Improving Texas’ policy framework for virtual learning
Texas Commission on Virtual Education seeks to improve the state policy framework for virtual learning
Last month, the Texas Commission on Virtual Education met to discuss draft proposals to improve the delivery and funding of virtual education. The Commission has been meeting since March to hear testimony from various stakeholders about the need for things such as access to high-quality instruction amid hiring challenges, flexible learning models to support career readiness and individualized student support.
Testimony throughout the year has reiterated that pandemic emergency-response remote instruction and the current patchwork of virtual education policies are not indicative of the potential of virtual learning.
The draft proposals fall into six key policy areas and seek to establish Texas as a national leader in innovative, high-quality virtual and hybrid school models. Below is a breakdown of each:
Note: These proposals as summarized below have not been adopted by the Commission and serve as discussion points. The Commission will meet on Nov. 30, 2022, to consider final recommendations. See the full presentation here.
Full-Time Virtual/Hybrid Schools
Currently, there are several different virtual and hybrid learning policy frameworks in the Texas Education Code. Last year, the Legislature passed SB 15 (87-2) in response to the continued demand for full-time virtual learning, but it is not meeting the diverse needs of Texas families and it expires next year.
The Commission proposes a long-term provision of full-time virtual and hybrid schools beyond SB 15 with one unified policy framework. This includes establishing an approval process for full-time virtual and hybrid schools at the Texas Education Agency to verify that high-quality planning criteria are met. Additionally, there is a proposal to conform virtual education eligibility requirements to be consistent with in-person learning, enabling districts to partner with families to offer the modality that is best for each student without artificial barriers.
Supplemental Course Catalog
Texas 2036 analysis of TEA data on advanced course-taking revealed a gap in access between urban and rural districts. For example, 449—just over 41%—of school districts do not offer any Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses.
The Texas Virtual School Network, or TXVSN, Course Catalog provides access to courses, such as foreign language and advanced math, and flexibility that many schools—particularly small and rural ones—need given personnel and scale issues.
Testimony revealed it takes a significant amount of time on the current TXVSN course approval process, which is disincentive for new providers to join and current providers to expand offerings and update courses more frequently. Also, stakeholders testified on the factors for schools encouraging participation in the courses in the TXVSN catalog.
The Commission is considering two proposals to ensure long-term provision of a supplemental course catalog:
- Continuation and expansion of the TXVSN course catalog
- Phase-in a new supplemental course catalog statute as part of long-term, full-time virtual/hybrid school framework
Additionally, the Commission is seeking to simplify the process for course approval and updates, with an emphasis on Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills alignment and rigor for high-quality instructional design.
Emergency/Stopgap Virtual Learning
The Commission has identified two main areas where the need to provide emergency or stopgap virtual learning will continue even after the pandemic:
- Campus- or district-level emergencies, such as a natural disaster
- Student-level circumstances, including extended illness or medical issue
In such situations, districts need to be able to expediently “turn on” virtual learning for the student to ensure continuity. Currently, districts may receive funding to provide such emergency support via remote conferencing statutes, but policy is incredibly restrictive according to testimony from school district administrators.
The Commission is considering proposals to expand opportunities for emergency or stopgap virtual learning while ensuring that the policy is flexible for schools and that the quality of in-person instruction is unaffected.
Teacher Preparation and Support
The testimony from teachers and virtual providers was clear: Trained and well-supported teachers are essential to the success of virtual learning. Teaching in a virtual or hybrid environment requires specific pedagogical and technical training and ongoing support.
For current teachers, the Commission is considering a proposal for TEA to provide course offerings aligned with research-based best practices in high-quality, full-time virtual and hybrid learning. This would include micro-credentials to recognize teachers for professional expertise in these modalities.
For prospective teachers, the Commission is considering a proposal to direct the State Board of Educator Certification to create a framework for virtual learning training that can be embedded into educator preparation programs.
Testimony from high-quality virtual providers underscored the importance of a thoughtful design and planning process prior to launch. Additionally, accountability for virtual learning should be as close to in-person learning accountability standards as possible. The Commission considered the following proposals for accountability:
- Establish an approval process that emphasizes strong planning and design before launch with TEA technical support
- Require TEA to recertify virtual programs at three, five and 10 years based on clear, objective criteria of high-quality performance
- Direct TEA to publish the historic performance of virtual providers to give transparency to families and students about available options
- Ensure accountability for virtual programs is as close to the in-person accountability system as possible
The Commission is giving careful consideration to funding with the establishment of a subcommittee led by former chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Senator Larry Taylor. Also serving on the subcommittee are Senator Paul Bettencourt, Representative Ken King, Representative Eddie Morales and Del Valle ISD Superintendent Annette Tielle.
Testimony heard throughout the year identified two issues that discourage innovation and participation:
- The current SB 15 attendance-based funding structure, such as daily check-ins and time requirements, limit schedule and model flexibilities that families, students, teachers and districts would like. Additionally, it artificially restricts the potential for hybrid models
- The current TXVSN completion-based funding is not fully compensating providers for instruction delivered
Also, strong models from across the country include the provision of startup funding to support and incentivize districts in building new, innovative programs that serve all families.
The Commission is considering funding proposals for each of the delivery formats:
Full-Time Virtual and Hybrid Programs
- Establish a fiscally-neutral, enrollment-based funding system to better enable the flexibility needed for approved full-time virtual and hybrid programs
- Modify the existing reporting structure to capture enrollment for virtual learners throughout the year. This means schools will report a student indicator with beginning and end dates in the virtual program, rather than reporting daily attendance for funding purposes. Student funding will be adjusted based on district in-person attendance rates
- Provide startup grants with technical assistance to incentivize and support schools in launching high-quality virtual and hybrid options, in alignment with the TEA approval process
- Provide TEA with additional funding to adequately support administrative needs for new and existing virtual programs.
- Establish a threshold for supplemental courses using the ratio of on-campus to supplemental courses to determine reporting structure. This means a student is reported as in-person or virtual depending on how much of their day spent on campus.
- Incentivize the Supplemental Course Catalog by providing schools with cost reimbursements for enrolling students in supplemental courses. A statewide and/or district cap could be established for cost purposes, but rural and small schools should be prioritized.
Emergency/Stopgap Virtual Learning
- Continue the attendance-based model for limited emergency or stopgap virtual learning and retain the existing attendance reporting structure