Virtual education offers valuable services to Texas students and the teachers and schools working to help them grow. Texas’ response to these developments has been mixed, leaving portions of state statute out of touch with current family needs.
“Virtual education” usually refers to education services that are primarily or completely delivered online. Virtual education can be provided as single courses or an all-inclusive curriculum. “Blended learning” blends in-person education at a physical school and the use of virtual tools and digital data to customize a student’s education.
“Hybrid schools” are a relatively new type of blended learning model that more fully incorporates both virtual education as defined above and traditional classroom instruction. Students in hybrid schools spend time taking classes in both virtual and in-person environments.
Every student has their own unique set of circumstances in life. Having the option to receive their education entirely online is the preferred scenario for a subset of students in Texas, and may become the preferred scenario for many more. Regardless of the reason for why a student may benefit from full-time or part-time online education (health concerns, bullying, special education needs, etc), virtual education gives public school students another option for learning.
While other states (such as Florida and Utah) have encouraged the development of virtual education services, Texas has chosen to severely limit these offerings to their students.
While Texas does have some limited options for virtual education, continued development of the Texas Virtual Schools Network (TXVSN) has been hindered by the Legislature. In 2013, a moratorium on the approval of new full-time programs was passed. Only the eight district and charter programs in operation before January 1st, 2013 are now allowed to operate, and only six of those districts and charters are still running their programs. Since then, multiple attempts to lift the moratorium have been rejected, despite support from some school districts that would like to operate an OLS program for the benefit of their students. This forces students who might otherwise want to stay in their home district to transfer to another district, possibly even a district across the state, to receive full-time virtual education.
In addition to the moratorium, other laws also limit the development of an accessible, high-quality virtual education system. For instance, current statute allows districts to deny students the ability to enroll in an online course if the student’s home district offer a “substantially similar” course. Online courses are only available for high school students, and virtual schools are not permitted to serve K-2 students. Obtaining approval to offer courses is burdensome for districts; so is navigating the current TXVSN platform and reporting structure. A requirement that students must be enrolled in a brick-and-mortar Texas public school the year before enrolling in a virtual program prevents students who move to Texas from enrolling in a similar program here.
Hybrid schools, because of their virtual component, are also impacted by these statutes. According to current law, state funding can only apply to up to three virtual courses per high school student per year, or to virtual campuses run by the eight districts mentioned above. This limits the ability of districts to design programs that meet the needs of all their students.
Waivers issued by the Texas Education Agency for the 2020-21 school year will temporarily mitigate some of these barriers. But permanent reforms will be the responsibility of the Legislature.
The goal of education in Texas should be to accomplish “a general diffusion of knowledge…essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people”—wherever a student is placed and whatever his circumstances may be. To achieve this goal, education should be the most innovative profession in our state. Allowing Texas to lag behind other states and the nation in online education tools for our students is a missed opportunity. Texas should embrace ways to develop virtual classrooms alongside (and in combination with) brick and mortar classrooms in order to provide a variety of options to students with a variety of needs.
- End the artificial cap on providers of virtual education in this state and other limitations on Texas students' ability to freely access digital courses through the Virtual Schools Network.