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By W. Gardner Selby June 19, 2018

Abbott promise to repeal limits on online courses goes unfulfilled

Greg Abbott declared while running for governor that other states were outpacing Texas in helping students take unlimited classes online.

In spring 2013, Abbott said, only 2,400 students were enrolled in courses offered through the Texas Virtual School Network.

In his campaign's compendium of campaign promises, Abbott suggested various reasons including, he said, the state's unreasonable law permitting schools to deny funding for a student's online course if the school or district offers a "substantially similar course." Also, Abbott said, districts could decline to pay for a student to take more than three online courses, potentially forcing students to pony up for additional classes.

"In order to guarantee that digital learning is available to all students at any time," Abbott said, "Texas must take steps to make sure the TxVSN is robust, accessible, and transparent."

Abbott called next for any student to be allowed to take any TxVSN course provided it's aligned with state curriculum guidelines and fits with the student's graduation plan, regardless of whether their school offers a substantially similar course. Also, Abbott said, a student attending a poorly rated campus should have costs covered for more than three TxVSN courses at a time.

As Abbott sought re-election in 2018, we looked into progress on this promise and found that legislation was offered on Abbott's watch but didn't make it into law.

Texas legislative records show that in the 2015 regular session, Abbott's first as governor, Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Galveston, won committee approval of Senate Bill 894 that would make it easier for students to take online courses.

But Taylor's measure--opposed by the state's major teacher groups, according to a Senate Education Committee witness list--didn't win consideration by the full Senate.

Taylor, who chairs the education panel, said at the Senate's March 2015 hearing on his proposal that removing limits in existing law--including a $400 cap on each online course's cost-- would enhance student access to TxVSN courses.

Public education advocates said the legislation would add up to a gift to vendors of online courses at a cost to brick-and-mortar schools. The proposal's fiscal note, prepared by Legislative Budget Board staff, indicates $63 million in initial annual costs tied to students in kindergarten through second grade newly having access to TxVSN courses and to older students having unlimited access.

At the hearing, one public school advocate questioned the proposal's removal of a state requirement that students enrolled full-time in TxVSN courses be enrolled the previous year in a public school.

David Anthony of Raise Your Hand Texas also noted that the changes in law were being sought just two years after lawmakers passed into law House Bill 1926 to bolster access to TxVSN courses.

Anthony said: "There are no significant policy obstacles" to Texas students taking supplemental online courses.

Our search of legislative records didn't show similar legislation getting offered in the 2017 legislative session. By email, Texas Education Agency officials otherwise confirmed that Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, authored a proposal, ultimately signed into law, making it easier for military dependents to enroll full-time in TxVSN courses. Previously, children of active military were ineligible to do so without previously attending a Texas public school for at least a year.

We didn't hear back from Abbott's campaign about progress on this promise.

We rate this previously unrated vow an Abbott Promise Broken.

Promise Broken  – The promise has not been fulfilled.

Our Sources

Document, "Bicentennial Blueprint, Greg Abbott's Working Texans Plan," Greg Abbott campaign, Oct. 28, 2013

Legislation, Senate Bill 894, "Actions," "Witness List,  SB 894, Senate Committee Report Education," "Fiscal Note," Texas Legislative Council, Legislative Budget Board, March 12, 2015, 2015 regular legislative session (accessed June 12, 2018)

Audio of hearing on SB 894, Texas Senate Committee on Education, March 12, 2015 (6:04 mark)

Bill analysis including author's statement of intent, Senate Bill 587, 2017 regular legislative session, Senate Research Center, June 7, 2017

Emails, DeEtta Culbertson, media relations and correspondence manager; Lauren Callahan, media relations and social media manager, Texas Education Agency, Aug. 23, 2017 and June 12-13, 2018

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