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By W. Gardner Selby November 28, 2012

Lawmakers signed off on funding method that could bolster online courses

In early 2010, Gov. Rick Perry talked up a program launched the year before enabling high school students to take online classes.

A Jan. 19, 2010, press release issued by Perry"s office quoted Robert Scott, then the Texas education commissioner, as saying the Texas Virtual School Network offered a flexible way to help dropouts or potential dropouts get on track.

We noted a promise in Perry"s salute to the network. "In addition to continued funding for the current VSN program,” the release says, "the governor will work with lawmakers during the 2011 legislative session to secure $5 million for this initiative to enhance” the Texas Education Agency;s "capacity to serve additional students, provide funding to incentivize district participation and contract with private course providers to immediately increase the number of courses available.”

And how did his promise play out?

A bit bumpily.

By email, Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said lawmakers in 2011 approved changes in how the virtual courses are funded that, coupled with a new requirement that every school district offer students the opportunity to enroll in a virtual course, "will increase access for students across the state.”

Then again, the part of the state budget devoted to funding the network provides only $8 million for 2012 and 2013, considerably less than the $20 million offered up in the previous two years.

Big slump?

Not quite, we realized, because those appropriations relate only to paying for the network"s central operations and course reviews. Significantly, lawmakers also put in place a different finance method to pay districts whose students complete virtual courses through traditional school funding.

An education group, the Texas Association of School Boards, summed up in a November 2012 background paper: "Previously, the provider of a TxVSN course received from the state an allotment of $400 per student per course for each student who completed the course. The school district or charter school in which the student was physically enrolled was allotted $80 per student per course to cover administrative expenses,” the paper says.

"Beginning with the 2011-12 school year, students who are enrolled in a TxVSN (online school) or online course are funded by the state in the same way school districts/charter schools receive funding for students enrolled in a traditional class, provided the student successfully completes the online course or (online school) program,” the paper says.

An education agency spokeswoman, Debbie Ratcliffe, emailed us that the funding available to districts was changed from set amounts to state aid tied to each student  who completes an online course, effectively lifting the limit on how much funding is available for such classes.

Through Ratcliffe, the education agency's Monica Martinez, who directs its Curriculum section, advised that two school districts and some online academies fielded nearly $27 million in such aid, for 4,200 course completions, in the 2011-12 school year.

Martinez stressed, too, the significance of newly requiring districts to make virtual courses available to students.

On the other hand, she also said the number of students taking such classes initially tumbled.

Nearly 5,700 students took such classes in 2011-12, she said, compared with nearly 23,000 students in 2010-11. She said the agency believes the drop-off occurred because the state stopped delivering per-student aid based on students enrolling in, rather than completing, courses.

We encountered one more twist. Martinez said the agency separately set aside about $5.8 million in funds to cover more than 10,000 student scholarships through 2012-13--and enrollments have begun to rebound. Some 4,400 students had enrolled in courses as of October 2012, she said.

Speaking to another part of Perry's promise, Martinez said lawmakers did not approve changes in law encouraging private companies to work with districts on delivering virtual classes.

Our ruling

Perry's promise to bump up funding didn't precisely play out, though lawmakers guaranteed a state payment to districts for each student who completes a class and scholarship funds are available to cover costs.

We rate this a Compromise.

Our Sources

Press release, Gov. Rick Perry, "Gov. Perry Announces Initiative to Expand Online Coursework to Improve Educational Access and Flexibility," Jan. 19, 2010

Email (excerpted), response to PolitiFact Texas, Catherine Frazier, then-deputy press secretary, Office of Gov. Rick Perry, July 7, 2011

Background paper, "Virtual Schools and Online Courses" Texas Association of School Boards, November 2012

Telephone interview, Monica Martinez, managing director, Curriculum, Texas Education Agency, Nov. 14, 2012

Document, "Texas Virtual School Network, Expenditure Report," Texas Education Agency (received in response to inquiry Nov. 14, 2012)

Emails (excerpted), responses to PolitiFact Texas, Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, director of media relations, Texas Education Agency, Nov. 12 to Nov. 28, 2012

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