Written by: Sarah Asch | Austin American Statesman
Facebook posts: ”(The Texas Education Agency) is allowing online learning with attendance stipulations but will not fund school districts if they do not open their schools. … If schools do not open and are not funded there will be no more teachers or school at all.”
PolitiFact’s ruling: Half True
Here’s why: Education officials in Texas are grappling with how to safely open schools this fall, as the state continues to report near-record-high coronavirus infections and fatalities.
The latest guidance from the state’s education agency gives school districts some flexibility when it comes to opening for in-person instruction. But this decision has raised questions about school funding, which in Texas is tied to attendance.
A post shared to the Facebook page of a Dallas-area elementary school said that school districts will lose out on state funding if they do not open their doors for in-person learning this fall.
″(The Texas Education Agency) is allowing online learning with attendance stipulations but will not fund school districts if they do not open their schools,” reads the post from Wilmer Hutchins Elementary School. “If schools do not open and are not funded there will be no more teachers or school at all.”
The post was removed from the school’s Facebook page after PolitiFact Texas reached out to learn more information, but the question remains: What do the state guidelines have to say about schools opening their doors and how does that relate to school funding?
While schools do risk losing state funding if they do not open their doors when the state requires them to do so, it is inaccurate to suggest that all schools that do not open on the state’s timeline will shut down entirely.
Examining school funding in Texas
Student attendance is a key part of how Texas funds its public schools.
With the exception of charter schools, public school districts are funded through a combination of local property taxes and state money, according to Emily Sass, policy director at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Sass said the state guarantees a certain amount of money per student to each district every year. Depending on how much the district’s local property taxes cover, the state contributes additional funds to ensure each district has a certain amount of funding per child.
The number of students that are factored into this calculation comes from average daily attendance for that year, which each district reports to the state. Schools also receive a minor funding allotment per day for students who need extra support, including low-income students and students with disabilities.
This means schools with lower attendance rates receive less state funding.
What the reopening guidelines say
When the coronavirus hit Texas in March, public schools in the state started to close. By mid-April, Gov. Greg Abbott said students would complete the remainder of the spring semester online.
Infections, hospitalizations and fatalities started to increase in June, putting the status of the fall school semester in question.
The state education agency released its first set of guidelines for the fall semester in early July, detailing requirements for districts in response to the pandemic. The TEA released its most recently updated guidelines on July 17 after pushback from some parents and school districts.
Under the guidelines, if every family at one school opted for online learning this fall, the school would still receive state funding — even if the building is not physically open. But if even one family at a school wants a child to receive in-person instruction, that request must be accommodated in order for the school to maintain its state funding. TEA officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment about how much state funding would be affected if a school does not follow these guidelines.
The original guidelines released by TEA said this rule does not apply during the first three weeks of school, when districts have the option to limit in-person instruction. The second guidelines, which were released well after the Facebook post was made and deleted, said schools could remain virtual for four weeks with the option of extending to eight weeks with a vote from their local school board. Even with this delay, schools are required to provide on-campus instruction for students who do not have access to broadband internet or computers at home to complete their learning virtually.
Local health officials can also order schools to keep their buildings closed without the risk of losing state education funding, according to The Texas Tribune.
The latest guidelines also say that the state will not reduce funding to a school that is following the guidelines due to lack of attendance for the first 12 weeks of the school year. Instead, schools that are following the guidelines but struggling to maintain attendance numbers will receive funding based on either a three-year average attendance or an attendance projection.
There are two formats that virtual learning can take that still count toward student attendance: virtual class with teachers in real time (called synchronous learning) or a pre-approved plan involving tasks completed on a student’s own time (called asynchronous learning). Schools have the option to use either format or a combination for students learning virtually.
For students opting to learn in real-time over apps like Zoom, teachers must teach for a certain number of minutes in order for it to count as a full day of school for attendance purposes. The number of minutes depends on the students’ age, and this style of learning is limited to students in third grade and above.
For students learning on their own time, attendance will be based on an approved learning plan and will be measured through daily progress such as check-ins with teachers or the completion of assignments. This is the only virtual option available for students in prekindergarten through second grade, who the state decided are too young to participate in a synchronous learning program.
For schools that offer both kinds of virtual learning, students can be considered present for the day for participating in either type of online learning or a combination.
It is not clear yet how many families might choose remote learning versus in-person learning for the fall, and schools may opt to ask parents to commit to one option or the other ahead of the start of classes. Schools can also require that families that select online learning stick with that option for the rest of the grading period, which is usually six to nine weeks.
The TEA guidelines acknowledge that some schools may need to pause in-person classes “due to positive COVID-19 cases in schools.” Schools without remote learning options available that are ordered to close under these circumstances will not receive funding for the closed days, unless those days are made up later.
The Facebook post also claims that if schools do not open they will essentially close completely. There has been nothing in TEA guidelines or other communications that has suggested that schools that lose funding will stop operating. Rather, without state funding, districts would most likely have to reduce staff and cut certain programs, according to Clay Robison of the Texas State Teachers Association.
“Some districts are in worse shape than other districts. There are some districts out there who will hurt worse than others but it’s going to hurt everyone,” he said. “If they enact that penalty to cut off even part of state funding it’s going to hurt districts and they are going to have to make some cuts.”
A Facebook post shared by a Dallas area school said that the state is “allowing online learning with attendance stipulations but will not fund school districts if they do not open their schools” and “if schools do not open and are not funded there will be no more teachers or school at all.”
We found that while schools do stand to lose funding if they do not follow state guidelines when it comes to reopening their doors, districts have some flexibility in holding virtual school at the beginning of the year. This flexibility was expanded after this Facebook post was made.
We also found that if a school were to lose its state funding, it would not necessarily shutter its doors. Rather, experts say that it would be a huge financial challenge and programs and staff would have to be cut.
We rate this claim Half True.
PolitiFact Texas is a partnership of the Austin American-Statesman, Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News to help you find the truth in Texas politics.
This story was originally published by The Austin American Statesman.