Lawmakers Promote Virtual Education Expansion

By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida
By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida


Amid concerns about weakening education quality, some Florida lawmakers are pushing a massive expansion of Florida’s virtual education programs.

In two bills moving through the Legislature (SB 1620, HB 7197) virtual school programs will be expanded, allowing more virtual school companies to teach Florida students and requiring students to take an online class in order to graduate.

The Senate version is favored by the proponents of virtual schools because it is a bigger expansion, diminishing school district control over virtual programs, expanding it to grades K-12 and allowing statewide taxpayer-funded virtual schools for students in public or private schools or for home-schooled children.

Both bills require the online assessment for all statewide exams, whether that student is in a virtual class or not.

“We are living in a digital age,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. “The only place where technology has not been fully embraced is in our education system.” Flores said the bricks-and-mortar schools are yesterday’s news and today’s classrooms need to embrace technology by offering online learning.

Her bill (SB 1620) passed the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee on Tuesday in a unanimous vote. Its next stop is the Budget Committee. On the House side, HB 7197 passed the K-20 Innovation Subcommittee last week.

But there are criticisms that virtual education is gaining support because it’s seen as a cheaper alternative to traditional classroom instruction.

Virtual schools also escape many of the same regulations that apply to public schools, such as class size restrictions. “Virtual education is not being expanded because it’s been demonstrated to be good for children,” said Ron Meyer, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, which represents teachers and other school employees. “It has been demonstrated to be cheaper.”

Backers of virtual classroom expansion say the proposals do include more oversight of virtual programs, such as requiring the Department of Education to approve all of the virtual schools and mandating the development of an evaluation process for part-time virtual school providers. Similar to traditional schools, virtual schools are graded best on test scores. Any virtual school that receives a school grade of “D” or “F” could have their contract terminated. A one-year extension is granted if the school can develop a plan to boost their grade.

For the 2009-10 school year there were 21,176 students, or full-time equivalents, enrolled in virtual education programs in Florida. Most of those were enrolled as part-time students in Florida Virtual School.

That is less than one percent of the over 2.6 million public school students in Florida.

Many conservative and business-friendly groups support expansion of virtual schools and classes. The Foundation For Florida’s Future, which was founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, is a big supporter of virtual schools. Powerful business lobbying groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries are also supporters.

Under current law, school districts are required to offer virtual instruction. Under the Senate bill, districts would not have to contract with a provider, merely referring students to virtual schools. This has the effect of potentially removing money that would have gone to districts that could have counted that student for funding purposes.

Under the Senate bill, full-time K-12 virtual schools are able to gain funding directly from the state, bypassing districts. Districts would be required to keep track of which students in their jurisdiction are enrolled in online courses and provide testing facilities and equipment for them to take statewide assessments and year-end exams.

Vernon Pickup-Crawford, a lobbyist for several school districts, said the bill removes a district’s ability to approve or select the virtual schools or classes its students take. It also eases requirements for teacher certifications, allows adjunct instructors, and permits virtual teachers who live outside the state and are not certified to teach in Florida.

The Senate bill also lets other virtual schools, even those based out of state, offer K-12 classes in Florida. That would provide more competition for Florida Virtual School, the state’s largest provider of online classes.

“The more choices we provide, the more likely we will provide students an avenue for learning to help them succeed,” said Holly Sagues, the chief strategist and policy officer for the Florida Virtual School. The school currently offers part-time instruction to grades 6-12 and under the Senate bill could expand into more grades.

Meyer said public schools are generally not opposed to virtual instruction, but many would prefer it to be used as a supplement to traditional instruction, not a student’s entire learning experience.

Some critics of virtual education also said schools play a vital role in child welfare. If a student is enrolled virtually and does not have face-to-face time with a teacher, there is no one to watch whether that child is being neglected.

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