The Zoom Legislature: ATPE Prepares for a Session Unlike Any Other
As we approach the start of the 87th Texas Legislature January 12, the one thing we know for sure is that this session will be different from anything we have ever experienced.
COVID-19 shuttered the Texas State Capitol this year, disrupting much of the interim work lawmakers would normally conduct when not in session. In lieu of holding public hearings, most House committees resorted to requesting written information from stakeholders. Senate hearings, including one convened by the Senate Education Committee October 14 at the Capitol, were closed to the public and livestreamed. Senators, a few wearing masks, sat on the dais between newly installed plexiglass dividers. They viewed monitors mounted from the ceiling as invited witnesses provided testimony via Zoom. Rows of audience chairs remained empty. The small number of officeholders and staff members in the room were required to test negative for the coronavirus before being admitted.
It is still too soon to know how the Legislature will conduct its business during the session or how much access to the Capitol—if any—the general public may have. House and Senate rules governing everything from committee appointments to required attire for lawmakers cannot be adopted until the session begins. The House must also elect a new speaker.
We assume, nevertheless, that access will be diminished for rank-and-file visitors to the Capitol and even seasoned lobbyists accustomed to camping out in its granite-lined hallways. It is likely the number of public entrances to the building will be reduced and that temperature checks will be added to the existing metal detector screenings, making the entry process for visitors considerably slower. Committee hearings held in meeting rooms packed beyond capacity are likely a thing of the past. Probably gone, too, is the crowded cafeteria line inside the Capitol Grill. Large gatherings are expected to be prohibited, and many legislators will shrink the size of their on-site staffs and reduce their office hours.
The possibility of more virtual interactions being allowed next session, such as committee testimony delivered via Zoom, holds promise for those who may not live in Austin or cannot make it to the Capitol for a late-night hearing on short notice. But there are sure to be limits on virtual interaction, and it’s unclear at this point whether new procedures will make the legislative process seem more or less accessible to constituents.
In states that have already convened legislatures amid the pandemic, lobbyists report more “face time” with elected officials, albeit through a computer screen, than before COVID-19, when in-person meetings might have been attended only by legislative staffers. However, wary of exposure, legislators have demonstrated a “get in and get out” mentality, wanting to speed up their business and focus on the highest-priority issues—meaning the policy agenda of the governor or legislative leadership might be among the only bills that make it through the process.
Six Urgent Priorities
Amid these uncertainties, what are the takeaways for ATPE members? Relationships are more important than ever. When it becomes impossible to meet face to face, preestablished connections with an officeholder and their staff members are invaluable. Information sharing is important, too, but making your message stand out amid all the other noise will be essential. More than ever before, advocates must set legislative goals that are focused, reasonable, and achievable. Against this backdrop, ATPE has distilled our legislative program into the six priorities that reflect the concerns most frequently and urgently expressed by our members across Texas.
We know, first and foremost, that public education funding will be one of the top concerns. The State of Texas faces a $4.6 billion deficit due to the recessionary impact of COVID-19 and the decline in oil and gas revenues vital to the state economy. The state and school districts are reeling from unforeseen and continuing costs of the pandemic, such as PPE purchases and technology improvements. There’s also the strong desire to preserve the funding gains and educator compensation increases achieved through last session’s House Bill 3. As has been the case in many recent sessions, ATPE’s first legislative priority this session is for the state to find the resources necessary to meet these funding demands.
As demonstrated by a resolution adopted by the ATPE House of Delegates this summer, our members want relief from state and federal testing and accountability requirements that simply do not work in today’s disrupted educational climate. Testing steals precious time and resources throughout the school year that could be devoted to helping students get through the pandemic. The tests place extra, unwanted pressure on students, families, and educators, and the data standardized tests will yield will be undeniably flawed and incapable of comparison to prior or future years’ test results for various high-stakes purposes. ATPE has been lobbying to extend last year’s waiver of testing and accountability requirements to the 2020-21 school year, and we will be asking lawmakers to address these concerns.
COVID-19 has illustrated the importance of supporting a public school system that offers all students a learning environment that is safe and adaptable based on changing needs. Texas cannot afford to spend its limited resources right now on vouchers for private or home schools, the expansion of experimental charter schools, or needlessly subsidizing virtual schools run by for-profit companies. Gov. Greg Abbott has already used federal coronavirus relief funds to set up his own voucher program for students with disabilities despite long-standing legislative opposition to spending taxpayer dollars in this manner. Lawmakers undoubtedly will face pressure to continue, fund, or expand that controversial program. In these difficult and economically strapped times, the Legislature must focus on shoring up our public schools. This means ensuring students can thrive in a digital age by providing access to devices, broadband internet, tech support, and training. Making sure our public schools are safe places for students to learn and educators to work is also critical. And the state must prioritize resources to support the mental health needs of students and school employees during these trying times.
ATPE knows educators are working harder than ever. We’ve heard about the long hours spent creating lessons—sometimes doubled every day to accommodate both in-person and virtual classes—as well as meeting remotely with distraught parents, tracking attendance, and endlessly filling out paperwork. We’ve counseled worried school staffers who feel they have been forced to make an impossible choice between keeping their job or avoiding a potentially deadly virus. ATPE believes it is important for lawmakers to hear your heightened concerns about working conditions and to take steps to prevent an exodus of school employees that would cost the state more money and rob students of the experience and talent you bring to classrooms.
Finally, ATPE will be fighting for your rights to engage in advocacy and to prevent any legislation that would infringe on your political involvement or your ability to teach and model good citizenship to your students. In these challenging times, educators’ voices must be heard. We hope you will reinforce our efforts by following updates from ATPE throughout the session and communicating frequently with your legislators. Use the additional resources in this issue of ATPE News to help you stay involved, encourage your colleagues to do the same, and reach out to us for help when you need it.
Because of your engagement and your voter turnout in the 2018 elections, the 2019 legislative session was deemed the “education session.” ATPE believes every session should be an “education session”! With this year’s boisterous elections behind us, it’s time to start fresh and get down to business on achieving new legislative successes. Let’s work together and make 2021 a year for recovery, renewed promise, and triumph.
ATPE’s Priorities for the 87th Legislative Session
- ATPE supports prioritizing public education funding to ensure school districts have the necessary resources to address the many ongoing challenges of COVID-19, preserve funding gains and equity achieved through last session’s House Bill 3, and continue efforts to raise the prestige of the education profession through meaningful compensation.
- ATPE supports measures to alleviate the burden of standardized testing and accountability requirements in order to allocate time and resources to pressing critical needs brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as prevent high-stakes decisions from being based on flawed or unreliable data and reduce the pressure testing places on students, educators, and parents.
- ATPE supports initiatives to ensure all Texas students have access to optimal public school learning environments that are safe, supplied with current technology, and adaptable to changing needs, while preventing the diversion of the state’s limited resources to unregulated private, home, or for-profit virtual schools.
- ATPE supports efforts to provide greater resources for the mental health and social and emotional needs of public school students and staff.
- ATPE supports measures to reduce staff turnover by addressing public school employee concerns about working conditions, including health and safety issues, increased workloads, and burdensome reporting requirements exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- ATPE supports laws and policies that protect the rights of educators to become more involved in advocacy and elections at all levels of government and encourage them to set an example of engaged citizenship and civility for future generations of Texans.
Author: Jennifer Mitchell, ATPE Governmental Relations Director