TCCRI's recently published Education Choice & Workforce Task Force Report examined the topic of virtual and remote learning. What follows is an excerpt from the Report on that topic.
Virtual schooling and remote learning technologies have long been fully integrated at institutions of higher education in Texas, with full courses available online across a broad spectrum of degree plans and schools for more than a decade. Higher education offers fully online schools and degrees, such as Western Governor’s University, founded in 1997. K-12 public education in Texas has not taken advantage of the innovative advances in technology the same way that higher education has. In fact, rather than embrace these technologies as tools that increasingly compliment traditional in-person schooling, state policy with respect to K-12 virtual learning prohibits more innovation than it welcomes.
TCCRI has long advocated for a greater number of virtual choices in K-12 public education and has written extensively about how COVID-19 exposed the state’s failures vis-à-vis virtual education. TCCRI’s 2020-2021 Education & Workforce Task Force Report contained an entire section dedicated to explaining how “traditional public education institutions and interest groups have successfully thwarted efforts to bring virtual education into the 21st century, leaving Texas unprepared for the pandemic.” It further lays out in “public education in Texas could have been prepared for a pandemic” how the numerous opportunities the legislature has had to update, modernize, and expand the state’s existing Virtual School Network.
Senate Bill 27 did not become law. It was strongly opposed by all of the usual public education advocacy groups who place the status quo public education system above the interests of students. The witness list in a hearing for SB 27 shows strong support from individuals and parents. The only parties on record against the bill are the aforementioned public education advocacy groups
Heading into the 88th Legislative Session, the COVID-19 Pandemic is over. The legislature can once again consider what might proactively help in a future pandemic scenario. As it happens, all of the reforms that would have helped Texas children weather the pandemic storm would also help the students for whom virtual options are beneficial in a more regular setting.
Policy Recommendation: Overhaul the State’s Virtual Schooling Infrastructure
Senate Bill 27 (87R, Taylor) would have overhauled the state’s virtual offerings by converting the Texas Virtual School Network into the state Online Learning System with a statewide course catalog and fulltime virtual programs. First, it would have removed several existing barriers to course enrollment, including the current law allowing school districts to deny a student’s enrollment in an online course that the district already offers in person, and it would have removed a cap on the number (3) of online courses that a district or school may pay for on behalf of the student. More importantly, the bill would have authorized school districts, charter schools, and public or private institutions of higher education to offer full-time virtual school programs, operated either themselves or through contracts with education vendors. These programs could serve a broad range of students. The bill would have created a full-time virtual program dashboard that would have provided information to the public regarding the performance of the programs available. Built into the program were a host of accountability measures ensuring clarity on which programs performed better than others. The bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee with 7 yeas and only 2 nays, but never received a vote on the Senate floor. The Legislature should once again consider passage of this legislation in the 88th Legislative Session.
Policy Recommendation: Allow All Grades to Enroll in Virtual Courses Through the Texas Virtual School Network
Under Chapter 30A of the Education Code, courses through the state virtual school network are available only to grade levels three and above. At least twenty-four states in the nation offer full-time virtual school options, including Texas, yet Texas is the only state to exclude kindergarten through second grade.
The difficulty that some children have with the traditional learning model does not begin at third grade. It often begins when students are first enrolled. It is no doubt a small number of students who would utilize virtual learning at such an age, but denying them that opportunity is an arbitrary decision with no basis in fact or data.
In the 85th Legislative Session, Senate Bill 610 (Huffines) proposed to expand TVSN offerings to grades kindergarten through second grade. Like the existing TVSN, it merely would have been one additional tool available to educators and parents. No student would have been forced to use it. When that bill received a public hearing in the Senate Education Committee on March 30, 2017, several parents publicly testified in favor of the bill and told the committee how it would help their school-aged children. Not a single parent testified or registered against the bill. In contrast, here is a list of organizations who came out in force to oppose this marginal reform:
TX-American Federation of Teachers
Texas Association of School Administrators
Texas Association of School Boards
Texas State Teachers Association
Texas Association of Community Schools
Texas Rural Education Association
Texas Latino Education Coalition
Texas School Alliance
Association of Professional Educators
By the time these politically powerful organizations were through, Senate Bill 610 had turned into a proposal to conduct a “study” on expanding the TVSN to additional grade levels. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House of Representatives without receiving a public hearing. Additional attempts to remedy this misguided policy have taken place subsequently, including the filing of HB 3528 (87R, Sanford), which received a hearing but was never voted on in committee.
Policy Recommendation: Allow Enrollment in Virtual Schools to All Students, Regardless of STAAR Performance
Under Section 29.9091(d)(3) of the Education Code, a student may be prohibited from eligibility to enroll in a virtual course in a remote learning program if the student does not meet minimum academic standards established by the school district or charter school in which the student is enrolled.
There are no academic standards a student must meet in order to enroll in a traditional public school. A school or district could achieve failing grades within the accountability system in perpetuity and there is no roadblock to enrolling new students. That should extend to virtual schools offered by the district or charter school. A student may perform poorly on a STAAR examination because in-person instruction is not the best fit for that student. That student should not be prevented from attempting an alternative approach simply because the current approach has not worked well.
Policy Recommendation: Repeal the September 1, 2023 Expiration Provisions Related to Virtual Learning and Make them Permanent
The passage of Senate Bill 15 (S2, Taylor) authorized public school districts and open-enrollment charter schools to provide full-time virtual schools, off-campus instruction, and off-campus hybrid programs if those schools or districts offered such during the 2020-2021 school year. The bill provided a funding mechanism based on average daily attendance in the virtual and remote settings. The provisions of Senate Bill 15 are set to expire on September 1, 2023. This sunset should be repealed and the programs allowed to continue in perpetuity.
You can read this and the rest of the report here.
HB 681 (88R, Bell, Keith) if enacted would fulfill the third policy recommendation by repealing the September 1, 2023, expiration provisions related to virtual Learning and making them permanent.
Note that citations have been removed from this excerpt, but are present in the full report linked above.