Virtual School Expansion Ready for House

By: News Service of Florida
By: News Service of Florida

NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 15, 2011

A major expansion of Florida’s virtual school programs is poised for a House floor vote after swift approval from a House committee on Friday.

But a similar measure in the Senate has stalled after questions were raised about its costs to the state.

The House measure (HB 7197) was approved with a substantial amendment after little debate or questions in the House Appropriations Committee on Friday. Only Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston, voted “no” after saying the committee was not given enough time to digest the 38-page amendment to the bill.

The bill allows taxpayer-funded charter schools to open full-time K-12 “virtual” charter schools in which classes can be taught on a computer by an instructor located elsewhere.

It also requires students to take an online class before graduating from high school, beginning as soon as 2011.

School districts would also have to offer full-time and part-time virtual instruction to students, through their own programs or by contracting with a third-party provider approved by the Department of Education.

But critics of the increased use of K-12 virtual schools say that quality suffers without frequent face-to-face engagement with teachers and that schools play an important watchdog role in child welfare.

Rep. Kelli Stargel defended virtual classes as the way younger generations are programmed to learn.

“Kids are comfortable online, they Google everything,” said Stargel, R-Lakeland. “They are used to getting information from an online provider.” Stargel acknowledged that online classes have the added benefit of being cheaper than traditional classrooms, thereby saving the state money. “Yes, it will be less expensive,” she said.

A similar Senate bill (SB 1620) allows for a much bigger expansion of state-funded virtual schools, permitting a virtual school company from outside of Florida to offer K-12 instruction to any student in the state, even private school and home-schooled students, with the state picking up the tab.

The bill was set to be heard Friday in the Senate Budget Committee but is stalled after Sen. J.D. Alexander, the chairman of the committee, expressed concerns about the cost to the state.

Because the measure allows home school and private school students to enroll in a state-funded virtual school, enrollment and costs to the state could dramatically increase.

There are over 62,000 home school students and over 313,000 private school students in Florida. If only one percent of those students enrolled in virtual programs and received state funding it could cost the state $19 million.

“I need to know a little bit more about what our budget allocations are going to look like before I take a $20 million impact bill forward,” said Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

But his concerns may be soothed by an amendment to the bill that puts it in line with the House version. Under that version, the doors to virtual schools would not be thrown open to private school and home-schooled students.

This Senate proposal may only have one more shot to become law. Next week the Senate is taking time off and then returns for its last week of committee meetings on April 25.

Schools say the push for more virtual classes comes with some drawbacks.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Vernon Pickup-Crawford, a lobbyist for school districts, calling the House version “at least more reasonable.” Pickup-Crawford said many schools like the increased flexibility of being allowed to offer part-time or full-time virtual classes. But the House bill still doesn’t allow schools to offer classes outside the regular school day and does not pay extra for “credit recovery” classes students take virtually after failing the first time.

The bill also requires schools to provide facilities and equipment for testing, which costs schools money, he said.

Brian Kennedy, with the National Coalition for Public School Options, which is a parent-organized group that supports school choices beyond traditional public schools, has been watching the bills in Florida closely.

Kennedy said what Florida is trying to do isn’t unusual. States like Arizona and Idaho offer statewide virtual K-12 programs, he said, and have far larger enrollment. Though SB 1620 is favored by virtual school proponents, he called the scaled-back House version a “small step forward on an important issue.”


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