As the delta variant causes COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations to increase again, many parents have expressed concern about sending students back to in-person learning. Those concerns have been highlighted in part by the back and forth over the validity of mask mandates, after Gov. Greg Abbott banned districts from requiring masks.
Further, most public school districts are not offering a virtual option this year because it’s not being funded by the state. Virtual learning was paid for earlier in the pandemic through a waiver issued by Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath. He temporarily extended the scope of programs outlined in the Texas Virtual School Network (TXVSN).
State Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian) was behind one of the first efforts in 2013 to establish the operation of the TXVSN – long before COVID-19.
“The purpose of the legislation at the time was to give small schools like the ones I represent, the same educational opportunities as large schools where say, you know, a kid in Austin ISD can take all the advanced placement classes they like. But in a small school, those options aren’t there without virtual. So that was the intent of the original legislation, was to provide a level playing field for all kids to have same educational opportunities,” King said.
On the TXVSN web site, courses such as those King is talking about are available in the “course catalog.” But there are still a little over a handful of full-time virtual public school options offered through districts across the state. These programs have some limitations. They are only for students in grades 3-12 and students must have been enrolled in a public school program the year prior – so a family who tried homeschooling in the 2020-2021 school year would need to request an exception.
“We’ve allowed school boards and superintendents to partner with parents to decide if a kid is eligible and why they need that virtual option,” King said. “And, you know, if there’s a health reason or… there’s all kinds of ways the rules are being bent at the moment because we’re operating on a waiver based on a bill I passed in 2013 that was never meant for a pandemic environment.”
Functionally, those full-time programs still being offered are the most similar to what students experienced in virtual learning through their home districts during the 2020-2021 school year. However, King has doubts that these are great opportunities for everyone – saying several of those available are offered by “failing schools” – meaning that they do not meet standards set by the TEA.
“And that’s really the issue with the virtual education,” King said. “I know everybody hates to hear about the STAAR test, but if you look at how students performed that were forced into the virtual option and didn’t have real-time instruction from a live teacher, we have a lot of kids that were failing the virtual option that that we gave them last time.”
There was a measure to extend funding for virtual programs through all districts this school year, but it died in the most recent regular legislative session when Democrats in the House walked out to prevent the passage of voting legislation. It’s now back on the agenda in the second special session of the summer.
“I am a joint author of the current expansion of the virtual education bill because I know, like everybody else does, virtual is not going away. And if we’re going to provide virtual or allow virtual in our schools, the state needs to pay for it,” King said.
That’s part of the reason King says he pushed legislation in the regular session that creates the Texas Commission on Virtual Education. That measure did pass before the walkout.
“I think the state has an obligation to be pretty careful about how we implement virtual going forward, knowing that we’re never going back to the way it was – virtual is going to be more a part of our education curriculum than it ever has been.”
The scope of the virtual schools legislation on the agenda in the current special session is still being debated. In the filed draft of the bill, the statute would expire in 2027. However the latest version of the Senate bill has been updated to expire in 2023 – meaning conversations about funding for virtual learning could start up again in the near future.