Number of Cyberschools in Texas Grows Despite Concerns, Limits

The number of full-time cyberschools serving public school students in Texas is expected double in the coming school year. Despite a history of lackluster performance and a new law limiting the number of online courses public school students can take at the state’s expense, the full-time cyberschools’ number is growing.

According to Morgan Smith of The New York Times, the new bill to limit the number of online courses for public school students was sponsored by State Representative Ken King, a Republican. According to King, the bill was aimed to encourage virtual learning models that blended online classes with a traditional classroom experience. He also said that “he added language limiting the number of tuition-free online classes that students could take to three per year because of concerns that the legislation might lead to more full-time online schools in the state and that the bill’s intent was not to have more kids sitting on their couch at home taking online classes.”

Despite the provision, three new virtual schools obtained waivers from the Texas Education Agency and will allow students to receive online instruction for all their classes as early as the third grade. The schools will be opening this fall.

The commercial companies that manage virtual schools have come under heightened scrutiny from lawmakers who fear their outsized influence on public education policy. While many educators believe online instruction can benefit students in some circumstances, they have also raised concerns over insufficient financial oversight and poor academic performance in full-time virtual schools.

Under the state law, commercial entities cannot operate public schools. But in case of full-time online programs, public districts and charter schools are allowed to “turn over almost all management to commercial companies. This is considered a turnkey solution for districts lacking the resources to support an in-house online school.”

In 2012, the state’s three existing full-time cyberschools served about 8,300 public school students in grades 3 through 12. More than 5,000 of those students were enrolled in the Texas Virtual Academy, which is owned by a Lewisville-based charter school network and managed by K12 Inc.

The Texas Virtual Academy, opened in 2006, moved to its current charter partner in 2011 when its original partner did not renew a contract after two years of “academically unacceptable” state accountability ratings. The academy is still struggling.

In 2013, the academy was among just 9% of Texas public school campuses that did not meet new state accountability standards. Despite the challenges, Mary Gifford, a senior vice president at K12, said that the school now met or exceeded state standards in all but one area. A school managed by Pearson’s Connections Education, a commercial firm that holds a contract with the Houston Independent School District, also offers full-time online programs.

Houston I.S.D.’s full-time Texas Connections Academy, which Lee Ann Lockard, the academy’s executive director, said would expand to 4,000 students this year, avoided the lowest state accountability rating in 2013 for the first time since it opened in 2010.

K12 plans to partner with the Huntsville Independent School District and Sam Houston State University to open its second full-time statewide cyberschool in the fall.