Senate Education met on September 13 to take up a number of items. Namely, the committee discussed the implementation of HB 3 and HB 3906, digital learning and best practices of learning during COVID-19, and evaluated special education services. Of note, this is Senate Education’s last interim hearing. A video of the hearing can be found here. The agenda and submitted testimony are linked at the bottom of this post.

The HillCo report below is a summary of remarks intended to give you an overview and highlight of the discussions on the various topics discussed. This report is not a verbatim transcript; it is based upon what was audible or understandable to the observer and the desire to get details out as quickly as possible with few errors or omissions.

  1. Digital Learning: Assess the Texas Virtual School Network and the new Texas Home Learning System to evaluate effectiveness of each and recommend model legislation to improve digital learning options for students, families, and educators.

Dr. Michael Hinojosa, Texas School Alliance

  • Discovered we were Ill prepared to deliver quality online instruction, there were broad connectivity issues, school finance system does not address online learning
  • Some students are suffering due to online learning, but some are doing quite well
  • Need waivers from the commissioner for more flexibilities, like the need the ability to document online instruction
  • Need to ensure all students are taught by a certified teacher; need to take care of special education students and English learners
  • Need to provide opportunities for students in our own school district; do not want to destabilize school system statewide
  • Were in partnership with Apple before the pandemic that would be a choice/hybrid school; school finance is based on seat time and commissioner did not grant wavier
    • Pandemic made the school start time (August 2020) fell through

Monica Martinez, Texas Education Agency

  • Texas Virtual School Network has been in place for many years; outlines the two distinct systems in this network
  • Are current constraints in this system such as funding issues
  • Use successful completion with full time online school because you cannot gauge seat time the same way
  • If students successfully complete, receive funding as if they had perfect attendance
  • Have ADA restrictions for certain schools
  • The first-year school districts received an accountability rating in the A-F system; highlights those who have moved up in accountably ratings
  • With current appropriations, there are certain requirements that TEA is struggling to meet
  • For virtual learning, initially learned about which districts needed the most support
  • Highlights the resources, education, professional development, and learning management systems TEA has offered to districts
  • Have negotiated a statewide license for Schoology; districts can suspend other contracts to focus on this LMS
  • Overviews what TEA is currently working on including a pilot to assist LEAs

Dr. Chris Bigenho, Lewisville ISD

  • Have been teaching online course through virtual learning academy since 2007; are a provider and receiver district
  • Want to provide for students living in the school district’s boundaries
  • Pre-COVID, many students were asking for full-time online; not allowed to receive full funding, would be half funding for full time online students
    • This is not sustainable for this district; will let a few go through, not sustainable
  • Have been losing 100 students a year because we could not afford to offer full-time online
  • Restrictions were still in place during the pandemic and cannot leverage courses the way we want to
  • Stood up three different models: virtual, hybrid, and full-time in person
  • Post-COVID, we do not know what to do for those students who prefer full time online learning
  • Districts must be given full time funding for those students within their district; if funding continues the way it is, then it continues current inequities
    • Hybrids could also be involved in this system for lab courses
  • No vouchers would be needed in this case because students are in-district
  • Would be able to remove the statewide requirements because we are accountable to the taxpayer
  • Taylor – How would you compare the cost differences between the three models?
    • Bigenho – They are about the same for all three, would not be a cost savings and teachers would/should be carrying the same course load as before
    • Bigenho – Would caution that teachers are not given a cast load they cannot handle; do not want that to be an option for cost savings
    • Bigenho – Would not be an additional cost after the systems are in place

Hector Madrigal, Superintendent Carnes City ISD

  • Paid $46 million in recapture last year; lost some of our students during the pandemic due to the hit on the oil economy
  • Overviews online instruction for their ISD; started face to face back on August 10, currently 10% of students opt to stay home
  • Replaced outdated technology and ordered many hotspots in the beginning of March
  • Partnered with an online provider to ensure students would be taught if teachers were out sick
  • Needs to be an option to learn from home such as those who are immunocompromised, athletes, those whose family members are in the military, migrant students
  • Need to change the way we are funding online learning whether it is full time or part time
  • Need to have latitude to help offset costs; seat time is no longer the best model
  • Need to borrow from other state plans so communities can provide broadband from rainy day funds
  • Lucio – What is the student population in the district? Migrant students?
    • Madrigal – Around 1600, there is a small number of migrant students here
  • Lucio – Concern is the start date, connectivity is a large issue with migrant students, and possible dropout rates
  • Lucio – Recapture, what is your school district classified as?
    • Madrigal – Are a chapter 49 district, recaptured $46 million last year
  • Taylor – How did HB 3 effect your recapture?
    • Madrigal – Notes he is newer to this school district
  • Taylor – How well did the WiFi hotpots work?
    • Madrigal – Something is better than nothing, started with one provider, learned some work better than others and got more providers

Tiffany Carey, Frisco ISD

  • One of the fastest growing school districts in Texas; currently highest performing in the state and serving just under 30,000 virtually
  • TxVSN is not appropriate for districts providing their own virtual learning classes
  • Should allow districts to count students as present as they participate in online course or fund by enrollment rather than
  • Could allow districts when/whether they can allow students online course
  • Establish online campuses and allow districts to have full time programs for accountability
  • Can remove growth restrictions for local programs
  • Can make changes to TxVSN like providing ADA funding beyond the current course limit and codifying current waiver for allow classes to be submitted/shared to all districts through TxVSN
  • Taylor – What are the current growth restrictions
    • Carey – Last legislature,
  • Taylor – Overall district would be in charge of the classes?
  • Paxton – Three course limit?
    • Carey – Would be limiting the student to get what they need
  • Hughes – Hallsville ISD’s virtual academy; last session’s SB 1045 aims to address accountability in the virtual school network, will work to pass that through the House this time
    • Taylor – Will be talking about that again this coming up session
  • Taylor – Need to grow virtual learning options
  • Paxton – Certain students need virtual learning; need to be based on need and preference can make the difference in student engagement
  • Taylor – Asynchronous courses should be provided to work for those students who prefer that
  • Powell – Could you break down the students who chose the synchronous over the a-synchronous? What will the student population choose post COVID-19?
    • Carey – 50% chose online a-synchronous option, about 15% are coming back to in-person
    • Carey – 20% will probably want to stay online because of medical reasons or personal reasons
  1. Monitoring: Monitor the implementation of HB 3 and HB 3906

HB 3

Commissioner Mike Morath, Texas Education Agency

  • Provides an overview of the elements in the bill; implementation is in its infancy
  • Now that schools are funding upper level tests, two times the students are taking the ACT and 3 times the students are taking the SAT
  • Property taxes are down 8.3 cents
  • Total public education spending $2.7 billion higher than under prior law
  • Recapture is down, notes Carnes City ISD is down $5 million
  • Notes the HB 3 in 30 series that broke down the aspects of HB 3
  • Overviews programs that whose funding was under/over projected; Formula Transition Grant was increased due to property taxes outperforming previous projections
  • Omnibus rule changes: 37 out of 55 rules have been changed
  • HB 3 aimed to increase advisory committee involvement; reading advisory committee’s involvement has increased due in part to the reading academies
  • Teacher Incentive Allotment has 26 school systems involved; rural school systems outperformed urban school systems
  • Do Not Hire Registry is up and running and is available for public and private schools
  • Reading Academies 23,000 teachers already started and 21, 000 to start in January
  • Discusses in increases in CTE funding and special education outcomes bonuses
  • Additional days school year: districts are experimenting with this and may be more prevalent following COVID-19
    • Schools are using three models; summer instructions, slowing down the school year, expansion of school year
  • Lucio – For the Teacher Allotment, is TEA keeping data on the mentored teachers?
    • Morath – Yes, but will take several years to evaluate the impact especially since COVID-19 disrupted the first year of HB 3 implementation

Dr. LaTonya M. Goffney, Superintendent Aldine ISD

  • Majority of students are students of color and from low economic backgrounds
  • Support all HB 3 funding; in different stages in supporting certain program and allotments
  • State compensatory changes have largely helped Aldine ISD
  • Outlines multiple allotments that would help improve student outcomes
  • Implemented the ACE model at two underperforming elementary schools; engagement alone has already shown improvement
  • Will apply for the Teacher Incentive Allotment in April 2021
  • CCMR Bonus will be necessary to add additional courses/pathways; aim students graduate with at least 6 college credits
  • Additional Days Allotment will help with the days/schooling lost due to COVID-19
  • Recommends ADA be expanded to middle schools and high schools rather than just elementary
  • Lucio – Do you have a teacher shortage? What percentage of your teachers are outside the county?
    • Goffney – Recruiting teachers across the state, outside of the state, outside of the country
    • Goffney – Took 83 paraprofessionals and put them on a path to get their teacher certification
  • Lucio – Is concerned about the district’s shortage of teachers
  • Taylor – Morath, unintended consequences of HB 3?
    • Morath – Changes may need to be made and may warrant legislative attention
    • Morath – There was a lack of clarity on PTEC funding, issues with the funding floor for special education in open enrollment charters, regional service centers were missed in HB 3, property tax reduction timing issues

Dr. James Willcox, Superintendent Longview ISD

  • Large percentage of student population are minorities; overviewed a 2009 LIFT plan to retain best teacher talent that is like the Teacher Incentive Allotment in HB 3
    • Have spent $1.8 million for LIFT Teacher Incentive Payments
  • Notes the Montessori school in the district that has a high achievement rate; notes improvement to reading scores due to the reading academies
  • In the process of being a certified IB school for students to have access to an IB teacher
  • Projected to have over 52 master classroom teachers will make over $100,000 due to the TIA allotments in HB 3 and LIFT payments
  • Lucio – Morath are you going to fix the CTE funding “glitch?”
    • Morath – On an HB 3 tweak bill we have some recommendations; currently, the formula provides less net funding the more students that are added to the program
  • Taylor – This is another example of how complex school finance is, knew there would be some things that need correcting

Rick Lopez, Superintendent Garland ISD

  • Overviews the changes the district has changed to move high performing teachers to the neediest schools in the district
  • HB 3 prioritized dyslexia and added funds connected to HB 3 initiatives are sustainable
  • Early Childhood Reading allotment has the ability to improve literacy statewide
  • Fully supports HB 3 initiatives

Josh Sanderson, Deputy Executive Director, Equity Center

  • Provided written testimony
  • Low wealth districts use to have to be taxes at higher rates, HB 3 does what it was supposed to but there are still some provisions that could be revisited
  • Adjustments to small and mid-size – do not reflect dis-economy of scale for CTE students
  • Suggests most funding items in HB 3 went to direct programs, in order to keep paying for programs and salary increases funding needs to be kept whole and predictable
  • Believe its worth to look at other elements of finance system; look at other policy areas that need to be address to bring finance system up to date
  • I&S severely out of date; guaranteed yield levels have been largely stagnant since the programs were created, actual state dollars allocated to I&S equalization are less now than when the programs were created, and the percentage of students in districts receiving state assistance is down to nearly 25 percent
  • Make sure for this school year each district receives 100% of their projected formula funding
  • Districts appear to be incurring additional transportation cost due to social distancing on routes and using buses to deliver meals – would like to see it address through state funds or stimulus funds in the future
    • Taylor – didn’t we change transportation funding on mileage?
    • Yes, but it needed to be TEA approved routes so not sure all routes are approved; suggest checking with Commissioner to confirm

Commissioner Mike Morath, Texas Education Agency

  • Trying to get an answer to this question, does not know if they are approving all routes that are coming in
  • Assuming as districts increase routes then formula would automatically adjust
  • Working to find answer on how adjustments are put in to TEA and approved
  • Should have answer in 5 minutes

HB 3906

Commissioner Mike Morath, Texas Education Agency

  • Deeply transformational law related to public education
  • Question is what we are doing today; will it be better tomorrow – continuous improvement process
  • 3 large buckets of changes: transformative changes to improve the STAAR program; balanced suite of assessments that maximizes support for students; unprecedented level of involvement of Texas educators
  • STAAR has been proven to be valid and reliable aligned to TEKS with on grade-level passage readability
  • Changes include: RLA redesign, 75% multiple-choice cap; begun process to transfer to online process; and through year assessment pilot
  • EOY/BOY, STAAR interim assessment and Texas Formative Assessment resource are available resource
  • Assessment should not be just once a year end of year experience; should be part of a balanced approach
  • Testing does not just evaluate learning; it can improve it
  • Reviews various types of committees feeding into the process and points out number of educators involved in design process for assessment
  • Will not be moving forward unless legislature takes action; electronic assessments will not move forward without legislative action
  • Lot of work done in operation connectivity so schools can support online assessment at scale
  • Ended on discussion with multiple choice questions noting they are cheaper but there will be a cap
    • Taylor – asked about more than one option to answer a math question
    • Morath – example on multi-select questions; there is a lot of information density; trying to lead to mastery of high-level concepts
    • Paxton – feels the multiple-choice example Morath points out help shows test is looking for information and not just if kid is good test taker or a good guesser
  • Will still have students take a paper test for a variety of reasons, report will be provided to the Legislature around December covering many of these items
  • Powell – loss of .5 pt, is it indicative of those taking ACT/SAT test now?
    • No, this is percentage all graduating seniors
    • Percentage of students demonstrating college readiness on both test
    • There is a true decline of college readiness
  • Powell – movement toward online assessments, curious of downside of moving all online? Concerns of creating hurdles
    • Agree want to make sure the infrastructure is in place
    • Does instruction include a healthy dose of online instruction; state of Texas has spent about $1 billion and closed gap in Texas of infrastructure
    • Target Spring of 2023 for online test
    • Far better to do this today than they were about 9 months ago
  • Powell – moving to multiple test and implementing process of breaking them up; what does this mean for A-F rating system
    • Nothing, because all is R&D right now
    • Researching this detail now

Dr. Kristin Brown Superintendent Lyford ISD

  • Supports assessments and premise of online assessment
  • First rural 1-1 technology in the State of Texas
  • Areas of concern: access to IT specialists (smaller districts may have assigned these duties to teachers), special education, wireless not reliable or consistent, and lagging infrastructure in many districts
  • Would like committee to consider an extension of the timeline
  • Taylor – what timeline
    • 2023 or 2024; need a couple more years to fully implement

Kerry Gain, Chief Academic Officer Del Valle ISD

  • There is a lot of good things in HB3906
  • Agree with Commissioner on possibilities in assessment
  • Online testing timeline is to ambitious for Spring 2023
  • Need more time
  • District would need tech staff ratio of 350-1 so that means they would need 32 hardware techs and they currently have 11; $1.2 million would go to IT rather than to teachers they need to meet growth
  • Supports including some sort of writing response in assessment
  • 75/25 Split of multiple-choice; not convinced this works on paper the same way and agrees with calls for some kind of revision
  • Taylor – what way do you think 75/25 split should go?
    • For on paper not more than 10%
  • Taylor – not sure why based on example it wouldn’t work?
    • It would for that one example you all saw; but gave examples of which ones could not be on paper the same like drag and drop
    • Agrees should wait on 75/25 until they move assessments online
  1. Examine Best Practices for school districts and charters in providing education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioner Mike Morath, Texas Education Agency

  • References slide deck; learning outcomes do not change, but the nature of the work must change to get kids to the same level of proficiency
  • Have been deploying rapid tests where students can get results in 15 minutes or less
  • Have stood up a new financing system to funds online education
  • Have set up procedures in the case that school districts get positive COVID-19 cases
  • Have deployed Project Connectivity that distributes laptops, hotspots, etc.
  • Have created specialized learning tools for special education and have provided free LMS
  • Outlines the $2 billion in federal emergency funds Texas received for public education
  • Have waived all student stake for statewide testing
  • School districts get fully funded for those who chose to learn online; notes parameters needed to receive full funding for students
  • Special Education: Evaluate ongoing strategies to continuously improve special education services for students in public schools, including methods for educating students in a remote setting, as well as the Texas Education Agency’s corrective action plan.
  • Remote learning framework was set up with emergency rulemaking; will expire in a year
  • Legislature is charged with finding the permanent solution
  • To make up for lost time, need to assess where learning losses are occurring
  • Need assessment framework to employ in part STARR testing and other interim assessments to gauge where students are at
  • COVID-19 is going to cause a large number of students to be below grade level; need to give them strong rigorous content
  • Need to find high performing teachers, pay them more, and give them more kids
  • Resources need to be focused on those who are most in need and most at risk to fall behind
  • Disruption from COVID-19 is going to last for years, HB 3 tools will help but need more investments for public education
  • Paxton – CARES Funding, saw learning platform TEA released, could you talk about that?
    • Morath – Texas Distance Learning Tool is an LMS that TEA bought and is free to use for any district in the state; about 2 million kids are using that tool
  • Paxton – What is the nature of the connectivity gap? What about tech support?
    • Morath – The device gap 1.6 million before COVID-19, 1.9 did not have access to high speed internet
    • Morath – Will distribute 2.5 million new learning devices by December, have deployed 700-800 hotspots, but more work needs to be done
    • Morath – Need to take advantage of fixed lines and may need more infrastructure investments in rural areas
    • Morath – Some districts did not have tech support contracts, districts will need to change contracting/staff patterns
  • Taylor – Shortage is still hotspots?
    • Morath – Not sure if the remaining need to be served would be able to use hotspots, but general connectivity is the issue
    • Morath – Every device should be in hand by early December; statewide purchase saved money and time

Dr. Michel McFarland, Superintendent Crowley ISD

  • Approximately 45% of students are still learning from home; every student now has a device and have passed out over 5,000 hotspots
  • Have increased our professional development due to online opportunities
  • Spent over $2 million to set up technology, but will be a reoccurring cost due to the leasing of most of the devices
  • Need to ensure there is funding to continue online instruction
  • Hidden costs have/will come from: contract tracing, substitute shortage in this region, redefining job descriptions
  • Powell – Have contracted for 5,000 hotspots, what are the costs?
    • McFarland – $1.2 million recurring, and had to pay for additional bandwidth
  • Powell – How many providers did you have to contract with?
    • McFarland – Quite a few, but mostly worked with T-Mobile
  • Powell – Have heard some students who are missing, do you see that as a challenge?
    • McFarland – 10% of our students we are trying to find out why they are not logging in and turning work in
    • McFarland – Have essentially hired social workers to find out what is happening with these students
  • Powell – Do school counselors do this?
    • School counselors, administrators, and social workers
  • Powell – Do you have any issues with compliance with mask orders or social distancing?
    • McFarland – Kids, teachers, and the community are complying with both
    • McFarland – The issue is defining “close contact”

Andrew Kim, Superintendent Comal ISD

  • Now 80% of students are on campus with face-to-face instruction
  • Students and teachers have been compliant with mask and social distancing requirements
  • Failure rate of remote students is concerning as is the bandwidth of teachers who have online and in-person
  • Will be an opportunity to explore opportunities like those in HB 2424; should explore asynchronous opportunities
  • Schools should have the opportunity to create their own virtual schools even after the pandemic
  • Should adjust practices such as time requirements to sped up teacher certification
  • Accelerating blended learning can create more time for school districts

Eddie Conger, Superintendent International Leadership of Texas Charter Schools

  • Overviews remote learning transition; Morath’s leadership assured schools they would be funded
  • About 7,000 are on campus now, 13,000 synchronous and 1,000 asynchronous
  • Those in person are doing much better than those online; about a 25% fail rate
  • 9% of teachers and 1.5% of students have tested positive; no students have been infected by their own classmates
  • Encourage the legislature to provide clarity for teachers on their salaries
  1. Special Education: Evaluate ongoing strategies to continuously improve special education services for students in public schools, including methods for educating students in a remote setting, as well as the Texas Education Agency’s corrective action plan.

Matt Montaño, Texas Education Agency

  • Response included giving parents resources, support for home learning, and providing general guidance for districts
  • Overviews requirements for evaluations of special education students and contingency plans for students who received different instruction than in-person
  • Established a special education task force to develop and vet documents provided by partner districts to ensure the best resources available
  • Overviews resources provided for parents, caretakers, and districts
  • Have supported Texas Home Learning Program to ensure they were accessible for students with disabilities
  • Were able to implement a program to provide online and on-site speech language therapy that reduced administrative difficulties; have been an in increase in sessions
    • Preparing to launch a similar dyslexia platform
  • Requested GEARS funds to create supplemental supports for students with more complex need
  • HB 3 fund, like the dyslexia/special education allotments, are hugely impactful for special education funding
  • Special education funding has gone from $3.02 billion to $4.01 billion in four years
  • Special education student population has surpassed 30 other states’ total population
  • Have been working with the Office of Special Education to ensure the state has accomplished items listen in the special education corrective action response
    • Recently got a letter from the OSEP asking for more information

Kristin McGuire, Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education

  • Thanks Sen. Lucio, for his work in special education reform in Texas
  • Legislature needs to lead by ensuring they are students first and then identify where their needs are
  • Need to change how the states special education allotment is structured; special education advisory committee report has recommendations on how to make change
  • Need to ensure the state embraces an inclusive environment; there is a lack of clarity on many issues, like dyslexia
  • Not only classroom teachers are involved in special education; need to ensure the best staff members are compensated and kept on

Steve Aleman, Disability Rights Texas

  • TEA data shows that those with disabilities have been greatly impacted by the pandemic
  • Last spring, school districts lost total contact with 9,400 students with disabilities
  • Over 36,000 students with disabilities did not have full engagement; in May, over 18,300 students were lost
  • SB 89 introduced by Menendez hope you all consider in the 87th session; provides an individual review for each student to address learning loss
  • TEA is launching SSES with federal funds that is very limited in its impact and is not a systemic answer to the problem
  • There are still things that are outstanding in terms of TEA violations of federal law
  • Recent OSEP letter asks for more documentation from TEA, but there are serious concerns with school districts who do not know what to do with students with disabilities
  • Need to review how the state structures special education financing, current system is antiquated