Virtual classrooms existed before the coronavirus outbreak, but could expanding them be on the horizon for Texas’ over 5 million students?
Could local leaders find that their schools need virtual vouchers?
A virtual voucher is a taxpayer-funded government subsidy to provide funds to expand virtual learning.
All the distance learning Texas students have been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of attention to online education.
Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), 10 other Texas senators and the Texas Public Policy Foundation sent letters to Mike Morath, commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, in April encouraging Morath to expand the Virtual Schools Network. The letters asked that certain legislatively imposed restrictions on the TxVSN be relaxed.
“We write today to ask you to review Texas Education Code … related to the Texas Virtual Schools Network, for potential regulatory burdens that may impede a district’s ability to offer content outside of a traditional classroom in the 2020-2021 school year. I feel we must allow schools, educators, and families to prepare and address learning disruptions now and, as necessary, due to the ever-evolving nature of this pandemic.”
The suggestions for keeping digital learning accessible during a crisis include lifting the current moratorium for new online schools, allowing online courses to exceed the current three-course limit, extending virtual schools to all grade levels, waiving the “substantially similar” course prohibition, waiving the “prior-year public education” requirement for full-time virtual education, and in general expanding TXVSN.
The Coalition for Public Schools proposed alternate suggestions on May 4 that amount to avoiding the creation of a virtual school voucher. Coalition members feel they favor vendor-run education. The coalition also takes the stance that online schools have not performed as well as traditional schools and Texas isn’t ready for such an expansion because some students do not have access to Wi-Fi. An estimated 2 million Texas households do not have internet service, the coalition letter states.
“There is an enormous digital divide that prohibits the effectiveness of unrestricted virtual access,” the letter said.
The coalition suggests that the Texas Education Agency convene with a broad group of stakeholders and consider alternative methods and solutions before the next legislative session. The group also recommends spending time and effort to explore broadband capabilities and ensure broadband connectivity for every Texas student.
Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, which is a member of the Coalition for Public Schools, released a statement Wednesday.
“Research by the well-respected National Education Policy Center shows that virtual schools consistently perform more poorly than traditional public schools, lagging behind in graduation rates, annual progress reports and student performance ratings,” he said.
Robison also said that virtual schools have little or no accountability, and they subsidize private schools and home-schoolers.
He also expressed concern about special education.
“As distance learning during this pandemic has shown, it is difficult to provide all the activities and lessons that special education children need over a computer, and we are not convinced that the owners of virtual schools would make the effort, as thousands of Texas teachers have done during this health emergency.”
Despite many school districts working tirelessly to provide access to online learning, students from low-income families and children in rural areas lacking internet access is a big factor, Robison said.
“During this pandemic, many school districts have gone to great lengths to provide Wi-Fi to these kids, including putting school buses in parking lots and turning them into Wi-Fi locations. Would virtual operators go to all this trouble and expense? I seriously doubt it. They would find a way to cherry pick their students instead.”
Robison also said virtual school operators may be taking advantage of the coronavirus emergency.
“Lt. Gov Dan Patrick and his Texas Back to Work Task Force already have recommended changes in state law and regulations that would open up Texas to widespread virtual schools. Dan Patrick has long been an advocate of private school vouchers, and he sees this as an opportunity to force them upon Texas taxpayers.”
While online learning can have great benefits, especially during a global crisis, whether it is appropriate or effective to lift restrictions on regulations for remote learning may still need to be fleshed out with a tactical solution.
What’s clear is the pandemic has highlighted the virtual learning experience like never before, allowed more families to experience it, and created a conversation around the ways to best utilize it for students and families in Texas.
For parents who are curious about how their child did this year in school, the Texas Education Agency has an optional end-of-year assessment you can register for here.