Teach the Vote's Week in Review: Nov. 12, 2021
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Date Posted: 11/12/2021
The ATPE Governmental Relations team recaps this week’s education news, legislative updates, and regulatory developments.
- Federal court ruling allows schools to decide mask policies, for now
- ATPE responds to Abbott’s accusations of educators distributing “porn” in schools
- ATPE asks educators to help us urge Congress to pass WEP reform this year
- Negotiations continue on federal spending as Biden prepares to sign infrastructure bill
- New ATPE Podcast episode discusses educators’ rights to planning time
- ATPE honors those who served on Veterans Day
MASKS: On Wednesday, a U.S. District Court judge sided with the advocacy group Disability Rights Texas in a lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates in schools. The judge agreed with the group, saying Abbott’s order violates federal laws protecting the rights of students with disabilities to a free and appropriate public education. Under the ruling, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who previously sued several school districts over their mask policies, is prohibited from imposing punishments and fines against school districts that require masks. The state is likely to challenge the ruling in an appeal to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins told KEYE CBS Austin this week, “The number one priority right now is getting our kids back up to speed and making sure there are no more disruptions, and in order to do that we need to let parents and school boards do what they know is best for their community.” Read more about the latest court ruling in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.
ABBOTT: As detailed in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell, ATPE issued a statement this week in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s Nov. 10 call for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to investigate his allegations that educators are committing criminal offenses by distributing “pornography” to students. The governor failed to identify any instances in which educators have been arrested or charged with providing pornographic materials. In their reporting on the governor’s letter, republished here on Teach the Vote, the Texas Tribune pointed out that TEA does not conduct “criminal” investigations and questioned why Abbott chose not to ask a law enforcement agency to investigate the allegations. The article quotes an official with the association that represents actual Texas prosecutors in demonstrating that it would be difficult to find school librarians or other educators in violation of criminal pornography laws based solely upon the existence of school library books that some parents might find objectionable.
In ATPE’s statement, Executive Director Shannon Holmes contends the alleged “porn problem” in public schools is being claimed by people running for office and seeking to bolster their campaigns, and he points out there are already remedies in place to address any parental concerns about instructional materials they find inappropriate. Holmes also notes the "real issues” facing public schools, including students who have fallen behind and staff shortages that are contributing to overcrowded classrooms and teacher burnout, for which “the adults in the room are staying awake at night trying to find solutions.”
Similarly, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter spoke with KDFW Fox 4 News on the topic this week, echoing the association’s position that there are already procedures in place for review or removal of materials from school libraries. Exter emphasized that “parents absolutely have a right to know what is going on with their child’s education,” but that Abbott’s allegations are “playing politics with one of our community's bedrock institutions, our public schools.”
Abbott previously sent a Nov. 8 letter to TEA, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC), and the State Board of Education (SBOE) instructing the three entities to “develop statewide standards to ensure no child is exposed to pornography or other inappropriate content in a Texas public school.” That directive followed an linitial letter from the governor to the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), in which Abbott demanded the association find and eradicate school materials, such as library books, that contain pornographic or obscene content. TASB responded that they have no regulatory authority over school districts or instructional standards and library books, which Abbott criticized as “abdicating” their responsibility. Abbott’s letter to TASB came on the heels of Rep. Matt Krause’s asking several school districts to provide extensive information about an 18-page list of books ostensibly deemed questionable or offensive. Read more on the Krause letter and ATPE’s reaction here.
SOCIAL SECURITY: ATPE is lobbying members of the Texas congressional delegation to cosponsor bipartisan legislation to repeal and replace the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) in federal law that reduces many educators’ Social Security benefits when they retire. Among the bills being considered is H.R. 5834, known as the “Equal Treatment of Public Servants Act of 2021,” filed by U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), which would replace the WEP with a more equitable formula and provide a monthly stipend to educators over age 60 who are eligible for Social Security and have already retired. Hoping to get a bipartisan bill across the finish line this year, ATPE encourages our members to reach out to their own members of Congress about the WEP legislation using our simple tools on Advocacy Central (ATPE member login required).
FEDERAL FUNDS: President Joe Biden plans to sign the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law Monday, Nov. 15, after the U.S. House approved the bipartisan bill late last Friday. As finally passed, the infrastructure bill includes $5 billion over five years for the Environmental Protection Agency to award grants and rebates to replace school buses with lower or zero-emission buses, plus $500 million for a separate five-year grant program to help schools become more energy efficient, improve health and indoor air quality, or use renewable energy technologies. These provisions were among specific investments ATPE urged the Texas congressional delegation to support.
A vote on the president’s Build Back Better (BBB) federal spending plan has been delayed to give members of Congress additional information on the fiscal impact of the $1.75 trillion bill, H.R. 5376. Often referred to as the “budget reconciliation bill” because of the procedure being used to move the legislation forward, the BBB aims to increase taxes on wealthier individuals to fund measures to lower prescription drug costs for seniors, paid family leave, universal pre-Kindergarten, and more. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote as the negotiations continue.
PLANNING: A new installment of The ATPE Podcast answers educators’ questions about planning time. In this episode, ATPE Managing Attorney Paul Tapp explains what state law requires in terms of planning time, how this area of the law has evolved through commissioner’s decisions, and what teachers should consider if their supervisor asks them to spend their planning time covering a class or attending a meeting. Check out the podcast here.
Concerns about staffing shortages have intensified challenges educators face in complying with the accelerated instruction requirements of House Bill (HB) 4545, which legislators passed during the 2021 regular legislative session. (An attempt by lawmakers to modifiy the law during the second special session failed back in September.) The new law requires students who failed or did not take last year’s STAAR to receive intensive tutoring with a student-teacher ratio of 3-1, which ATPE members say is cutting into teachers' planning time. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins recently spoke to KXAN News about the difficulties associated with implementation of HB 4545. Wiggins pointed out in the interview that the new requirements, though well-intentioned, burden already overextended educators and do not take into account actual classroom conditions.
VETERANS DAY: Before we sign off for the week and in celebration of Veterans Day, the ATPE Governmental Relations team would like to express our deepest gratitude to both active and retired members of the U.S. armed services and to those service members no longer with us. Thank you for your willingness to stand up and put your lives on the line to protect the freedoms we strive to promote, such as voting, free speech, and access to an exemplary public education for all Texas children.
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Thank you, ATPE, for your boldness in pointing out that the Governor, and others, are using our children, educators, and those who support them as political fodder. This is unacceptable and, I predict, will work against them if they continue.