Texas lawmakers are considering a bill to solidify virtual-school opportunities throughout the Lone Star State, authorizing the creation of new, standalone, online high schools empowered to grant diplomas without being associated with traditional “brick-and-mortar” schools.
Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), who chairs the state Senate’s education committee, is the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 1483. Her legislation would expand the Texas Virtual School Network, which was established in 2009 and has grown to 10,000 students. Currently, only existing school districts may provide online or distance-learning courses.
“There’s sort of a lot of red tape in getting courses approved, provider districts working with receiving districts,” said James Goslan, an education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “The advantage of a standalone high school is that you have one entity you can enroll in easily.”
Barbara Smith, project director for the Texas Virtual School Network, says Shapiro “wants the barriers to kids being able to take online courses out of the way so they can take as many courses as they need to.”
Unions, School Boards Oppose
Shapiro’s bill amends the law governing the state’s online schools in several ways. It requires online schools be given the same time as brick-and-mortar schools to amend classes and coursework in the face of changing standards.
The bill also clarifies the process through which local schools pay online course providers for classes taken by students of the local schools—putting online classes at payment parity with classes provided in traditional settings.
There are obstacles to the bill’s passage, however. Shapiro’s bill has drawn objections from several school districts, the Texas State Teachers Organzation, the Texas Association of School Boards, and the Texas Association of School Administrators.
Concerns range from the possibility of academic fraud to removing traditional schools from their role as the primary educator of Texas students.
“Why could a traditional school not remain the conduit between students and the [Virtual Schools Network]?” asked lobbyists Amy Beneski and Jacqueline Lain in a letter submitted to the Senate Education Committee in March. Beneski represents the state school boards association, and Lain works for the school administrators. “The traditional high school has the infrastructure in place to provide the safeguards for students participating” in online education, they wrote.
Goslan disputes the lobbyists’ objections. “Right now there are pretty stringent approval processes for electronic courses,” he explained. “In a traditional school, you don’t have to get your math courses approved every year—we just kind of trust you to teach it.”
School on Saturday
Shapiro’s proposal to let the Texas Education Commissioner authorize creation of standalone, degree-granting online high schools—in which students could enroll fulltime—is making the biggest splash.
Smith, who has worked for the Texas Virtual School Network since 2009, dismisses what appears to be the critics’ chief complaint—that online schools offer students an easy way to get a degree without actually doing the academic work. Savvy online teachers, Smith said, are frequently able to spot and root out the fakers.
“That’s one of the most frequently asked questions we get about online learning,” Smith said. “A good teacher is able to detect when a student’s assignments don’t match their profile, if you will.”
Smith says online courses have proven popular with students who are often busier than those of earlier generations. “I think they have a lot less time than my generation did,” she said. “They want to take algebra in the middle of the night—or after school or on Saturday—and being able to take online courses gives them that kind of flexibility.”
‘Leg Up’ in Workforce Training
It’s too early, Smith said, to measure the outcomes of the Texas Virtual Schools Network, but she said she believes online courses have helped retain students who might otherwise have dropped out.
“What other states are finding is that they’re keeping kids in school because the format of school is meeting the students’ needs,” she said. “We’re not far enough along to have the data yet, but I know we’ll find we’re preventing dropouts with this flexibility.”
And students who stick in high school are more likely to pursue some form of higher education, Smith said, giving the state a leg up in workforce training.
“Texas,” Smith said, “is going to have a better-informed workforce because of that.”
Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.