DALLAS — The fate of Texas’ virtual school programs lies in the hands of the state’s education commissioner after lawmakers failed to act on related legislation this session.
Denton ISD and other local districts that intend to keep the option next school year now are scrambling to find money to pay for remote learning after a bill that would have funded such efforts died Sunday night.
School officials say the virtual instruction bill was a casualty of the legislative walkout House Democrats employed to kill a controversial elections integrity bill. Democrats broke quorum, exiting the chamber late Sunday to stop voting on the elections legislation. The virtual bill was scheduled to be called up at 11:40 p.m., but lawmakers didn’t return to the statehouse to vote on it before the midnight deadline passed.
“It was the wrong place at the wrong time,” said David Anderson, general counsel and policy analyst at Raise Your Hand Texas, an Austin-based education advocacy group. “It was on the list of bills to be considered at the point at which the elections bill came up, and the whole thing just came down.”
Now, school systems that planned to offer virtual learning this fall hope Education Commissioner Mike Morath will issue a waiver, allowing all schools to get funding for remote-learning programs. Texas Education Agency officials are “currently researching the issues,” according to an agency statement.
Nationwide, schools suddenly had to shift to online learning when the pandemic hit. But as most reopen, many districts want to keep virtual learning options for families who feel in-person learning is unsafe or believe their student excels in remote classes.
Texas schools are generally funded based on attendance. But without a TEA waiver, the only schools that will receive funding for such programs are the seven that operated a full-time virtual school in 2013.
In lieu of commissioner action, Dallas ISD will pull from its fund balance to pay for its planned hybrid school. Denton ISD will use federal pandemic aid to stand up its virtual academy.
Roughly 300 students have already signed up for remote learning next fall in Denton ISD, and 75 students are expected to attend Dallas ISD’s hybrid program. Many other school districts across North Texas have also made plans for virtual academies including Fort Worth, Frisco and Duncanville.
“We think the commissioner will provide us with some additional guidance moving forward to allow for that [state] funding for a virtual academy, but nothing is guaranteed,” Denton ISD Superintendent Jamie Wilson said.
School leaders largely expected the legislation to pass, even prodding lawmakers in the final weeks of session to move the bill along.
Observers noted that the virtual school legislation had widespread support from both the House and Senate before it became a casualty of the elections bill. All 10 members of the committee tasked with negotiating a compromise between House and Senate versions signed off on the final recommendation.
The bill would have allowed school systems with a state academic accountability grade of a C or higher to operate a remote learning program for local students. Instruction could be done in real-time, at a student’s own pace, or a mixture of both.
Schools could set minimum academic standards for students and assign them to in-person learning if they didn’t meet or maintain that criteria.
The bill also would have required virtual instructors to complete professional development about teaching in that format. The legislation would have expired in the fall of 2027.
“We feel like our families that either don’t feel safe yet because there’s not a vaccine for children under 12 or that saw some significant improvements to learning while they were at home, we think we should be able to provide them that option,” Wilson said.
If Denton schools can’t offer a virtual choice, those families might enroll their students elsewhere in a statewide virtual school or an out-of-state remote learning program, Wilson said. Local oversight over virtual classes is important to maintain the instruction’s quality, the Denton ISD superintendent said.
Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa also worried about the outcome of his district not offering virtual classes.
“We don’t want to lose kids to private school, home-school, charter school or no school,” Hinojosa said.
For now, Denton and Dallas ISD are both proceeding with virtual school plans in the hopes that Morath announces a waiver, but schools need an answer “right away,” Hinojosa said.