Texas Plan for Virtual School Expansion Hits Financial Snag

Texas lawmakers' efforts to expand online education in the state could hit a snag due to the cost, Dallas News reports. Currently a measure is pending in front of state Senate that would increase the number of students who are currently enrolled in online courses in lieu of traditional ones but the efforts to get it passed appear to be derailed both by opposition from teachers unions and the newly revealed price tag.

Although an expansion bill was passed by the House last week, the one under consideration by the Senate is broader. Introduced by Senator Glenn Hegar of Katy, it would open the virtual public school system to private school students and does away with the 3-classes-per-student limit in the House version.

Originally, Hegar's bill made taking at least one online course a requirement for all Texas students from grade 6 onwards but the cost – which was estimated to be more than $1 billion over two years – forced Hegar to drop the provision.

He said he was stunned by the estimate because many experts say that online courses sharply reduce the cost of providing instruction to students. That's one of the reasons the change has been catching on in other states.

A study on the Florida Virtual School, which served nearly 150,000 students last year, showed savings to the state of $1,345 per student. Savings resulted from not having to hire as many teachers and not having to build and maintain classrooms for students in the program.

Even after Hegar eliminated the requirement of e-courses for all older students, the cost of expanding course offerings and making the Texas Virtual School Network available to private and home school students still carries a price tag of nearly $200 million over the next two years.

Although Hegar hopes that some ways could be found to reduce the cost, the estimates strengthened the hand of Democratic members of the chamber who have been strongly opposed to the bill. Senator Leticia Van de Putte, who represents San Antonio, called the measure a handout to for-profit education companies that would do nothing to improve the quality of education for Texas kids.

Vice Chairman of the Senate Education Committee Eddie Lucio expressed concerns about providers outside of Texas offering courses to state students that don't conform with state curriculum standards.

Raise Your Hand Texas, an advocacy group that has lobbied to protect funding for public schools, vigorously opposes the legislation.

David Anthony, a spokesman for the group and former superintendent of the McKinney and Cypress-Fairbanks school districts, said that while enrollment in Texas' three full-time virtual schools topped 6,200 students last year, the achievement results have been unimpressive.

"Despite their rapid growth, the record to date shows that full-time virtual schools have performed poorly on academic achievement and accountability, and little or no information is available on the financial arrangements of providers who are paid with taxpayer funds," he said.

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