RISD was developing a permanent virtual school option for students to begin in the fall, but the regular session of the Texas Legislature ended May 31 without approving funding for the plan.
“We are disappointed [funding was not approved],” Deputy Superintendent Tabitha Branum said during the June 7 RISD board of trustees meeting. “This was something that we were hoping for. We anticipated enrollment anywhere from 500-750 students based upon the initial interest inventory.”
Branum said the Texas Education Agency had previously expressed that a waiver could potentially be issued for districts who were looking to launch a virtual academy, but that does not now appear to be an option.
"[RISD was] one of, I believe, less than 20 districts across the state that were selected to be a part of a collaborative effort to launch the virtual academy,” Branum said. “On Friday, we received an email from Commissioner [Mike Morath] and from TEA saying that they were dissolving that pilot project. [That] was a clear message, at least how we interpret it, that there's not going to be a shift in that waiver anytime soon.”
The district planned to meet with a focus group of parents June 9 to discuss other ways RISD could meet the needs of parents who are seeking a virtual option for students, Branum said. District staff are also exploring the financial possibility of moving forward with a virtual academy option without full state funding for students who enroll.
“If a district chooses to move forward, then they need to be aware that for any student enrolled, they will receive partial [state] funding, which as you can imagine, would have a significant impact on budgets and on revenue,” Branum said.
She said, if the district moved forward, the state funding would likely be cut in half to approximately $3,000-$3,500 per student enrolled in the virtual academy. Branum said she expected to have a report on the financial viability of a virtual academy to Superintendent Jeannie Stone within about 48 hours of the focus group meeting planned for June 9.
RISD’s virtual academy was to be offered for students in kindergarten through eighth grades, though Branum said the majority of students who had expressed interest were in grades K-6. However, she noted the district did not begin an enrollment process because staff did not want to “mislead” anyone before legislation was passed or a waiver was issued.
“We're seeing from our peer districts that once it comes time to actually enroll, and now that we are further away from the urgency of the pandemic ... most of our area districts are seeing that numbers decline significantly,” Branum said. “I don't know that we would have had 750 students enroll. But I do know that we probably would have had a substantial number, maybe 300-500 students in the end that would have enrolled. But, again, that is pure speculation.”