance toward the Republican candidate. The Texas Democratic Party filed the original complaint to remove the candidates, while the Republican justices on the Texas Supreme Court overturned the decision.

Another Texas Supreme Court decision announced Tuesday blocked Harris County from sending mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters in the county. As previously reported here at Teach the Vote, ballot applications are not the same as ballots themselves. In the Harry County case, voters would still have to make the determination of whether they are eligible to apply to vote by mail, then fill out and return the application in order to receive an actual ballot in the mail. If think you may be eligible and are considering voting by mail, check out this post by Teach the Vote that explains the process in detail.

These decisions underscore the importance of every single vote in this election. These decisions are likely to impact a relatively small number of votes, but the reason they are the subject of litigation in the first place is an acknowledgement of just how close the November elections could be.

Now onto lighter topics!

If you watched ABC this week, you may have caught the network special VOMO: Vote or Miss Out. The comedy special hosted by Kevin Hart featured guest appearances by Tiffany Hadish, Michelle Obama, Tim Allen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other celebrities urging Americans to vote. If you need a little comedic motivation, you can watch the full special here or watch clips on YouTube.

The Texas Tribune reported this week that new voter registrations in Texas have plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The deadline to register to vote in the November 3 election is less than three weeks away. Voters have until October 5 to register to vote if you have not already done so in the county in which you plan to cast your ballot. If you’re unsure whether you are registered, you can use this tool on the Texas Secretary of State’s website. For more information about registering, click here.

September 17, 2020

U.S. Census Bureau

Recently, my family has encountered census workers who are trying to make sure our neighbors are counted by the September 30 census deadline. During a pandemic and an era of misinformation and distrust, you may find yourself cautious during such meetings. This feeling is completely understandable. However, armed with information and a commitment to helping others get counted in the 2020 Census, we can all work together to make sure Texas receives its fair share of federal funding for roads, schools, healthcare, representation in Congress, and much more.

A few weeks ago, I was playing in the front yard with my toddler when a census worker (who had been sitting in a running car for quite some time) asked if a “Nicole” lived in our house. I recognized the U.S. Census badge and other materials he had marked with the “2020 Census” logo. I replied, “No,” and he said that maybe they were at our neighbor’s house. I knew, however, that our neighbor had already filled out their census because we talked about it months ago. He talked to my neighbor, got the information he needed, yelled across the yard to me to tell me about how he hadn’t gotten to see his newly-born grandchild yet, and drove off.

The U.S. Census Bureau has detailed information on what to expect from census takers in your neighborhood and what to look for to verify their identity. And, here are some common reasons why those who have already responded to the 2020 Census may be visited by a census worker.

In another instance, my husband opened the door one evening to a woman who held up her badge and informed him she worked for the U.S. Census Bureau. She asked my husband how many people lived in the house across the street, if the house was rented or owned, and whether they were Hispanic. Soon, the neighbor in question pulled in to their driveway. The census worker rushed to their house, but, according to my husband, the neighbors quickly got back into their car and drove off. My husband felt uncomfortable about the encounter with the census worker, but the practice of using “proxy sources” to get basic information about non-responsive households is not uncommon.

According to a U.S. Census Bureau press release on door-to-door non-response follow-ups from the:

Census takers will go to great lengths to ensure that no one is missed in the census. After exhausting their efforts to do an in-person interview with a resident of an occupied housing unit, they will seek out proxy sources — a neighbor, a rental agent, a building manager or some other knowledgeable person familiar with the housing unit — to obtain as much basic information about the occupants as they can.

Some are concerned with the safety of participating in the 2020 Census. How will the information be used? Will it be used against me? This “Fighting Rumors” page provides information useful for educating yourself (and others) on how census data is used and not used. Most importantly, without an accurate count, especially of children, Texas risks adequate funding for essential funding streams that impact public schools, school nutrition programs, child care, special education, and much more.

One-third of households in Texas (roughly 31%) have been counted through the “boots-on-the-ground” efforts of census takers during the non-response follow-up (NRFU) process. Through these efforts, Texas is now just under the national average of enumerated households, at 92.4% compared to 93.0%.

September 17, 2020

State legislators offered up a preview this week of what debates over public education policy and the budget could look like in the 87th Texas Legislature. Legislators spoke to the Texas Tribune as part of the Texas Tribune Festival 2020, which is being held virtually throughout the month of September.

On Tuesday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) and state Rep. Mary González (D-Clint), who serves on the subcommittee that oversees public education spending, addressed the budget.

Earlier this summer, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced that the state will end the current two-year budget cycle at a $4.6 billion deficit, marking an $11.5 billion decline from what was estimated before the economic recession driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We definitely know this will be one of the worst budget sessions that we’ve ever experienced,” said Rep. González. “We haven’t really dealt with a deficit this big in a significant amount of time.”

González expressed optimism that Texas has fared better than other states during the economic recession, and suggested the House will look for innovative solutions for addressing the budget crunch, such as looking for areas to cut or raise new revenue.

González said her personal wish list includes drawing down additional federal funding by expanding Medicaid and reducing the amount of additional state money legislators have chosen to spend on border security. Chairman Capriglione said he is hopeful that future relief funds from the federal government will support state and local municipalities as well.

Regarding Texas’s Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF), Capriglione noted that the “rainy day fund” will likely not be the only solution and legislators will want to be able to save some money for future emergencies, such as another hurricane. Rep. González suggested the fund will not be enough to meet all of the state’s needs. The chairman also pointed out that legislation passed during the last legislative session allowed the state to invest some of the ESF, which generated $230 million in interest income last year.

State leaders have asked most agencies to cut their budgets by 5% ahead of the next budget cycle, which Chairman Capriglione said will have to be cleared by legislators. The chairman said cuts made now will serve to ease some of the pressure during the next budget cycle. Rep. González cautioned that cuts must be made in a way that does not harm vulnerable populations. Capriglione added that public health, public safety, and public education should be protected.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Humble) and Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) spoke on Monday about the shape of the public education discussion when legislators meet in January. Chairman Huberty suggested the next legislative session will be about maintaining rather than expanding the changes made by House Bill (HB) 3, the school finance bill legislators passed last session. This includes preserving the funding that went to providing a modest increase to some educators’ salaries.

Both admitted they haven’t looked at new revenue sources for HB 3 other than relying on the economy to improve. Huberty suggested we could find money by pausing some programs under HB 3 right after mentioning the incentive program. On the other hand Taylor talked about continuing the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) because districts are using it.

The chairmen also addressed the concerns of districts that have voiced frustration over federal relief funding Congress appropriated for schools, which the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has used to supplant rather than supplement state funding for schools. Chairman Taylor explained the decision was made in order to keep the state’s commitment to provide funding at the same level districts expected to receive before the recession hit. Yet, both chairmen suggested school districts will need to use some of their fund balances to fill in budget holes.

The 87th Texas Legislature is scheduled to meet January 12, 2021.