THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 27, 2011 -
Florida Gov. Rick Scott confirmed his support Tuesday for a bill that expands online K-12 education in Florida, a good indication the measure will become law this year.
After approval Tuesday in its final Senate committee stop, both chambers are now poised to vote on bills (SB 1620, HB 7197) that would require all students take an online course before graduating, would allow kindergarten students to take online classes, and allow virtual charter schools to offer full or part-time online classes.
The Florida Virtual School would also be allowed to offer full-time and part-time instruction to more grades and would be able to receive funding directly from the state instead of going through school districts.
The measures have been swiftly pushed through the Republican-dominated Legislature in the this session with minimal opposition from lawmakers and school lobbyists.
But on Tuesday, several school district lobbyists said they have major concerns about the bill, which could draw more students away from public schools and into full-time online classes paid for with state funds.
“We are very concerned about this bill and ask that it be delayed,” Seminole County Schools lobbyist Darvin Boothe told the Senate Rules Committee. “We do not feel like districts have had an adequate time to be involved in the process.”
Some critics of online education have questioned its quality, saying kids rely too heavily on the Internet for plagiarized answers and that there isn’t enough oversight of students. Many supporters of traditional brick-and-mortar schools say regular schools play a vital role in socializing young children and in checking on the welfare of students.
Even as criticisms began to emerge against the bill, a rally hosted by the group “Florida Coalition for Public School Options” brought hundreds of students and parents from across Florida to the Capitol to show their support for virtual school expansion. A broad alliance of pro-school choice groups came to support the measure, including private and charter school students as well as dozens of home-schooled students who take virtual classes.
The rally drew some of Florida’s most powerful state politicians, such as Gov. Scott, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, and Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who is scheduled to be House Speaker in late 2012.
“Some people are visual learners, some people do well in a virtual school environment,” Haridopolos said. “Not everyone learns the same way. Virtual schools have proven their success and there are enough safeguards in place.”
But in perhaps a sign of what little public attention this bill has received, there was some confusion among elected officials and rally attendees about what legislation they were supporting.
Scott said at the rally he was “calling on the Legislature to move the charter school legislation forward.”
That bill (SB 1546) allows high-performing charter schools to expand grades and enrollment. It is poised for Senate approval this week and was not the primary focus of Tuesday’s rally.
After the rally Scott spokesman Lane Wright clarified that the governor does support virtual school expansion.
“Gov. Scott supports the concept of virtual schools and has since the campaign,” Wright said. “Scott believes that parents and their students should be free to choose the type of educational options that best suit their needs.”
Some parents who attended the rally said they prefer online classes for their children.
Brevard County resident Carol Whitler, who home-schools her grandson said he is taking two virtual classes through K12, a virtual school provider that offers classes through Florida school districts.
Her grandson is hyperactive and didn’t perform well at a traditional public school, Whitler said. He is taking third-grade history and science online and Whitler teaches him the other subjects. He has responded well to online classes, and twice a month has one-on one talks with his teacher. “The future is in computers,” she said.
But other parents said that virtual classes aren’t for everybody.
Annmarie Mitchell, from West Palm Beach, said her 16-year-old daughter Amber took virtual classes but didn’t perform well. Mitchell said it was because she was given a lot of leeway to police her own school work.
“It wasn’t the best choice for her,” Mitchell said. Amber took psychology, history, English, and biology online.
Still, Mitchell supports the idea of allowing more people to take virtual classes.
“A lot of the problems happening with teenagers - and why virtual school is so great for them - is teenagers are really scared to share their opinion because of what their peers will say,” Mitchell said. “So with virtual education they have discussions and chat sessions and they are opening up more.”
Meanwhile, some lawmakers and lobbyists say they are concerned about the state’s increasing emphasis on online courses. Boothe, the schools lobbyist, said the bill could be costly. The bill analysis says it could cost the state an additional $6.2 million next school year based on estimated increases in virtual school enrollment.
Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Sunny Isles, said online education disfavors students who do not own computers. She has unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to require parent notification for students taking online courses.