Texas Needs to Be in the Top Tier Among States for Digital Learning

Hornok family photo digital learning

We are proud to share this guest post authored by Jonathan R. Hornok and his wife Mariah, with input from fellow advocates, about why Texas should continue to support digital learning options like Great Hearts Online and SAISD’s remote education program. An edited version of this post appeared this morning as an op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has endeavored to “empower parents to choose the school that’s best for their children” and to “propel Texas to the top tier among states for digital learning.” As a state, we have an opportunity right now to take a great stride toward both.

Because of the governor’s leadership during the pandemic, innovation in virtual learning took off around the state, offering students high-quality online school options that were previously unavailable in Texas. House Bill 1468 would have continued the innovative momentum. The bill enjoyed wide bipartisan support and would have provided Texas students the same kind of virtual learning that is available to students in states like Florida and Arizona. But when the House adjourned just minutes before it took up H.B. 1468, that momentum came to a screeching halt. Now thousands of students, parents, and educators across the state are in limbo as the start of school quickly approaches.

Advocating for Digital Learning

Thirty independent school districts, including Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio, have requested the governor to put virtual learning on the agenda for the special session.

San Antonio ISD board president Christina Martinez describes her district’s needs this way: “Parents and caregivers are making calculated decisions every day about their children’s health and well-being. Our focus as a district is to get as many children back in person as possible because that’s where most children learn best. But we also understand that our very diverse district needs options for families who are just not ready to come back yet.”

Virtual learning, for example, supports families like La Vernia mother Kristin Branyon, a certified Texas teacher, for whom neither in-person school nor homeschooling are viable options because her four children have life-threatening health conditions and profound learning challenges. In a public letter to Abbott, shared in the San Antonio Charter Moms discussion group—Branyon has implored the governor to make accommodations for online schools that H.B. 1468 would have supported. For fall 2021, Branyon’s children were enrolled in Great Hearts Online, an academy allowed under the bill, but now her family is in limbo. “My children would finally be able to attend classes with their peers, and I honestly cried tears of joy,” she wrote. “There was finally a place for my medically challenged children to fit.  They finally had the chance to be normal.”

Virtual learning also supports elite Texas athletes like Simone Biles, who chose to school at home so she could pursue her Olympic dreams. But unique students and big-city school districts are not the only ones who want virtual learning. Rural Texans like my family want it, too.

This year, my kindergartner and third grader attended Great Hearts Online, an open-enrollment classical charter school—an option previously unavailable in our small Texas town. This online academy was designed from the ground up to be a top tier digital learning community. After seeing our children thrive in this academic environment, my wife and I are convinced that it is the best school for our children.

Digital Learning Helped Our Family Thrive

We first learned about this classical public charter school when our family lived in Arizona, where our eldest attended a Great Hearts brick-and-mortar campus.  Our family eventually moved to Texarkana, where we decided to homeschool our children because it allowed us to be deeply engaged with our children’s education while creating the margin and flexibility—read better rested, less harried children—we needed to be a healthy, happy family with a gaggle of small kids. Homeschooling also afforded us the only option for an academically rigorous, classical education in our small Texas town.

But schooling children at home is hard. Virtual learning has alleviated many of our frustrations without compromising what we love about homeschooling. First, the educational community was phenomenal. Our kids’ teachers connected with our children and motivated them toward academic excellence in a way that we as parents could not. Our children also enjoyed the daily camaraderie of the online classroom experience. Simply put, our family thrived because we became part of a like-minded educational community not otherwise available in our town.

Second, our virtual academy connected us with an established brick-and-mortar school that provided exceptional classical curricula and academic resources. For example, the academic assessments gave us confidence that we had found the right fit for our third-grader after she tested far above grade level. We were also thankful to see our children tested for learning differences, with the knowledge that the charter school network had the specialists and resources available to identify and address any challenges. In other words, we are confident that virtual learning is the right fit for our kids because the data show that it is working for our family.

My fear is that my children’s high caliber online academy—Great Hearts Online—will not be an option for my family this fall. Parents like us are desperate to choose the school that’s best for our children and to make Texas a top-tier incubator for digital learning. But without any intervention, students across the state will be forced to settle for a less-than-best fit when school resumes in August.

Charter Moms Chats

Jonathan and Mariah Hornok spoke with Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on June 22, 2021 at 4:00 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

Jonathan R. Hornok, his wife, Mariah, and their four children live in Texarkana, Texas. Jonathan is an attorney who has served as federal prosecutor, a law clerk to the Honorable Lavenski R. Smith of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and a law clerk to the Honorable Jill N. Parrish of the Utah Supreme Court. Jonathan holds a B.S. in Computer Science from John Brown University and a J.D. from the University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law.

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