By Brian Lopez
After months in limbo during a new pandemic wave, Texas lawmakers passed a bill Monday afternoon that will expand and fund virtual learning, but it would exclude students who failed their STAAR exams.
The Texas House approved Senate Bill 15 in a 119-7 vote, three days after granting it preliminary approval. The bill will now head back to the Senate where lawmakers will either accept the House’s changes or negotiate differences before it heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. The bill, as is now, threatens to leave students, especially students of color, without a virtual option.
State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, was the only House member to speak on the bill, 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.
The bill heading back to the Senate says that for a school to receive funding, students attending virtually 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.
While the passage of the bill will give some parents a measure of relief, it leaves out a big chunk of students that failed. Almost 40% of students did not pass their math assessment and nearly a third didn’t pass reading.
This would also mean that the bill will leave out many Hispanic and Black children as they suffered the substantial learning loss last year when learning virtually.
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, according to state data.
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.
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.
Proponents of SB 15 have largely touted it as a measure with enough guardrails to make sure students succeed while learning remotely and to help those who might fall through the cracks. The bill would pay for 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.
“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.
The bill would allow remote learning to be offered only in schools that received a C grade or higher in the most recent round of state accountability ratings. No more than 10% of the district’s student population could be enrolled online, and schools could require students to return to in-classroom learning if they do not meet academic standards.
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 in person.
There weren’t any real debates while the bill was on the House floor. Bell introduced an amendment, which passed, to reimburse schools that are already offering a virtual learning option but are either paying for it out of pocket or using federal relief dollars.
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.
This post originally appeared on the Texas Tribune.