Imagine if a state enacted a law that wound up banning the use of the latest medical technology during a crisis. Practically speaking, that is what Texas has done in education.
In 2013, the state of Texas passed a law prohibiting any new public school districts from offering full-time online education. The law said only a handful of school districts who were already doing this could provide full-time online education in the future. Furthermore, the law limited the rest of the state’s public school districts from offering more than three classes online to each student. As a result, only half a dozen of the state’s more than 1,000 public school districts are allowed by law to offer full-time online education.
While Texas is the proud home of six of the nation’s largest cities, only one of them—Houston—can offer full-time online education. The Independent School Districts in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth and El Paso are banned by law from doing so.
But it’s not just the state’s largest districts which are being held back by this online moratorium. Last year, several suburban districts asked for the moratorium to be lifted. And for some rural districts, this law prevents them from efficiently offering a wider range of classes to their students.
The 2013 moratorium was pushed by the education unions and brick-and-mortar school related vendors to prevent online schools from competing for students at their physical campuses, and because of concerns about the quality of some online schools. As a result, this moratorium on education technology has kept Texas students way behind their peers in the rest of the country. In Texas, a state with 5.5 million students, only 16,000 are engaged in full-time online learning. In Florida, a state with half as many students, more than 36,000 students are attending full-time online schools—and the state is working to dramatically increase its capacity so up to 2.7 million students can be taking classes online full-time by May 4.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit the Greater Houston area. Students at several area school districts missed two to three weeks of instruction and afterwards many endured long bus rides for months to school buildings far from their flood-damaged neighborhoods. Now, the coronavirus has hit the state and thousands of schools are closed across Texas—many for the rest of the school year. While we have many great teachers and school leaders who are working tirelessly to provide some type of online education during this crisis, the clear fact is that Texas was not prepared—because of the Legislature’s refusal to allow for a robust online education system—for this crisis. This has been especially painful for our hundreds of thousands of special needs students in our public school system.
While the Texas Education Agency has provided a temporary waiver to the 2013 moratorium for the rest of this school year, Texas shouldn’t wait for the next disaster to change this outdated law. There will be more hurricanes and there will be more viruses but unless improvements are made Texas won’t be prepared to quickly shift their teachers and students to online learning when needed.
Of course, even outside of a crisis there are benefits to making more classes available online to students across the state of Texas. A virtual education can be a lifesaver to a seriously ill student who can’t attend a traditional school. Providing more classes online will help rural schools to stay competitive with suburban schools that offer a wider array of classes. In fact, online education is an opportunity for the state’s best schools and teachers to offer their classes to students across the state.
When the legislature returns in January, one of its first priorities should be to lift the moratorium on full time online education. Time’s up on this outdated law.