When it comes to using technology to improve students’ learning opportunities, Texas is a pioneer. But this legislative season, the Senate made a major blunder that keeps students from accessing the educational options they deserve. Earlier in the year, Sen. Larry Taylor introduced a bill that would have removed barriers that block some students from accessing supplemental online courses offered through the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN). The bill looked promising as it worked its way out of the Senate Education Committee with a 6-3 vote, but then it mysteriously died before reaching the Senate floor.
To give credit where it’s due, Texas is one of only seven states that provide students with access to online learning options through a statewide Course Access program. TxVSN has a catalog of more than 89 different courses—including U.S. Government, Algebra, Art, and Astronomy—offered by school districts, regional education service centers, and the University of Texas. In the 2013-2014 school year more than 5,700 students took advantage of these courses. Nonetheless, TxVSN’s supplemental courses currently serve only 0.1 percent of Texas’ total student population of more than five million. Across the state, 57 percent of high schools do not offer Calculus, 20 percent of high schools do not offer physics, and 27 percent of districts do not offer any Advanced Placement courses, which are critical for students preparing for college. These courses are all available through the TxVSN course catalog – but current policies keep many students from taking them.
This is why the changes proposed in Sen. Taylor’s Online Access and Digital Learning bill are so important.
First, the bill would have increased the number of courses a student can take through the program. Currently, if a student wishes to take more than three yearlong TxVSN courses at a time, his or her home district can refuse to pay for the additional courses. But if a student is better able to prepare for college or pursue her academic interests through multiple TxVSN courses, why should the policy put an arbitrary cap on the number taken?
Second, the bill would have removed restrictions that prevent students from taking TxVSN courses that are substantially similar to courses offered by their home districts. These current rules do not consider the increased flexibility that TxVSN courses provide. For example, students may be interested in two different courses at their local school that are offered only at the same time. Sometimes students need to free up hours in their school schedule to make time for sports or other extracurricular activities. And some students just learn better in an online learning environment where flexible pacing gives them more time to digest concepts they struggle with or where the online modality allows them to avoid social distractions.
Third, the bill would have removed the $400 cap on online course costs. This does not mean that course providers would have then been able to charge whatever they want for courses. Instead, removing the course price cap would have allowed course providers to offer a wider selection of courses to meet students’ needs. Take an advanced science course, for example. It may cost more than $400 to provide because it requires access to lab equipment. Removing the cap would have made offering such a course through the TxVSN catalog possible, and the Commissioner of Education would then negotiate the course costs.
Lastly, the proposed bill would have expanded the Commissioner’s authority to remove poor-performing course providers from the program. This quality control measure augments the already existing requirements that courses must “be in a specific subject that is part of the required curriculum,” “be aligned with … essential knowledge and skills,” and “be the equivalent in instructional rigor and scope to a course that is provided in a traditional classroom setting.” These requirements ensure that students taking online courses receive the same quality learning experiences that they expect from traditional courses.
By passing this bill, Texas would have continued to lead the way in offering innovative education programs to better serve its students. Instead, the bill was shuttered by political forces that work counter to students’ best interests.