Texas Virtual Academy
, a charter school group based in Lewisville, is one of three full-time virtual schools operating in Texas.
By TERRENCE STUTZ
Published: 05 May 2013 11:12 PM
Updated: 05 May 2013 11:37 PM
AUSTIN — Legislative efforts to dramatically boost the number of Texas students taking online courseshave been sidetracked by strong opposition from public education groups and a hefty price tag that stunned supporters.
The state’s virtual school network now serves only a fraction of high school students. Legislation pending before the Senate would add courses to attract thousands more and expand the network to private school and home-school students.
The measure also would broaden the list of virtual education providers, now limited to school districts,charter schools and colleges, to nonprofit entities and private companies. And it would require school districts to provide all students in grades three through 12 an opportunity to enroll in electronic courses.
“Technology has revolutionized society, yet our state education system does not benefit as much as it could from online learning,” said Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, who wrote the virtual education bill. “Every major university in Texas as well as driver’s license courses are online. But 99 percent of our students have no experience with online courses.”
House members approved a virtual school bill Friday, but it is not nearly as far-reaching as Hegar’s measure. It would not bring private school students into the system and would limit the number of online courses a student may take to no more than three per school year.
Like Hegar’s proposal, the House bill would allow private companies and nonprofits to develop online courses for Texas students, and it directs the Texas Education Agency to set up a central clearinghouse for students to see what classes are available.
The Senate bill originally called for all students in grades six and above to take at least one online courseeach school year. But a fiscal analysis found that it would cost the state more than $1 billion over two years to implement, prompting Hegar to drop that provision several weeks ago.
He said he was stunned by the estimate because many experts say that online courses sharply reduce the cost of providing instruction to students. That’s one of the reasons the change has been catching on in other states.
A study on the Florida Virtual School, which served nearly 150,000 students last year, showed savings to the state of $1,345 per student. Savings resulted from not having to hire as many teachers and not having to build and maintain classrooms for students in the program.
Even after Hegar eliminated the requirement of e-courses for all older students, the cost of expanding course offerings and making the Texas Virtual School Network available to private and home school students still carries a price tag of nearly $200 million over the next two years.
Hegar hopes to reduce the cost further. But it has held up Senate approval of the legislation, which already faced stiff opposition from most of the chamber’s Democrats.
“This would be a boon for all these private virtual providers,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, voicing the sentiments of other Democratic senators who are resisting any shift of public school dollars to private companies. “This is how other states have gotten into trouble with virtual providers, who were allowed to come in and make beaucoup bucks.”
Sen. Eddie Lucio, vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he is concerned that non-Texas providers will try to offer course material developed in other states that doesn’t conform to Texas curriculum requirements. That could leave students without the skills they need to pass achievement exams, the Brownsville Democrat said.
Raise Your Hand Texas, an advocacy group that has lobbied to protect funding for public schools, vigorously opposes the legislation.
David Anthony, a spokesman for the group and former superintendent of the McKinney and Cypress-Fairbanks school districts, said that while enrollment in Texas’ three full-time virtual schools topped 6,200 students last year, the achievement results have been unimpressive.
“Despite their rapid growth, the record to date shows that full-time virtual schools have performed poorly on academic achievement and accountability, and little or no information is available on the financial arrangements of providers who are paid with taxpayer funds,” he said.
The three full-time virtual schools are operated by the Houston and Texarkana school districts, and the Texas Virtual Academy, operated by a charter school group based in Lewisville.
In addition, 5,685 students in grades eight to 12 in regular public schools took at least one online course through the Virtual School Network last year. That number was down 75 percent from the previous year because of funding cuts the Legislature instituted in 2011. A total of 467 districts allow some students to take online classes through the network.
Hegar said it is inevitable that more students will take online classes in the future, so Texas should pave the way now to accommodate them.
“The legislation will give school districts and charter schools greater flexibility in providing online courses and increase the accountability for those courses,” he said.
The measure would require the Texas Education Agency to continuously monitor and evaluate online providers, using academic performance by students as the chief criterion. Initial approval of an online provider would be for three years, with renewal contingent on how well students performed.
The agency would be directed to develop a comprehensive course numbering system for all electronic catalogue courses offered through the online network and notify parents about the offerings twice a year.
Hegar agreed to have home-school and private-school students initially pay a fee to take online courses through the network. Another provision calls for payment to a private provider only after students have completed their courses.
Follow Terrence Stutz on Twitter at @t_stutz.
AT A GLANCE: Virtual schools
The Texas Virtual School Network Online Schools Program provides full-time, online learning options to students in grades three to 12 through approved public school districts and open enrollment charter schools. Instruction is 100 percent virtual, and students are not required be physically present on campus.
The three current online schools in Texas and their enrollment in 2011-12 are:
Texas Connections Academy in the Houston school district, grades three to 12: 2,463
Texas Virtual Academy (based in Lewisville), grades three to 12: 3,665
Texarkana ISD Virtual Academy, grades three to seven: 81
Total enrollment: 6,209
SOURCE: Texas Education Agency