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Published in Print: April 29, 2009, as Fla. Budget Threatens Online Ed. Mandate

Fla. Budget Threatens Online Ed. Mandate

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As Florida school districts scramble to meet a looming state mandate to offer full-time online instruction for K-8 students, and as high school enrollments in such courses continue to climb, lawmakers are mulling restrictions and budget cuts for the state’s nationally known virtual school.

Together, online-learning advocates say, the growing demands amid dwindling resources and conflicting messages on the scope of the state virtual school could hinder efforts to expand e-learning options for Florida students.

"The demand is continuing for growth of online programs," said Julie E. Young, the president and chief executive officer of the state-run Florida Virtual School. The Orlando-based school has seen annual enrollment increases of 30 percent or more in the high school program, and is gearing up to help districts create K-8 offerings.

"So we’re anticipating significant growth," Ms. Young said last week, "while also planning for significant reductions."

Beginning with the school year that starts in August, all 67 school districts in the state will be required to offer an option for full-time online education for qualified elementary and middle school students, as well as full- or part-time high school via the Internet. They can use a state-approved private vendor or the state virtual school to do so.

There are no limits on the number of students in the state who can sign up for online programs, although they will have to go through an application and interview process. But state officials say the initiative could draw several thousand new students across the state in the first year and would likely grow thereafter.

The measure, which was signed into law last year, was intended to expand school choice and foster what are viewed as innovative and cost-effective instructional approaches.

Although 44 states sponsor some form of online instruction, just two states besides Florida have instituted policies requiring that students participate in such instruction. Both those mandates—in Michigan and Alabama—are for high school students only, who must participate in online instruction in order to graduate. A number of states offer online schooling for elementary students, but enrollments for full-time coursework in the lower grades represent just a fraction of overall participation.

'Pretty Radical Reform'

The Florida Virtual School, or FLVS, which has provided supplemental, credit-recovery, and accelerated classes for high school students since 1997, has contracted with Florida Connections Academy, a commercial provider, to offer K-8 programs to districts.

But a bill in the Florida House would rescind nearly $14 million in funding for the virtual school aimed at class-size reduction, and a Senate proposal would limit FLVS students to online classes only in core subjects up to the maximum allowed credits. It could eliminate state payments for many of the electives and makeup courses that students take through the online school, Ms. Young said.

Like all public schools and most sectors across the state, the FLVS is likely to get hit with a general budget cut as well.

"You would think that the things that are doing the best would be preserved the most, but this is the opposite," said Bill Tucker, the managing director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank. Mr. Tucker, a Florida native, testified in Tallahassee last fall about the promise of the virtual school.

"Here’s a pretty radical reform that's gotten along in the state without the kind of rancor you find around other education reforms," he said last week.

Experts around the country have debated the quality of online instruction as well as the purported cost savings for such programs. ("Experts Debate Cost Savings Of Virtual Ed.," March 18, 2009.) The Florida Virtual School, however, has earned high marks both in the state and from national experts. In an evaluation of the school, the Florida TaxWatch Center for Educational Performance and Accountability,Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader a watchdog group in Tallahassee, found that the program was cost-effective and that its students performed above the average on state tests.


Mandate Questioned

Under the 2008 state law, Florida districts will receive the same cost-per-student allocation for students attending virtual schools, minus transportation costs, as for those in regular schools. The state aid for each online student will be about $5,000.

Before the passage of the law, Florida had run a pilot program for fewer than 2,000 students using two commercial online schools, the Florida Connections Academy and the Florida Virtual Academy, a division of K12 Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based e-learning company that serves more than 55,000 students in 21 states. Citing the success of those programs—they have both undergone evaluations from the state education department and received high grades for improving student achievement—legislators voted to require each district to offer similar options for students.

"We’re pretty excited about the opportunity for the thousands of students who are trying to get into our school to get the chance," said Patty Betoni, the head of school at the Florida Virtual Academy. “We’re offering districts what we call the turnkey solution...where we would handle everything from parent awareness to enrollment, to providing teachers, all instruction and curriculum."

But some Florida education leaders have questioned the need for the sweeping mandate for online learning.

"This was a solution in search of a problem in a number of ways," said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. "It seemed to be driven by the for-profit virtual schools that were looking to get a toehold here. ... It did seem to us like a virtual school relief act."

Representatives from commercial providers had pushed for the measure, which some lawmakers said in news reports at the time would open up competition in a growing market dominated by the state program.

"The commercial providers have been very interested in being able to offer their programs, and they hired lobbyists and were able to have some influence" in getting the mandate passed, said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. “But the primary driving force of the virtual schools [expansion] comes from people like us who are trying to expand choices for students."

Legislative Changes Urged

All of the state’s school districts have contacted the Florida Virtual School for information about online learning, according to Sarah Sprinkel, the school’s director of elementary education. K12 Inc. has also talked with officials throughout the state about its approved K-8 online curriculum. Districts can ask for approval of other approaches.

The FLVS, though, may have trouble meeting the demand, officials say. Its $110 million annual budget could be cut by as much as 17 percent, which could force a downsizing in its staff ranks and an increase in class size from the current 170 students per teacher in its online courses, Ms. Young said.

The school served nearly 90,000 students during the 2007-08 school year.

"It’s OK to ask [the Florida Virtual School] to do more because they’ve proven themselves," said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or INACOL. "But it’s shortsighted of the policymakers to take an innovative school model like FLVS and put all these new policy requirements in place for expanding their programs at a time when the budget is tight."

In the waning days of the state legislative session, education groups have been urging lawmakers to change the language of the law to encourage, rather than require, district virtual schooling options. In place of such a change, they are hoping for a temporary reprieve from the law as a recognition of the difficulty of implementing new programs in the midst of a state budget crisis. The state is facing a shortfall of $3 billion in its $66 billion budget for fiscal 2010.

With or without the changes, the state’s virtual school program needs to form new partnerships and streamline its operations to continue on its current path, said Ms. Young, the school’s president and CEO.

"The Florida Virtual School has always been an innovator and a leader in this industry, and somewhat has set the pace," she said. "If you want to keep innovating and leading, it will take some very creative approaches that we have not identified yet."

Vol. 28, Issue 30, Pages 1,12-13

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