By Russell H. Withers, Director of Policy & General Counsel. April 15, 2021
Texas is at a crossroads in public education. The coronavirus pandemic helped to highlight several key failures in state policy, including the stagnation of the state’s virtual education options, which had been neglected for years. Over the course of the past decade or more, entrenched interests have successfully opposed almost all efforts to modernize or expand the state’s virtual education options in order to protect the status quo. The net effect of this was that the state’s public school system was ill-equipped to adapt to the sudden decision to close schools and attempt to educate children remotely.
The failures and dissatisfaction with virtual options forced upon children across the state in 2020 are well documented. As the Texas Tribune reported in a November 2020 article titled “Many Texas families say remote learning isn’t working and they want it fixed,” there is wide recognition that virtual schooling and remote learning options need to be more well thought out and planned:
The disturbing number of students posting failing grades while trying to learn in front of computer screens has also brought into sharper focus the failure of state education and political leaders to prepare for an academic year they knew would be like no other.
Over the last month, The Texas Tribune has interviewed more than 30 educators, students, parents and experts across the state about their experiences with remote learning. Parents and students describe a system in which kids are failing, not necessarily because they don’t understand the material, but because the process of teaching them is so broken that it’s difficult to succeed.
TCCRI has long advocated for expanded virtual and digital offerings, not as a panacea, but as part of a larger portfolio of educational tools the state should make available.
Texas does have the Texas Virtual School Network (TVSN), but it has been neglected since its creation in 2007. Its offerings are limited and further underutilized by statute and rules that are exclusionary in both effect and intent. Texas needs to completely overhaul and modernize its virtual offerings across K-12 with the objective being the implementation of a top flight menu of virtual offerings to use in the event that millions of children are once again forced to learn from home. Content and curriculum should be aligned with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and should require state approval before going live. State accountability measures should be applied to everyone using these offerings or making the content available so that parents, regulators, and policymakers can compare results, emphasize and promote what works, and discard what does not. There should be few restrictions on the type of provider, be it public, private, non-profit, or corporate. The more, the better. So long as providers are producing the educational tools the state needs and meeting standards, the state should welcome those tools.
I have just largely described Senate Bill 27, by Senate Education Committee Chairman, Larry Taylor. Had such a system been in place before 2020, the pandemic shutdown would have looked much different for kids in public schools, and quite familiar for many. A tested infrastructure for remote and virtual learning would already have been in place with multiple providers and platforms, each with a track record of success or failure tied to the state’s accountability system. School districts could have turned to virtual and remote learning in March and August of 2020 with a realistic expectation of what type of product they were delivering to millions of school children being forced to adapt.
Virtual and remote learning worked for some parents and students in 2020, but for many it was a failure. Texas can and should do better. Senate Bill 27 would modernize a woefully out of date program, pandemic or not. Parents and children deserve to have these options. It should be a priority of the legislature to provide it to them.