Texas Gubernatorial Candidate Greg Abbott Talks Digital Learning Plan

Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott has announced the third part of his education policy plan which would require millions of dollars of extra funding for online learning start-ups.  His idea is to create increased access to the Texas Virtual School Network and to offer grants for the development and execution of digital learning courses, says Alexa Ura writing for the Texas Tribune.  This process would need a $1 million underwriting. Abbott’s  plan is for the funding to come out of the state’s general revenue.

Abbott believes that the addition of more digital and blended teaching techniques, particularly in Texas’ underperforming schools (at the approximate cost of $100 million each biennium), will close the achievement gap between the schools that have received  “D” or “F” grades from the Texas Education Agency’s accountability system, and the state’s higher performing schools.

“Digital learning will propel a transition toward an education system based on personalized education plans that focus on the individual needs of each student rather than seat-time requirements,” Abbott’s proposal reads.

In his plan, Abbott proposed improving enrollment in the Texas Virtual School Network, which was created in 2007 by the Legislature to provide semester-long online courses that count for course credit in public schools.

Of the 1 million students enrolled in Texas schools during the 2013 spring semester, only 2,400 were enrolled in the online courses.  Abbott believes part of the reason for this is that students cannot enroll in an online course if a “substantially” similar course is offered by the district.  Another explanation for the low enrollment, says Abbott, is that a student can  take only three online courses per year, the maximum number for which the district will pay.

Abbott intends to change state law and open the way for students to take any course online that is included in the state’s curriculum requirements.  That means the course should align with the student’s graduation plan and is approved by the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills state standards.  Abbott also wants to see that  students in “D” and “F” schools have the option to take more than the three allotted courses allowed by the districts.

Teacher groups were not on board.  The Texas State Teachers Association’s (TSTA) president, Rita Haecker, said:

“Greg Abbott’s digital learning plan is another timid proposal that would benefit only a select few of our students, much like his limited pre-K plan.”

And Zac Petkanas, a spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis, called it an attempt to deflect criticism of Abbott’s previous involvement with the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which was found to have awarded millions of dollars in grants without proper peer review.

Ryan Pope, reporter for Texas Public Radio, writes that the blended digital and in-class learning proposal by Abbott is worrying Clay Robison with the TSTA. Robison is of the opinion that anytime a grant is offered, it separates students into “winners and losers”.  He added that an adequately funded public school system is needed which uses that funding for student learning and computers in the classroom, allowing online learning for every student.

Writing for KTRE, an ABC affiliate, Melanie Torre reports that East Texas parents and teachers are more interested in “taming standardized testing“; creating more ideas that will eliminate the need for classroom teachers to “teach to the test”;  finding a way to keep good teachers in the classroom; and improving school funding.

In a stop on his campaign travels, Abbott spoke at Jack Elementary School in Tyler, Texas, one of the school districts that is suing the state, including Abbott, who serves as attorney general, over school funding.

In the latest poll produced by Real Clear Politics, Abbott leads Democratic nominee Wendy Davis by about 12 percentage points. The election will be held on  November 4.