Denton ISD pulls plug on Virtual Academy after lawmakers fail to pass funding increases
After Texas lawmakers failed to pass two key laws during the 88th legislative session, Denton ISD is pulling the plug on its Virtual Academy, an online program that offered grade-level courses to students who studied remotely.
Across the state, public school officials were hoping to see the passage of House Bill 100, which would have put more money in teachers’ pockets and would have pumped more money into state allotments — the funding that would give school districts more money per student. But lawmakers deadlocked when the Texas Senate insisted the bill fund school vouchers and missed the session deadline.
Lawmakers also didn’t approve House Bill 681, which would have extended funding for virtual education.
Last Friday, Denton ISD Superintendent Jamie Wilson said district officials had spent the week in meetings with teachers and contacting families to let them know that Virtual Academy students would be welcome back to their home campuses.
“Since we already know that we won’t be able to offer our K-8 Virtual Academy next year, that’s the first thing that’s going to get folded back into the regular programming,” Wilson said. “It’s unfortunate. It was a really good choice for some of our families. It wasn’t a large number of our families, but it provided them with a choice. And that’s something we aren’t going to be able to continue to do.”
Denton ISD serves about 33,000 students. At the end of the 2022-23 school year, 125 students completed their courses through the academy, Principal Caleb Leath said.
“We were waiting for legislation to pass before we started advertising,” Leath said of the plans for 2023-24. “Without advertising, we already had 107 students that were interested in attending for the 2023-2024 school year. We were anticipating that number to grow significantly once legislation passed and we could start advertising.”
Denton ISD’s virtual school was in the planning stages before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Virtual Academy launched for the 2021-22 school year, and it served students in kindergarten through eighth grade. At the end of the last school year, the district employed 18 teachers for the program. They taught from classrooms set up in temporary buildings on the campus of LaGrone Academy.
Leath said the academy’s students — who voted their mascot to be a spider “because we learn and grow on the web” — had made progress.
“Our students followed the same curriculum as other Denton ISD campuses,” he said. “Based on the data we collected, our students demonstrated that they were able to learn and grow at high levels.”
Wilson said Leath and the teachers will be offered positions at district campuses, and Leath expects most of them to stay in the district.
Wilson said Denton ISD needs more than what legislators proposed to give during the recent session, but leaders were happy to see lawmakers consider a boost in funding.
Denton ISD officials have staunchly opposed school vouchers, insisting they would further defund district campuses.
“House Bill 100 was the last vehicle during the regular session for there to be any increases at all to school funding,” Wilson said. “We don’t think House Bill 100 was even adequate. It did not help us make the rate of inflation, and with there being such a large surplus in the state budget, basically, [HB] 100 would have been better than nothing but it still would not have put us to the point where we could compensate our employees that way they should be compensated to beat inflation.”
Wilson said Denton ISD needs between $900 and $1,000 more in the basic allotment, which is the per-student funding the state gives to schools.
In the most recent school board meeting, board member Charles Stafford was aghast that lawmakers would let an infusion of funding wither while having a historic $32 billion surplus available. He fumed at the breakdown in Austin.
“I’m angry about this,” Stafford said before looking into the gallery at assembled visitors and district staff. “You ought to be angry about this, too.”
Leath said most Virtual Academy families responded with shock.
“They truly believe that this environment was best for their student, and they appreciated the choice this gave them,” he said. “They understood the district and local community was in support of continuing our program. Unfortunately, a few families have indicated they will be looking at other options. They would prefer to remain with Denton ISD as they value public schools, but due to each family’s unique circumstance, some have decided to look at other options.”