Ep. 172: The Monthly Debrief – March Looking to April 2020

April 16, 2020

In this Monthly Debrief podcast, EdChoice’s President and CEO Robert Enlow and Director of State Relations Lauren Hodge chat with Emily Sass, policy director at the Center for Innovation and Education, about the latest school choice happenings in Texas.

Robert Enlow: Hello and welcome to another EdChoice Chat: a monthly debrief in the states. We’ve been doing this for now some time, sort of sharing with our listeners what’s going on around the country with bills. But as you might imagine, there’s not a lot of bill action happening this year in states around the country. So, we’re going to shake it up a little bit. We’re joined by Lauren Hodge, our director of state programs, and Emily Sass, the policy director at the Center for Innovation and Education. Thanks and welcome to being here.

Emily Sass: Thanks. It’s great to be here, Robert. Thanks for having me.

Robert Enlow: Great. So, Emily is from Texas and she’s one of our largest states where we have more than 50,000 people migrating to that state every single year. And it’s going to be planning to have that happening for the next, what, five or ten years. It’s going to be a massive immigration. It’s going to really change Texas. That means it’s probably having a lot of challenges when it comes to the COVID pandemic. So Emily, tell us, describe to us what’s actually happening with education in Texas in the midst of this pandemic and how are schools responding?

Emily Sass: Well, as in most places around the country, this pandemic was extremely unexpected and schools have scrambled to respond in a way that’s going to maintain student learning. The good news is in Texas, as opposed to some other states’ decisions, the decision was strongly in favor of supporting student learning, even if that’s more difficult for districts, for administrators, for teachers, for a Texas education agency. The priority is to keep students learning as much as possible while keeping them safe.

So, one thing I want to give a shout out to our governor and commissioner for is, right out of the gate, as school districts, individual school districts were beginning to decide whether to close or not, and especially our urban areas, they issued a waiver that said, if you’re closing for the purposes of protecting public health during this time, we will waive the normal requirements on how you’re funded and that your kids have to show up, we’ll waive everything that’s necessary for you to close school as long as you commit to and make a good faith effort to continue student learning remotely. If you do that, we will make sure, on the financial side, that you’re whole. We will basically support you in fulfilling that duty to students even if it’s not the way we originally expected and intended.

So, with that context, school districts in Texas have by and large really risen to that challenge. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it imperfect? Absolutely. But they are doing their darndest to get educational resources out to students as efficiently and quickly as possible. Dallas ISD had a website up for home learning for their students, I think by the end of spring break. Houston ISD has stuff up now. Other districts have responded well during this time as well. Of course it’s not perfect, but there is a concerted effort to try to continue student learning.

Robert Enlow: OK, that’s great.

Lauren Hodge: So, Emily, that’s really encouraging to hear, and I’m heartened to hear that the child’s coming first. You know, I’m curious, there’s so many different sectors of types of education. You’ve got your traditional, you have your private sector, you have a charter sector, and I’m really wondering, how are these different sectors responding to the COVID crisis? Are we seeing similarities? Are we seeing patterns or too soon to tell? Any ideas around that?

Emily Sass: We’ve heard from all of those sectors that this is difficult. The Texas Education Agency has looped in the Texas Private Schools Network into their conversations and their supports as much as possible. So, while private schools face some unique challenges there that can be unique to smaller districts specifically, they are at least able to participate in some of those discussions.

I would say the one sector that’s really stood out as not being impacted by these school closures is of course the virtual school sector, which is small in Texas, but it does exist. Of course for those parents and students, this has been pretty much business as usual, which is fantastic for those students and the families that support them.

One thing that I think this has brought up for Texas is that it would be really great to give districts the same flexibility that some of these virtual schools have, whether that’s looking at if there’s a way to make some sort of seat time waiver more permanent, or if it’s just the obvious freeing up districts to provide online courses, or a full time online curriculum if they’d like to. We should give districts the ability to develop and provide that. Right now, we’ve only got about half a dozen districts that are even able to do that and the rest have been kind of caught flat-footed. “OK, let’s get everything online kids,” when there’s been no runway to even prepare for that if they’ve wanted to.

So, going into the future, we definitely need to make sure that we have more provisions and more flexibility for districts to allow them to accommodate student needs more closely.

Robert Enlow: So, that’s great to hear, particularly during this challenging time that there is some positive things going on, and we’ll talk more about that a little bit. Tell us a little bit, obviously everyone has looked to this crisis to the federal government, so everyone has looked to the federal government to solve this crisis, and they have actually been on the spot with a significant amount of resources. And so, there’s a lot of money that was put into education through the COVID 3 CARES Act, and now they’re looking at a fourth version of that. So, what has been the impact of that federal program that’s coming into Texas, and what are your worries and hopes about it?

Emily Sass: Speaking broadly, I think it’s beginning to have an impact. Obviously some of this is still too soon to tell. It’s still making its way down, but I can say just last night, a friend of mine who works in the restaurant business told us that he’s back on payroll after several weeks of being off because of the Paycheck Protection Program. So, it’s definitely beginning to have an impact on people’s lives here, just based on anecdotal reports.

As far as the education piece, of course we’re still waiting on the applications for these grants from the Department of Education, but we’re starting to look at TPPF, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, at what those funds could be used for and that we will get a substantial amount of funding, it looks like, from the federal government. That’s going to be immensely helpful because of course meeting all these needs can be expensive.

We’re hoping that those funds will be able to be spent, again, on what’s been the state priority and we hope continues to be the state priority, of shoring up student learning. Obviously despite everybody’s best efforts, we’re going to come out of this with learning gaps. Kids haven’t been in a normal environment for them and learning has taken some hits over the last couple of months and possibly the next month.

So, whatever we can do to shore up student learning, especially over the summer or through additional supports into next school year are going to be key. It’s going to be important to prioritize allowing districts to set up the systems that are more nimble, for instance, investing in infrastructure, broadband, WiFi hotspots so that districts and schools can respond if this comes back around to hit us, as many people think that it might. And then if we can provide targeted support, say, through a small individual grant to students who are particularly vulnerable, who’ve been hit particularly hard by this, the students with special educational needs who don’t even have access to the internet so they’re not able to access education support and missing out on key therapies, then hopefully we’ll be able to provide some supports to them as well.

Those would be my hopes for that federal funding. My fear would be, of course, that this is a lot of money and a lot of folks are going to want it to go a lot of different places, and in Texas, it’s a big state. So, several hundred million is helpful, but can only go so far. I think they are going to be folks like the, you know, we’ve got a large university sector here, they are going to be folks who would love it to go to pet projects and we’d like to see the focus remain on student learning, especially for our students who’ve been hit the hardest, the most vulnerable students.

Robert Enlow: Yeah. It’s going to be interesting to see how governors certainly spend their allotment, as certainly higher ed is certainly what a lot of the governors are thinking of, ours here. What has the governor and the commissioner been doing specifically to make sure it’s easier for schools to do their job?

Emily Sass: Yeah. Well, obviously leading out with the waiver I mentioned previously was key, kind of setting the environment for how we’re going to, as a state, approach this crisis. And then honestly, TEA’s been working around the clock. They’ve got a whole mini site within website full of links, guidance, templates and template letters for school districts to send out in the event of closures, or if a staffer has been diagnosed with COVID-19, how to respond quickly to that. They have a guidebook for instructional continuity plans to help districts move quickly to this new setting.

They’ve actually also started up a new website in the last week called texashomelearning.org. This is for districts that maybe don’t have the resources to set up their own remote programs the way they want to, or send out their own remote packets for kids who don’t have internet access. This is TEA’s attempt to make that easy for them.

And they’ve gone through and collected resources, all freely available, and even gotten copyright waivers from some publishers. You know, “Can we put this online for the duration of this pandemic?” And those resources are all there in sort of a day-by-day, week-by-week lesson plan schedule, so that if a district wanted to, they can log in, pull that stuff down, and kind of adopt that as their remote learning plan. So, that’s a huge lift on their part and hopefully it’s helpful to the school districts who need it most. And of course parents could just use it as an additional resource as well for their kids.

Robert Enlow: So, as we look at the future, you know, people are talking a lot about, “Oh, we need to serve kids now,” and obviously that’s right, we need to help a student learning. I mean, Texas has done a good thing by helping student learning now.

Emily Sass: Right.

Robert Enlow: A lot of folks are talking about how schools need to make sure they’re serving food—

Emily Sass: Yes.

Robert Enlow: And doing all this sort of social work stuff or the sort of non-education stuff.

Emily Sass: Yes.

Robert Enlow: There are those of us who think that can be done by other providers and a school should be concentrating on education. But that said, what do you think the future holds and what’s the hope that you have for the future after all of this?

Emily Sass: I hope that we’ll reconsider some of the requirements that we have for education, in Texas and around the country. As we’ve had to respond to unusual circumstances, we need remember that this is a worldwide unusual circumstance, which has all of us in the same boat at the same time, but students in all times and all places have unusual circumstances, and we need to try to create a system that is agile and flexible enough to respond to those needs, whatever they are, however unusual they are.

That’s a challenging proposition, but I think it’s one that we need to rise to and consider how can we keep this education system responsive to those student needs even when they don’t fit into the boxes that we’ve previously developed, this could look like continuing to expand our virtual education offerings for families who need those services or even just come out of this pandemic going, “You know what? I really liked doing school from our living room. Our kids learned a lot and it’s something we can handle.”

This could be a chance us to rethink seat time requirements in the context of career and technical education. If we waive seat time for this, then maybe we could waive seat time for a kid in an apprenticeship or find a way to work that better into their high school graduation plan.

So, it’s a chance to kind of revamp things that we’ve taken for granted for a long time.

Robert Enlow: So, I think that’s a super great way to think about ending this podcast, because it’s about how we can think differently, how we can do things differently. And then this is a tragic time and we need to make sure everyone is safe. But at the same time, if we keep doing the same old same old, we’re going to get the same old results. And this is an opportunity for us to think about how to really change the nature of how we deliver education.

So, really appreciate you coming on and telling us what’s going on in the great state of Texas, the Lone Star State, as we all know. We appreciate it. Or actually, the great republic of Texas, as opposed to the great state of Texas.

Emily Sass: Once and always.

Robert Enlow: Once and always. So, thank you very much for joining us, both Lauren and Emily, and we really want you to download as we wind up here. We want to say thank you for joining us. We want you to join our podcast wherever you get your podcasts. You can download them also from our website or get them at our website, www.edchoice.org, or in modern times, edchoice.org, because we don’t use the Ws anymore. So again, thank you guys very, very much. Appreciate your time and we’ll talk to you next time.