Groups sound alarm over House education bill expanding virtual learning

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(The Center Square) – The Texas House is poised to vote on an education bill Friday that some have lauded because it includes creating a limited Education Savings Account (ESA) program.

But groups are raising concerns about it significantly expanding the size and scope of state government and failed virtual learning programs. It also creates for the first time in Texas history a taxpayer-funded hybrid virtual program where students “attend” class as avatars.

State Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, who filed the bill, chairs the House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity & Enrichment. As chair, he has historically killed school choice and education funding bills that repeatedly passed the Senate.

Now, in the fourth special legislative session called this year by Gov. Greg Abbott, Buckley’s committee, and the full House, have not, and may never, consider two education bills filed by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, which repeatedly passed the Texas Senate.

SB 1 would create Texas’ first ESA; SB 2 would increase teacher salaries and public-school education funding, among other measures. Both bills were referred to Buckley’s committee. Instead of hearing them, Buckley introduced an omnibus education bill.

It would increase the basic student funding allotment, increase teacher salaries, increase the charter school cap to $300 million, and create an ESA program limited to 40,000 students, according to the bill summary. There were over 5.4 million students enrolled in public schools in the 2021-2022 school year, according to TEA.

HB 1 also would expand TEA’s size and scope, resulting in creating 426 additional administrative jobs over five fiscal years, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Lynn Davenport, executive director of Families Engaged, an organization that advocates for teachers, students and parents, says that expanding the TEA “is not a fiscal conservative principal nor is it fiscally responsible. Every year, Republicans continue to expand the size of government, not limit or constrain it,” she told The Center Square.

But most alarming, she and others argue, is the bill would expand failed virtual learning programs and create a hybrid-virtual reality program for students to “learn” as avatars.

During COVID-era lockdowns, Texas students suffered from virtual learning programs implemented by school districts statewide. Within a year of implementing them, the TEA reported that initially, 800,000 students were below their grade level in math. A 2020 study estimated significant economic losses if students didn’t return to in-person learning by January 2021, estimating the average student could lose “the equivalent of a year of full-time work.”

By 2021, data showed remote learning resulted in students being five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading; historically disadvantaged students experienced worse outcomes; high school students were more likely to drop out, The Center Square previously reported. By 2023, research from Harvard and Stanford universities found that children falling behind because of remote learning had an estimated combined lifetime income loss of over $23.7 billion.

A new report projects a lo​ng-term trend for 13-year-old students: declining aptitude in reading and mathematics. Compared to 2020, current scores declined in both subjects, with lower-performing students faring worse in mathematics​. Three years after lockdown policies and virtual learning, students are faring worse.

Despite this, Buckley’s bill would expand virtual learning programs statewide. It also would require the state to design and host professional development courses on high-quality virtual education – despite virtual programs having a failure rate and leading to parents pulling their children from public schools.

“Virtual learning is an oxymoron. Very little learning goes on when children are on devices,” Davenport says.

HB 1 also would establishe requirements for the TEA commissioner to “authorize a fulltime hybrid and virtual campuses” and require the TEA “to develop professional development courses and materials and provide grants and technical assistance in order to establish high quality programs.”

It adds a new Chapter 30B (Virtual Courses and Fulltime Hybrid and Virtual Campuses), Education Code, with a fiscal impact to implement the “full time online/hybrid programs,” including providing grants and technical assistance to those seeking to create fulltime virtual/hybrid schools.

It also authorizes the TEA commissioner “to authorize high quality fulltime virtual and hybrid campuses.”

The idea appears to be similar to an existing education metaverse program first launched by Dallas Hybrid Prep. Three days a week, students in 4th-6th grades appear to learn in a metaverse as an avatar, which has been referred to as “school within a video game.”

“Who is benefitting financially from this bill? Big tech?” Jonathan Hullihan, general counsel of Citizens Defending Freedom, a nonprofit advocating for liberty and parental rights, asked. “Parental rights doesn’t translate to expanding the scope of government, growing bureaucracy or handing over more power and control to technology companies,” he told The Center Square.

“Do we really want students pretending to be avatars in Texas under the guise of education through expanded state bureaucracy? Many students are already experiencing a false reality because of social media that has proven to be detrimental to their health. How much more will avatar technology contribute to this?”

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