More Texas students will have access to virtual learning after Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that sends state money to school districts with online programs.
The bill goes into effect immediately, according to the Texas Legislature Online system, and some districts are once again scrambling to expand offerings. Many families want more virtual options for their children as the pandemic continues.
The uncertainty of funding meant districts that initially planned to offer the remote option this year had to scrap plans this summer. But then as cases surged amid the more contagious delta variant, administrators once again rushed to pivot more classes to online, particularly for kids too young to receive the vaccine.
Schools are largely funded based on student attendance. Prior to the pandemic, only a handful of full-time virtual schools received state funding, meaning few school districts could afford to offer such classes. The Texas Education Agency used disaster powers to extend funding to most districts last school year, but that authority ended, TEA officials have said, leaving school systems without many options.
Some school districts already announced plans to offer virtual learning for the rest of the school year. Plano ISD, for example, informed families that they could enroll students in kindergarten through six grade in a year-long virtual academy if they met certain provisions and the legislation was indeed finalized.
The new law permits districts and charters that received a C rating or higher in the most recent round of state academic accountability grades to offer remote classes to students living in the district. Enrollment would be capped at 10% of a school system’s enrollment during 2021-22.
However, schools won’t get funding for all students, such as for those who were in virtual classes for the majority of last school year and failed their STAAR exams; those who missed 10% or more of class; or those who earned lower than a C grade in their foundation classes last year.
Lawmakers said this provision was inserted to ensure students who have already shown that virtual doesn’t work for them are not put back into the same instruction. However, those students are not barred from enrolling online — schools just won’t get money for them, making virtual programs more complicated to budget for.
“We’re not promoting this for all students,” Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill’s author, said. “We’re promoting it only for those students who did well.”
Some confusion emerged this week over whether the funding restriction applied solely to virtual learning or whether it extended to in-person learning, as well.
The bill does not explicitly differentiate between the two methods of learning related to funding. However, Texas Education Agency officials, Taylor and Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney, who sponsored the bill in the House, clarified on Wednesday that it only applied to state funding related to virtual instruction.
“Senate Bill 15 does not impact any funding to in-person instruction,” Bell said in a statement. “The academic guardrails only apply to students that were previously enrolled in a virtual program who spent at least half of their instructional time in remote virtual instruction. It was the intent, to limit and fund remote virtual instruction to students who have excelled in that environment.”
The bill in no way affects funding for on-campus learning, TEA spokesman Frank Ward wrote in an e-mail.
The law expires in September 2023, meaning lawmakers have to revisit the issue in the next regular session if they want the provisions to continue.
School districts around the state hastily started virtual learning programs when the pandemic forced campuses to close in March 2020. Last year, many districts offered a mix of in-person and remote learning.
This school year had already started when Dallas and several other North Texas districts launched virtual programs without the state’s financial backing, mostly for children younger than 12 who are ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Those programs were an expensive endeavor. Frisco Superintendent Mike Waldrip estimated it would cost his district $3.5 million for every 1,000 students who signed up for the semester. More than 8,000 students enrolled once Frisco launched its virtual program.
The new law provides retroactive funding for districts who meet the criteria.
Some districts announced further virtual options as the bill advanced toward approval. Plano ISD laid out additional requirements for families interested. Students enrolled must participate in person for state testing, have passed all previous STAAR exams and have at least a 90% attendance rate last year. It also asks for a one-year commitment to the virtual school.
In recent months, some have criticized the governor for not acting sooner to help school districts get funding for virtual schooling. While Education Commissioner Mike Morath has insisted that he doesn’t have the ability to extend funding for another year, Abbott does, Democrats argued.
Critics of the new law also are concerned about virtual students’ poor results over the last school year. STAAR results showed about 40% of students failing math exams and roughly one-third not passing their reading tests.
School districts that offered virtual learning longer for more students saw the steepest achievement declines, state officials said.
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