It is March 2020 and every schoolroom in Texas is practically empty. Earlier this month, with the COVID-19 virus spreading so quickly, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster in Texas, resulting in all Texas school districts being temporarily closed. During a Town Hall event on March 19, the governor made it clear that despite school closures, Texas students should continue to be educated through online processes or other means.
Now, districts are scrambling to develop systems to ensure students continue to receive educational services. In big districts like Dallas ISD, classes transitioned to an online model that uses programs like PowerSchool LMS and Google Classroom, with some teachers are using Zoom to video conference with their students.
The picture for smaller districts is murkier. Lockhart ISD, for example, is remaining closed and not providing instructional services until at least April 3.
Unexpected and unprecedented disasters like the COVID-19 virus illustrate just how important it is that education be the most innovative and forward-thinking profession in Texas. While there is no way we could have predicted how quickly everything would change this spring, there are programs that can help prepare us for next time.
One such program is the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN). TxVSN was created by the Texas Legislature in 2007 to offer equitable access to online courses for Texas students. The system has two components: the TxVSN Statewide Catalog, which provides supplemental courses to high school students, and the TxVSN Online Schools Program (OLS), which provides full-time programs to students in grades 3 through 12.
Unfortunately, there are only nine full-time OLS programs in a state with more than 5 million public school students. The reason there are only nine programs is that the Legislature placed a moratorium on new programs in 2013, preventing the vast majority of school districts from creating any new programs to serve their students online. This moratorium has remained in place despite legislative attempts to remove it being supported by some district staff.
The Statewide Catalog has also faced development hurdles. All courses in the catalog have to be approved by the Texas Education Agency (or by districts through a complex waiver process). However, TEA apparently has not had the resources to approve courses in recent years. Providers have had to rely on a complex school district waiver process to get their courses approved.
The fact is, TxVSN has not had the ability to grow into a larger program due to various limits on how it can function. Yet there is huge potential for the program to help students who need alternative instructional environments. And limiting the program to only seven districts puts all other districts at a disadvantage.
But the TxVSN is just one option for innovative learning, and while it is in the spotlight right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we shouldn’t forget about other innovative ways that make education stronger in Texas—things like Texas Partnerships or the freedom to homeschool.
Texas Partnerships come from a bill passed during the 85th Legislative Session in 2017. The program allows districts to partner with a charter school provider to operate a campus within the school district, either to create an innovative program or give a failing campus a fresh start. Districts usually receive additional funding for that campus and new ideas are brought to the campus and district.
And Texas has maintained a strong environment for homeschooling by staying out of families’ way. If a family decides that public schools and private schools are not the right option for their children, they are free to pursue education for their children in any way they like. And with the Texas Homeschool Coalition estimating there to be as many as 350,000 homeschooled students in Texas, many parents are making that choice.
Innovation and educational options are two sides of the same coin. Whether it’s the option to attend a high quality online public school, a STEM-focused charter school, or educate kids at home, educational innovation in Texas comes on the heels of educational options.
As we continue to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, the most important thing we can do is continue to adapt and to learn. That should apply to how we educate our kids, too.