The state’s education leaders don’t see a quick return to normality in the cards.
This week, Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath spoke to the Texas House Committee on Public Education after his counterpart Harrison Keller, commissioner of the Higher Education Coordinating Board, presented to the Senate Finance Committee. Morath and the TEA oversee the state’s public schools while Keller handles public universities.
Both commissioners say Texas students will continue to watch computer screens at least as much as whiteboards in the future.
Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) pressed Keller on the value of virtual education in college, noting stagnant tuition prices and the mental health of students.
“Our office fields a lot of phone calls from parents in two manners. One is that, as Senator Bettencourt described, [students] have an on-campus living situation, they’re forced to be there, they have to pay that, and they sit in their dorms and take online classes, which is an expense to them… So we’re talking about quality of education. And then we’re talking about cost to universities, that there’s been no real lowering of their cost to these parents or to these children that are paying for it,” Kolkhorst said.
“Will we ever go back to a traditional face-to-face? And I ask this as chair of Health and Human Services and knowing how much our children need interaction. Like you, I’m living it with two children, one in high school and one in college… I’m not sure a virtual world makes it a better world.”
Keller answered with a forecast of lasting hybrid learning in college.
“I think there’s a lot that we’re never going back on. So it’s going to be hybrid. I think what’s going to happen is we will still have seminars, but we’re going to have technology infused into education much more than we ever have before,” he said.
“There’s an important distinction between emergency online instruction and high-quality digital learning… If I would have gotten up when I first became commissioner and said, ‘Within about two weeks, I think everybody can put almost all their classes online,’ y’all would have thought that was crazy. Yet that’s exactly what they did.”
Bettencourt had previously probed Keller on why universities would need funding for building renovations while enrollment drops, canceled events, and virtual classes have left them with “space galore.” When Kolkhorst pushed further, Keller said that virtual learning costs more than the traditional classroom.
“For the short term, it’s a lot more expensive. There are some productivity gains over time with it, but for the short term, there’s not,” he said.
“You’re going to have to retool a lot of spaces… I do think that you’re going to need different kinds of facilities, and you will need to take some facilities online, and you’re going to need to repurpose facilities.”
Keller spoke of new teaching strategies at the collegiate level with optimism.
“The institutions, both the two-year and the four-year institutions, are rapidly innovating… They’re shifting labs from fifteen-week semesters to two-week intensive blocks. They’re breaking up three-credit courses into one-credit courses. This is a time where we need to get behind our innovators. We need to encourage that kind of experimentation and breaking down that traditional agrarian calendar.”
At the K-12 level, Morath gave a similar forecast of the future but spoke with a measure of caution about the value of computer learning for every student.
“One thing we have proven during COVID is that kids can learn anywhere, anytime, as long as we have the right supports in place for that to happen,” Morath said.
“I think that there is a bright future for hybrid instruction and there is a limited future for [full] remote instruction, but it’s clear that kids will benefit from both of those things. The majority of kids need on-campus instruction, especially younger students, really five days a week.”
Morath also expressed confidence in the safety of schools for students.
“School as a congregant setting… is quite possibly the safest congregant setting that has existed during the pandemic. Fauci noted that kids are safer in school than in the community at large. And the data has borne that out.”
Aided by relief money, the TEA set aside its regular method of distributing money this year to keep schools funded. More specifically, the state did not lower the funding of school districts despite a historic drop in enrollment that would have normally resulted in budget cuts since average daily attendance (ADA) weighs heavily on determining how much money a school receives.
Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) asked Morath if this “hold harmless” policy — keeping schools at the funding they enjoyed when more students were enrolled — meant that schools lacked a concrete reason to regain missing students. Morath acknowledged that the state’s regular funding strategy is meant to spur schools to get kids in the classroom, but said schools continue to seek missing students even without monetary motivation.
“From a policy perspective, the school finance system of the state of Texas is designed to encourage districts to get kids present daily,” Morath said.
“That being said, the evidence that I have from educators around the state is that the overwhelming majority of school systems are being very aggressive at trying to find all of both their disengaged students and missing students.”
Morath said that the TEA was “actively deliberating” how the hold harmless funding will be extended to the second semester but could not commit to a specific time to give details at the time. He did note that his office can always “invent ADA” to keep schools at the same level of state funding.
“Y’all have granted the commissioner in statute the authority to invent ADA,” he reminded the committee.
“In an emergency, we can just sort of fictionally create student attendance, and once the student attendance, that then creates the entitlement for the district to get those funds, so I hope to be able to act on that authority soon once I finalize our decision-making process.”
Just today, Governor Greg Abbott’s office eliminated all doubt about the hold harmless policy for this semester and announced that funding would continue at current rates for the rest of the 2020-2021 school year.
“The State of Texas will provide a ‘hold harmless’ to Texas school systems for the rest of the 2020-2021 academic school year only. This means funding will be made available to school systems in Texas that have seen enrollment and attendance declines because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as long as they maintain or increase current levels of on-campus attendance. Districts will be funded on attendance in line with projections made prior to the public health crisis,” the announcement reads.
“This will ensure that school systems in Texas can retain their teachers for the 2020-21 school year for whom they originally budgeted. This final semester of hold harmless means districts have been held harmless for three consecutive semesters — Spring Semester of the 2019-20 academic year and the entirety of the 2020-21 academic year.”
For the current semester, the state will not cut funding as long as on-campus attendance participation rates do not decline or at least remain above 80 percent.