The testimony below was submitted to the Texas House Committee on Public Education on July 25th, 2022, by the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute (TCCRI).
Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute
House Committee on Public Education
July 25, 2022
Regarding the Committee’s Charge: Study the effects of COVID-19 on K-12 learning loss and best practices that exist to address learning loss. Monitor the implementation of state and local plans to address students' achievement gaps. Make recommendations for supporting the state and local efforts to increase academic development.
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted unprecedent government actions in the field of public education. In-person instruction in schools was halted on March 19, 2020, and this shutdown on in-person instruction persisted for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. In July 2020, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) issued guidance for schools for the 2020-21 academic year. These guidelines permitted school districts to postpone the resumption of in-person instruction by four weeks, and a further four weeks with school board approval. Parents were able to choose between in-person instruction or online instruction for their children. At the commencement of the 2020-21 school year, many schools did in fact opt to delay re-opening. By the end of that academic year, most schools had resumed in-person instruction. Compounding the disruption of the normal educational routine, mask mandates were in force for the 2020-2021 academic year. Governor Abbott issued an executive order in May 2021 forbidding them in schools, but a number of larger school districts, including Austin ISD and Round Rock ISD, disregarded the Governor’s order and kept the mandate in place throughout most of the 2021-2022 school year.[i] Furthermore, many parents opted to have their children remain home from school and engage in remote learning instead. Even in August and September of the 2021-2022 academic year, some school districts chose to temporarily halt in-person instruction due to large numbers of staff testing positive for COVID.[ii]
COVID-19-Related Learning Loss
Testing data indicates that Texas students as a whole saw deeply troubling declines from the Spring of 2019 to the Spring of 2021 (no state testing was done in 2020). State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests are given periodically to public education students, with Reading & Language Arts (RLA) and Mathematics being tested every year from grades 3 through 8. In addition, students take STAAR tests for Science in 5th and 8th grades, and for Social Studies in 8th grade. End of course (EOC) assessments are given to high school students after completion of each of five subjects: Algebra I, English I, English II, U.S. History, and Biology. The obvious inference from the decline in test scores from 2019 to 2021 is that the government response to the pandemic had detrimental effects on the education of Texas children.
This conclusion is consistent with trends seen nationally. A report by McKinsey found that K-12 students on average suffered learning losses equal to five months in mathematics and four months in reading by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, with even greater average losses for students from disadvantaged backgrounds (e.g., students from low-income families).[iii]
Furthermore, student’s learning loss may go beyond academics. Depriving children of personal contact with their friends and teachers for a prolonged period of time can have ramifications that are still not fully understood. As TEA notes, “The educational impact [of the government response to the pandemic] most often discussed is that on student learning: academic impact. However, students’ socio-emotional and physical health are also affected. And a downfall in one area can lead to a downfall in another.”[iv] Consistent with this observation, the above-mentioned McKinsey report noted that 35 percent of parents reported being very concerned or extremely concerned about their children’s mental health.[v]
On a more positive note, recently released STAAR data from the Spring of 2022 indicates that student performance is rebounding, but still falls short of where student performance was in the Spring of 2019. One notable exception to this is the strong student performance in RLA in 2022, which generally exceeds that of 2019. On the other hand, student performance in Mathematics in 2022, while showing some rebound, still lags performance from 2019 by a considerable margin.
Table I below illustrates STAAR test data (from the Spring of each year) and EOC assessments from 2019, 2021, and 2022; the general pattern of significant decline in 2021 followed by a rebound in 2022 is evident. The data is blended; for example, the Math/Algebra I data aggregates STAAR Math scores for Grades 3-8 and the high school EOC Algebra I assessment. The critically important figures showing what percent of students either met performance standards or showed mastery of the material are italicized.
*Participation rates are for Grades 3-8. Participation rates for high school EOC assessments for the same years are either higher or negligibly lower.
The blended nature of the above data, as opposed to a grade-by-grade view, obscures a couple of interesting discrepancies between high school and grade school data. First, scores for English I and II EOC takers actually improved in 2021, in contrast to declining grade school RLA scores. Second, high school students showed strong performance in U.S. History I in each of 2019, 2021, and 2022, whereas 8th grade students showed very poor performance in Social Studies in all three of those years.
Data for kindergarten, first grade, and second grade students is scarcer, but there is evidence that these students suffered a summer (of 2020) learning loss that was 1-2 months of instruction greater than normal.[vii]
It goes without saying that a global pandemic poses dramatic challenges for school districts even with the best administration. The state’s experience with COVID-19, however, made clear that much of the Covid learning loss could have been mitigated by better policy decisions prior to the pandemic’s outbreak. After the outbreak, teachers were forced to devise ad hoc online lessons and adjust to the nuances of online instruction. Before the end of 2020, many parents were expressing frustration and concern over the evident inadequacy of online instruction for many children.[viii] For their part, some teachers complained about how online instruction made it much more difficult to connect with their students and to sense when they needed additional guidance on a topic.[ix] A November 2020 Texas Tribune article on the widespread dissatisfaction with remote learning is worth quoting at length:
Almost midway through the school year, it has become increasingly clear that virtual learning is failing a sizable number of Texas public school students whose parents decided to keep them home as COVID-19 grips the state.
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.
[S]chool officials had mere weeks to roll out plans for the fall semester, including training teachers, students and parents on new technology; designing ways to keep track of students falling through the cracks; and upholding some semblance of academic rigor.[x]
These difficulties could have been mitigated if the Legislature had enacted legislation introduced in recent years. For example, schools would have been better prepared and children would have been better off had the Legislature enacted Senate Bill 1455 (86R; Sen. Taylor). That bill stemmed from an interim charge to “review the Texas Virtual School Network (TVSN) and recommend methods of updating and improving the system to boost online virtual education.”[xi] In accordance with the Senate Committee on Education’s unanimous consent to the interim study’s recommendations, SB 1455 would have modernized the TVSN with a statutory overhaul that expanded access to all school-aged children and expanded offerings to allow a broad variety of providers to supply content and courses, including local education agencies, traditional ISDs, public charter schools, institutions of higher education, non-profit organizations, and private entities. These providers would be vetted, accredited, and subject to approval by TEA and would also be subject to the same accountability measures (i.e., “A-F” grades) as traditional public schools and public charter schools. SB 1455 would have created a robust marketplace for virtual and remote public education. Had that bill passed, Texas would have been profoundly better situated for what happened with pandemic-related school closures and the necessity of virtual and remote learning in 2020.
The State’s Plan to Combat Covid Learning Loss
After the pandemic highlighted the urgent need to innovate in education, the 87th Legislature passed a number of bills to address learning loss from Covid. Taken together, these bills set forth a plan to:
Provide struggling students with at least 30 hours of intensive instruction from a designated teacher (either one-on-one instruction or with no more than two other students). Schools that successfully “accelerate” these struggling students will receive additional funding as a bonus. (House Bill 4545; Rep. Dutton).
Created the Texas Commission on Virtual Education, which will “make recommendations regarding the delivery of virtual education in the public school system and state funding for virtual education under the Foundation School Program. (House 3643; K. King, et al.).
Authorized school districts and open-enrollment charter schools with an overall performance rating of “C” or higher in the preceding year to operate a remote learning program to offer virtual courses outside the state virtual school network. While many students struggled with remote learning, some thrived; these students should be empowered to learn in the way that best suits them. Senate Bill 15, 87(S2); Sen. Taylor).
Permit students to transfer schools at any time if their current school is offering only virtual instruction; funding would follow the transferring student. This measure could be critically important in the event of another pandemic or statewide disaster. (Senate Bill 481; Sen. Kolkhorst).
The above reforms, particularly HB 4545, will help to undo educational damage caused by the pandemic. The Spring 2022 STAAR results suggest that these reforms have helped the state’s students get back on track. Much work, however, remains to be done. The Legislature can enact the following three reforms to improve public education and eliminate the learning loss:
Reform the Virtual School Network
First, overhaul the TVSN. Under HB 3643, the Texas Commission on Virtual Education will issue a report with recommendations by the end of 2022. That is a positive step. But a template for sound legislation in this area already exists. Senate Bill 27 (87R, Sen. Taylor) is modeled on SB 1455 from the preceding session (discussed above). The bill was voted out of the Senate Education Committee by a 7-2 vote but did not receive a vote in the full Senate. COVID-19’s effects on public education would have been less severe had such legislation been enacted prior to the outbreak. The Legislature should be ready by having a comprehensive virtual offering ready to go as soon as possible. During normal times, parents and students may choose to use or not to use it as they see fit. Should another emergency force home learning, every public school student in Texas will be better off for having such a system in place.
Expand Public Charter Schools
Second, expand charter schools. A 2020 report from the Texas Charter School Association discusses the first “25 Years of Texas Public Charter Schools,” and its findings leave no doubt about how important charter schools are for children in Texas. Key findings from the report discuss how competition from charter schools has made all public schools better. Indeed, “From 2012 to 2019, as total charter enrollment nearly tripled, the average district raised its student achievement between 4% and 8%, depending on grade and subject tested.”[xii] More specifically, “From 2016 to 2019 . . . 82% of ISDs with charters in their attendance zones boosted their fifth-grade reading scores—compared to 67% of ISDs without any charters.”[xiii] Furthermore, charter school students had modest but still meaningful improvements in the area of college performance; a 2019 report showed that public charter schools are sending 4 percent more of their students to college than traditional public schools.[xiv] Charter school graduates who attend college are also 3% more likely to complete college than a graduate from a traditional public school.[xv]
Since 1995, Texas has granted 342 charters for schools educating children up to the 12th grade, but only 60 of those have been granted since 2009.[xvi] As two experts noted in a 2018 report, “it has never been more difficult to be granted a charter in Texas than it is today.”[xvii] Part of the stagnation in the growth of charter schools is the veto that the State Board of Education (SBOE) wields over any charter application.
TCCRI has previously argued for eliminating SBOE’s veto power over charters. Senate Bill 28 (87R; Sen. Bettencourt, et al.), which passed the Senate but failed to become law, would have restricted the issues the SBOE could consider in reviewing a charter applicant, required the vote of 9 of the 15 members to veto an application (instead of the current 8), and generally prohibited political subdivisions from discriminating against charter schools (e.g., in terms of zoning regulations) as compared to traditional public schools. The Legislature should consider this bill again, but with an even greater increase in the number of votes needed for SBOE to veto a charter application.
Enact Education Choice Policies
Third, continue the push for school choice. Like nothing else before, the pandemic drove home the importance of empowering parents in choosing the best learning environment for their children. Embracing school choice is the logical extension of this principle. As TCCRI has previously detailed, of the more than 150 studies conducted on school choice, an overwhelming majority show positive effects from school choice, with only 17 percent showing either no visible effects or negative effects.[xviii] Conservatives understand that competition is needed to drive improvements in a good or service, but many people in public school administration unfortunately view this competition as a threat to the public school system and not as an opportunity to improve outcomes for students.
The Legislature should pursue a true, statewide school choice program. As long as a school satisfies academic standards, a parent should be able to direct the state and local funding for their child’s education (which is attributable in large part to the taxes parents pay) to a school of their choice, whether that school is public, charter, private, religious, or homeschool. Senate Bill 1968 (87R, Sen. Bettencourt) failed to become law but was a good first step. That bill would have allowed entities to claim a credit against the insurance premium tax for donations to a fund which would make payments for the education of children from low-income families, with educational options including private and charter schools.
 Performance broken down by grade level can be viewed at: https://tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/comparison-statewide-spring-staar-2019-2021-2022.pdf.
[i] https://www.texastribune.org/2020/07/07/masks-mandatory-texas-schools/ [ii] https://www.texastribune.org/2021/09/03/texas-covid-school-districts-shut-down/ [iii] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/education/our-insights/covid-19-and-education-the-lingering-effects-of-unfinished-learning [iv] https://tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/understanding-pandemic-learning-loss-betebenner.pdf [v] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/education/our-insights/covid-19-and-education-the-lingering-effects-of-unfinished-learning [vi] See https://tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/comparison-statewide-spring-staar-2019-2021-2022.pdf [vii] See generally https://www.istation.com/Content/downloads/studies/COVID-19_Learning_Loss_Texas.pdf [viii] https://www.texastribune.org/2020/11/20/texas-schools-remote-learning/ [ix] https://www.texastribune.org/2020/09/17/texas-teacher-virtual-school-coronavirus-pandemic/ [x] https://www.texastribune.org/2020/11/20/texas-schools-remote-learning/ [xi] “Report to the 86th Legislature,” Senate Committee on Education,” (Dec. 2018), https://senate.texas.gov/cmtes/86/c530/c530.InterimReport2018.pdf. [xii] “25 Years of Texas Public Charter Schools: A Rising Tide is Lifting All Boats,” Texas Public Charter Schools Association (2020), https://txcharterschools.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/25thAnniversary_Final.pdf [xiii] Ibid. [xiv] Timothy Mattison, Ph. D., “Texas Public Charter School Post-Secondary Outcomes,” Texas Charter Schools Association (2020), https://txcharterschools.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Post-Secondary-Outcomes_research-brief_digital3.pdf. [xv] Ibid. [xvi] See https://tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/summary-of-awards-and-closures.pdf [xvii] Adam Jones & Amanda List, “Time to Change Course: Reclaiming the Potential of Texas Charter Schools – A State Case Study,” Excel in Ed (Jun. 2018), https://excelined.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/ExcelinEd.TexasCharterSchoolPaper.TimeToChangeCourse.June2018.pdf. [xviii] See TCCRI Education & Workforce Task Force Report, page 21 (February 2021), available at https://be641161-847d-498a-aa0a-c32964f36b6a.usrfiles.com/ugd/be6411_7f56a80929dd49fe8ca0623c95b8dcd8.pdf