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Less than a week before the special session ends, Texas lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk that would expand and fund virtual learning, but would exclude students who failed their STAAR exams.
The Texas Senate gave final approval to Senate Bill 15 in a 29-2 vote Tuesday afternoon. Controversially, the bill will leave out many students, especially many students of color, without a virtual option.
The bill would fund virtual learning until September 2023 and give local school districts and charter schools the autonomy to set up their own virtual learning programs. Lawmakers set the fall 2023 date to allow them to revisit the issue during their next regular session.
The bill heading back to Abbott says that for a school to receive remote-learning funding, students learning outside the classroom must have passed their STAAR exams, earned a C grade or higher in foundation curriculum courses and have no more than 10% unexcused absences the previous year. This amendment was added Friday in the Texas House.
Schools could also require students to return to in-classroom learning if they do not meet academic standards.
While the passage of the bill will give some relief to parents worried about sending their children to school during a pandemic, it will leave out a big chunk of students who failed. Almost 40% of students did not pass their math assessment and nearly a third didn't pass reading in the last school year. Those who failed were disproportionately Black and Hispanic.
School districts across the state that have offered virtual learning options thus far have either used federal funds to make up for the loss in funding or dug into district savings if federal funds weren’t available.
The bill sent to Abbott will be a blow to families who are concerned about the safety of returning their kids to classrooms but whose kids don’t qualify.
On Friday, state data showed that even though some Texas schools haven’t started classes, the number of positive COVID-19 student cases statewide reported last week surpassed the peak seen any time last year.
Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said he was worried about funding virtual options because it did not work for many students, but added that the rules related to performance add more guardrails.
Hispanic students in districts with over three-quarters of learning done remotely saw the largest drops compared with students in other demographic groups, with a 10 percentage point decrease in the number of students meeting reading expectations and a 34 percentage point decrease in those meeting math expectations.
This is followed by Black students taking mostly remote classes, who saw a 6 percentage point decrease in those meeting reading expectations and a 28 percentage point decrease in those meeting expectations for math.
State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, was the only member to speak on the bill when the House gave final approval Monday, saying she would vote for it reluctantly.
“There’s a lot of limitations still built into this legislation and more importantly, this is coming too late,” she said.
Proponents of SB 15 have largely touted it as a measure with enough protections to make sure students succeed while learning remotely and to help those who might fall through the cracks.
“We understand that virtual learning is not for every child, but we have heard from many parents asking for a high-quality virtual option for their students, especially with the ever-changing situation that we are facing with COVID-19,” said state Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney, said Friday.
Opponents of the long-term establishment of virtual learning say that students learn best in classrooms and cite declining standardized test scores last school year, especially in districts that had most of their instruction online.
School districts that for whatever reason don’t offer virtual learning would be allowed to contract with other districts that do, according to the bill. To reduce the strain on teachers and schools, educators would be allowed to teach only virtually or only in person.
Over the summer, schools scrambled to figure out learning options for families that did not want their children to return to classrooms. At first, because the state did not move to fund virtual learning like it did last year, many school districts disbanded online programs.
But when it became clear that the delta variant would hinder a return to normalcy in schools — especially for children under 12, who can’t yet be vaccinated — school districts moved to provide other options, no matter the cost.
“Senate Bill 15 empowers our districts to be innovative and flexible to meet the needs of our students,” Bell said during Tuesday’s committee hearing.
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