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The Senate Committee on Education met Friday, November 13, 2020, to hear invited testimony on interim charges related to digital learning, special education, monitoring of legislation passed during the 86th legislative session, and best practices for providing instruction during COVID-19.

Digital Learning

During his testimony, Dallas ISD Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa said that despite being ill prepared to deliver quality online instruction during the beginning of the pandemic, progress has been made. He said that before the pandemic the DISD board approved a seat-time waiver to start a new choice hybrid school, in conjunction with Apple, for DISD students only. Hinojosa closed by telling the committee he and other superintendents would be back in front of the Legislature when the session begins to advocate for the ability to continue virtual instruction within their own districts and for adjustments to be made in the financial model for funding such instruction.

TEA’s Monica Martinez talked about the Texas Virtual School Network (TXVSN) and noted funding had been cut. She outlined the two types of TXVSN: 1) supplemental courses, and; 2) full-time online grade 3-12 schools that are funded through successful completion. She said that to earn credit for a course, a student must successfully complete it and then gets 100% attendance (an all-or-nothing model). Martinez said that statute limits funding to about half ADA for any online school program not in existence when law passed. She also shared information about TEA’s Texas Home Learning System.

Chris Bigenho, director of the Virtual Learning Academy at Lewisville ISD, said that LISD is a course provider and receiver in the TXVSN. He testified that before the pandemic, students were asking for full-time virtual courses and will continue to seek these courses after the pandemic. Bigenho advocated that districts be able to serve their own students and receive full-day funding for serving students within district boundaries. He said that districts would be accountable to their taxpayers and their communities.

Hector Madrigal, Karnes ISD superintendent, talked about how KISD flipped instruction when the pandemic hit. He noted that they had already replaced technology and quickly provided hot spots. He said that students, including those with health issues, athletes, military, and migrant farm worker families, would benefit from a change in law to allow districts to have latitude to offer full-time virtual learning.

Tiffany Cary, director of Innovative Learning in Frisco ISD, testified that the TXVSN was not designed to accommodate a district that wanted to offer full-time virtual learning. Cary suggested the state change the school finance system to fund based on enrollment vs. attendance, allow districts to determine which students can participate in online learning, allow districts to establish full-time virtual programs, remove the growth restrictions related to local virtual programs, and change the TXVSN to allow funding beyond the current three-course limit.

House Bill 3

Commissioner of Education Mike Morath reminded the committee of HB 3 content. He urged the committee to consider a HB 3 clean-up bill to address unintended consequences.

Dr. LaTonya Goffney, Aldine ISD superintendent, testified that she firmly supports continued funding for all of HB 3. She noted three components of the bill that are most helpful for AISD are the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA), CCMR bonus, and additional school days allotment. Dr. James Wilcox, Longview ISD superintendent, praised the TIA, as did Rick Lopez, Garland ISD superintendent. Josh Sanderson, representing The Equity Center, shared concerns with changes made to the small and mid-sized school allotments that prevented representation of diseconomies of scale, especially for CTE. He said it would be a simple fix to include in a HB 3 cleanup bill.

HB 3906

Morath reviewed the content of HB 3906, which made changes to the assessment system. He said that movement to a statewide online assessment program must have associated funding to continue and encouraged the Legislature to act.

Dr. Kristin Brown, Lyford ISD superintendent, testified that while she supports the premise of online assessments, issues to consider include limited access to IT staff and curriculum specialists for smaller districts, potential conflict with student accommodations, connectivity issues, and lack of adequate infrastructure. She recommended that the timeline for online testing implementation be extended to 2023 or 2024. Kerry Gain, Del Valle ISD chief academic officer, testified that the movement to statewide online testing was too ambitious, offered support for the new integrated reading and writing tests, and expressed concerns about the 75/25 percentage split of multiple-choice items.

Special Education

TEA’s Matt Montano, TCASE’s Kristin McGuire, and Disability Rights’ Steven Aleman discussed resources for special education students during the pandemic. Montano spoke about TEA’s corrective action and strategic plan and also talked about SES accounts for low-income students with disabilities to get access to different supports their families select. McGuire thanked Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., for helping to create the special education advisory committee and recommended changing the allotment to move from funding placements to funding services (Aleman echoed this). Aleman said TEA is collecting crisis code data but there hasn’t been a drill down to students with disabilities. He said that in the spring, districts and charters lost contact with 9,000 students with disabilities and over 18,000 were lost by May. Aleman recommended the committee review SB 89, filed by Sen. Jose Menendez, to better understand how to handle special education issues during the pandemic. He noted the SES grant program, which is federally funded, would have minimal impact.

Instruction During COVID

Morath testified that Texas has received more than $2 billion in CARES funding. He said that about $900,000 has been spent by local education agencies and TEA to close the connectivity gap, and to provide about 2.5 million devices, with a 5-to-7-year lifespan. Morath noted a major dent in internet access, with 700,000 to 800,000 hotspots that have been provided. In response to a question about shipment delays, he said all districts will have devices in hand by early December.

Michael McFarland, Crowley ISD superintendent, testified a 1-to-1 device program for every high school student was in place before COVID, and when the pandemic arrived, CISD tried to provide 1-to-1 per family, before realizing each child in a family needed a separate device. He mentioned several hidden costs during the pandemic, such as the need for more nurses to do contact tracing and the creation of well rooms for kids who are sick. McFarland noted other challenges such as a significant substitute shortage, cost of hotspots (at 1.2 million for CISD), missing students, and the definition of close contact. Andrew Kim, Comal ISD superintendent,  testified that 75% of students initially chose to return to on-campus learning and now 80% have returned. He said that disengagement of students and over-participation of parents in elementary has been concerning.

Chairman Larry Taylor adjourned the committee, noting it would be the last Interim Hearing for Senate Ed.