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Texas school districts roll back options after lawmakers fail to extend life of virtual learning

Schools hope the state will provide some funding, but it isn’t clear what that will look like.

Nearly 1,000 students told Frisco ISD administrators that they wanted to continue with online learning next school year, but now that’s not going to happen.

On Tuesday, Frisco Superintendent Mike Waldrip announced that the district had to cancel plans to open a virtual school this fall because funding to continue the option wasn’t clear. Numerous other districts, including Round Rock and Hays, also have scrapped plans.

“With no signs that the Texas Education Agency will act soon to grant districts a waiver, Frisco ISD has no choice but to discontinue planning for this option in the coming school year,” Waldrip said in his letter to families.

The future of online education is in flux after Texas lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have funded schools that chose to offer remote instruction next year, leaving families who planned to enroll their students scrambling to make alternate arrangements. The legislation became a late-in-the-session casualty of a House Democrats-led walkout aimed at killing a controversial election bill.

While in-person learning works better for the vast majority of students, some thrive in online classrooms. Many families also wanted to continue remote learning as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Current law only gives full state funding to a handful of full-time virtual schools that were in existence before 2013, though those regulations were waived at the start of the pandemic.

Texas schools are funded largely based on in-person attendance.

Some North Texas school districts, including Denton and Dallas, are continuing preparations for online or hybrid academies in the hopes that the state will find a way to fund them.

But it isn’t entirely clear who can — or will — offer relief.

Can Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath grant a waiver?

Last summer, Morath used his disaster powers from the pandemic to issue a waiver so Texas schools could receive funding for virtual offerings as many shifted to online courses.

But that power is no longer available and can’t be used to authorize funding for remote instruction for the new school year, TEA officials said.

Legislators amended state law in recent months that limits the commissioner’s reach. Morath can only adjust attendance rules during a disaster in the semester when the calamity first occurs and have it in effect for up to one school year after.

TEA officials are examining what that means for the current pandemic crisis after this school year.

The COVID-19 crisis hit Texas in March 2020. The new law would mean the commissioner no longer has disaster powers to tweak attendance rules related to the pandemic after the 2020-21 school year.

However, there may be another option for relief that merits exploration, said David Anderson, general counsel and policy analyst at Raise Your Hand Texas, an Austin-based education advocacy group.

TEA administrators could tweak how they define what attendance means and offer flexibility for virtual classes, Anderson said.

State officials are still examining the issues, agency officials said. Administrative rules regulating how to count students are included in a handbook that the agency adopts annually, typically before the start of the school year.

However, Anderson doesn’t expect any broad waiver that would fully fund schools for new full-time virtual programs. But the state might be able to find a way to fund a few virtual classes for a student enrolled in such a course while attending school on a campus, he suggested.

“Can the attendance accounting handbook be amended in a way that would allow that to happen?” Anderson asked. “That’s a good discussion for districts to continue to have.”

Will lawmakers fix funding during a special session?

The virtual schools bill that died had widespread support, but it was slated for a vote after the elections proposal on the last night of the regular session. The House adjourned early because of a lack of a quorum after the walkout.

Some educators are holding out hope that a similar bill could be tacked onto a special session agenda.

Gov. Greg Abbott has indicated he will call two special sessions later this year. One will address redistricting this fall and another will be held before then, although it isn’t clear what will be on the agenda.

The Legislature can only address issues approved by the governor during special sessions. So will Abbott include the virtual schools issue in his call?

“Stay tuned,” Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said.

Observers have speculated that online instruction may be added to the agenda because of its widespread support.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick named expanding virtual schools options as one of his 31 priorities at the beginning of the session. And at the end, all 10 members of the conference committee — the team tasked with negotiating differences between House and Senate versions of legislation — signed on to the final bill.

As of January, 44% of Texas public school students were still learning remotely, according to TEA data.

Can districts absorb the cost of full-time virtual programs?

Yes, but it’s expensive.

A day after the legislative session ended, Dallas and Denton school leaders told The Dallas Morning News that they would find alternate funding to stand up virtual programs if state aid isn’t available.

Denton officials plan to draw from one-time, federal pandemic aid while Dallas school leaders intend to take money out of the district’s savings. Denton’s program will cost roughly $3 million, according to a district estimate, and be open to district students. Dallas ISD’s planned hybrid school, which will serve a small number of fourth- through sixth-graders in the district, has a roughly $1 million budget, according to district spokeswoman Robyn Harris.

But not every district had such a contingency plan in place.

Last week, Round Rock and Hays school officials said they would scrap plans for their virtual schools, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Houston ISD’s chief financial officer told the Houston Chronicle that it would not offer virtual instruction in the upcoming school year.

Where can Texas students in search of remote options enroll?

There are currently seven full-time, online programs operating in what’s known as the Texas Virtual School Network. These schools are based in districts including Grapevine-Colleyville and Hallsville, but students from across the state can enroll.

Though enrollment in these schools is still relatively small, it’s been on the upswing in recent years. The pandemic proved to be an accelerant — and it’s possible the Legislature’s inaction will serve as yet another catalyst for growth.

Kyla Pickrell, a principal with Texas Virtual Academy at Hallsville, said her school served roughly 7,500 students last year. By January, that had grown to about 11,800.

iSchool Virtual Academy Superintendent Gary Arnold said it’s too early to gauge the impact on their enrollment for next year, but there has been “a lot of interest, a lot of conversations” with parents.

“Things are looking really strong,” he said.

Some opponents of the current law argue that it created a small subset of districts with the ability to poach students from across Texas. They refer to these programs as having a “golden ticket.”

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said the district has long lost out on local students who decide to attend virtual schools based out of other districts.

Existing online programs have a mixed academic record. The majority of students enrolled in one of the state’s full-time virtual programs attend a campus with a rating of “C” or lower, according to Raise Your Hand Texas. Meanwhile, Grapevine-Colleyville’s online program has outperformed most of the state.

What does this mean for kids who liked virtual education?

The pandemic-induced switch to virtual learning was a disaster for many students, educators and advocates say. But for some — including kids who struggle with physical or mental health issues, those who have been bullied or elite athletes — this past year further illuminated that online education can be a lifeline.

Next school year, some families may be apprehensive about returning to brick-and-mortar schools because of public health concerns. Young children aren’t yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, though they could be by the fall.

Some Texas families intent on sticking with virtual public education will probably turn to the handful of existing schools.

But even the established programs won’t be able to serve everybody. Under current law, virtual schools aren’t allowed to enroll students in kindergarten through second grade. Many people believe that young children especially need to be in a physical classroom to learn.

That has left Tammy Williams feeling stuck.

Her granddaughter, who just finished first grade, thrived in virtual school, Williams said. The little girl could move at her own pace, with her teacher able to provide her with more advanced-level lessons than her classmates. Williams liked that she got to see what her granddaughter was learning each day and that class was never canceled because of inclement weather.

But Roscoe’s Lone Star Online Academy is in jeopardy now.

Williams said her family is praying for action by state leaders. If nothing changes, Williams will have to decide between home-schooling or returning her granddaughter to a brick-and-mortar classroom.

“The pandemic is still going on,” she said. “We’re not ready to send her back to face-to-face.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

Emily Donaldson, staff writer. Emily is an education reporter for Education Lab at The Dallas Morning News.

emily.donaldson@dallasnews.com emilyjdonaldson

Talia Richman, Staff writer. Talia is a reporter for The Dallas Morning News Education Lab. A Dallas native, she attended Richardson High School and graduated from the University of Maryland. She previously covered schools and City Hall for The Baltimore Sun.

talia.richman@dallasnews.com @talirichman
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