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Recommendations: Expanding Course Access & Digital Learning through the Texas Virtual School Network

Recommendations: Expanding Course Access & Digital Learning through the Texas Virtual School Network

Distributed to the Senate Education Committee

March 12, 2015

Across Texas, there is significant disparity in course options for students, particularly when comparing large affluent school districts with their smaller, rural, and less affluent school systems.  For example, 27% of Texas school districts do not offer college-credit bearing Advanced Placement courses to high school students, placing them at a disadvantage in relation to students who are able to get a head start on college. These inequities undermine our state’s commitment to equal education opportunities across Texas communities.

Currently, the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN) permits students to take either individual courses to supplement those offered at their school or enroll in a full-time online program; however, several policy barriers limit the network’s impact in comparison to other states’ broader course access programs.

Furthermore, research from the U.S. Department of Education and a recent Harvard study on the Florida Virtual School (the nation’s largest virtual school network) demonstrate that students in online courses perform at a level equal or above their peers in traditional classrooms.

Texas should remove counterproductive limitations on online learning and provide greater opportunity for students to access digital educational content that may not be offered by their own school.

1. Remove barriers to supplemental, part-time online courses through the TxVSN

Texans are natural pioneers, but when it comes to online learning we’ve fenced ourselves in with regulatory barriers of our own making.  Given the size of our state, we should be at the top of the list when it comes to the numbers of students taking advantage of online courses to enrich their education.  Yet, a 2013 report, Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning, ranks Texas as No. 11 with respect to supplemental course enrollment.  There are a number of state policies that are standing in the way of students seeking to enroll in an online course.   For example, a student is limited to taking three state-funded online courses per school year. And, Texas uniquely allows districts to hold a veto over a student’s ability to enroll in an online course if a district offers a “substantially similar” one.  Texas is the only state that, on the state level, places a limit on both the number of courses available to a student in any given year and gives the power to the district to restrict a student’s enrollment in a course if there is a “substantially similar” one offered. Additionally, Texas limits the fee that can be charged for an online course to $400, limiting a broader catalog of courses in fields such as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).  Instead, the Commissioner should have authority to negotiate individual course fees.

2. Remove barriers to full-time online learning through the TxVSN

Texas laws also impede the development of a robust array of full-time online school options. Specifically, Texas students are disadvantaged in four ways compared to students in other states. 

First, of the thirty states that offer full-time online learning, Texas is the only state that restricts K-2 grade students from participating. Second, Texas remains only one of five states that require online students to have a prior public year enrollment restriction. Third, state law imposes geographic boundaries on public charter schools that offer full-time online programs.  As a state, we should maximize the benefits of online learning opportunities and not construct artificial barriers for families and students. School districts are not prohibited from offering their online programs to students who reside outside their physical borders and public charters should have the same opportunity to serve students.

Finally, state lawmakers should reverse the current moratorium on a district’s ability to innovate and operate a new full-time online public school.  The current seven full-time schools now have a near monopoly in the state.  This is not the way to incentivize continuous improvement in this domain of public education. We should expect, and create the conditions for, these schools to raise their game as technology and the field’s understanding of effective online instruction improves.  Instead, we’re relying on regulations to ensure quality.  We have advocated for clear performance standards, transparency, and closure options if these schools are not serving students well. We should give other schools the chance to show what they can do—to push us toward even higher performance expectations--within this framework.

3. Ensure Texas’ course access and digital learning environment is high-quality

Finally, we do want to recognize the many features of the TxVSN that have created a strong foundation for online learning in our state. We agree with the decisions lawmakers have made to require students to take all state mandated tests; to require the curriculum fully cover the TEKS; and to require that online instruction is led by Texas certified teachers. We also agree that providers must be either rated academically acceptable or provide evidence of previous or likely success to serve students in the TxVSN.

We are committed to further clarifying and strengthening the Commissioner’s ability to enforce results-focused performance standards for entities offering courses through the TxVSN. We applaud the provision providing the Commissioner with revocation authority for an entity if it consistently produces poor student performance outcomes. We’re hopeful that lawmakers will hold firm on performance expectations while reconsidering the many regulations on online learning that have no relationship to, and may in fact diminish, quality.