Last night, the Texas House took its first step toward implementing a standard framework for virtual learning. On a 9 to 1 vote, the House Public Education Committee passed Senate Bill (SB) 15, which would let qualifying schools establish “local remote learning programs” to offer virtual courses. State Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) was the lone nay vote.
Under the bill, a school that earned at least a C on its most recent performance rating would be able to set up a full-time program for students to attend via computer. The program must include courses that end in a standardized test.
Students have to meet certain eligibility rules as well. Students can only enroll in virtual courses if they are already enrolled in public school, have “reasonable access to in-person services for the course,” and meet the minimum academic threshold set by the district. No more than 10 percent of the student body at a given district may enroll in virtual learning.
If an independent school district (ISD) or charter school does not have the means to provide virtual instruction, it can contract with another district to let students enroll in virtual classes there.
Like the other physical schools in a district, a virtual learning program would also get its own performance rating as if it were a campus. State Rep. Keith Bell (R-Forney), the bill’s House sponsor, said this provision would make sure that students “have no place to hide” or slip through the cracks if a district is performing well overall but managing a virtual program poorly.
After Bell explained the bill, Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath gave a grim overview of virtual learning. Despite some initial optimism for remote instruction when fears of COVID-19’s risk to children were high, the TEA found a dramatic learning loss gap between remote and in-person students.
“The state lost essentially a decade’s worth of gain in mathematics proficiency in students during the pandemic so far,” Morath said.
“Elementary school reading proficiency is actually the worst it’s ever been since the dawn of the STAAR test.”
According to Morath, districts that mostly held physical classes had almost no decline in reading proficiency and a 9 percent decline in math proficiency. By contrast, districts that had a quarter of their student body or less in physical classrooms saw a “pretty stark” drop: a 31% proficiency decline in math and a seven percent decline in reading. Out of the state’s 5.3 million students, only a minority — 34 percent — mostly learned in person last year.
Morath especially lamented the declines in Austin ISD and the Rio Grande Valley, which he called an “unmitigated education bright spot” before the pandemic. The Valley had the lowest percentage of passing students in the high school Algebra I STAAR and saw steep declines at the elementary school level. The Austin area had the lowest percentage of passing students in high school biology.
Nonetheless, Morath embroidered the overall picture with the fact that some kids thrived in virtual settings.
“Remote instruction clearly does work for some students,” Morath said. “I don’t think this should be lost on policymakers.”
He recommended letting teachers specialize and teach either in-person or virtual students — “roomies” and “zoomies,” as he called them — instead of both.
Some odd bedfellows gathered during the testimony portion of the hearing. Traditional districts like Dallas ISD and charters like Great Hearts both showed support for the bill. The Association of Texas Professional Educators, a teachers’ union, was the first testifier to oppose it, saying it incentivized the expansion of virtual school networks.
SB 15 would not significantly impact the state budget. It would include virtual students in a district’s average daily attendance, which determines how much money it gets from the state, but those students must already be enrolled in the district to take virtual classes. Local districts must pay for the operation of virtual programs themselves. Many had already planned to invest in technology before the bill was filed.
Between federal, state, and local funding, Texas school districts have collected ample revenue over the course of the pandemic. Relief packages from the Trump and Biden administrations altogether allocated $17 billion for local Texas schools. The state significantly boosted education spending in the last regular session and kept that funding steady even while attendance dropped during the pandemic. The economic shocks to certain industries at the pandemic’s height affected sales taxes much more than property taxes, which remained mostly steady with some exceptions.
However, there may be clouds on the horizon for schools’ state funding. The Texas Home School Coalition recently reported a huge spike in home school interest, which may precede another enrollment drop like last year’s.
Morath said the TEA may be willing to use other tools to uncouple state funding from attendance and keep school funding at steady pre-pandemic levels as the state has done so far.
Although a substantial number of people believed in the summer of 2020 that a physical return to school would be unsafe, there was no significant trend of school outbreaks in the 2020-2021 year. Data strongly showed that schools were safe, a trend that persisted throughout the school year and up to summer.
Federal and state data also show that children are at little risk of death from COVID-19. Out of the 614,000 Americans that have died from COVID-19 since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started measurement on January 1, 2020, only 361 of them were under the age of 18. According to state data, 59 Texans under the age of 20 have died of COVID-19 out of the state’s 53,700 total fatalities.
The bill “sunsets,” or expires, in 2023 and would have to be renewed by the legislature then.
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