As the nation’s oldest and largest state virtual educator, the Florida Virtual School is often held up as a model for similar state-backed endeavors to follow when crafting a funding system and putting e-school accountability measures in place.
But at the same time, this major symbol of the virtual education movement is facing increasing scrutiny about its effectiveness as the popularity of online education has expanded in Florida and the country. Some observers of the field want more proof that the FLVS model leads to academic success for students.
Established in 1997 as a state sponsored e-school, and also designated as a school district, Florida Virtual provides more than 110 courses and grew to nearly 260,000 half-credit enrollments in the last school year. Along the way, its funding model has evolved. The school is paid only when its students successfully complete a course. FLVS receives a portion of the per-pupil funding provided to schools and districts by the state for every half-credit course a student completes. That portion is a bit less than a brick-and-mortar school would receive: a full-time FLVS student is funded at $4,840 by the state versus $6,999 for a traditional student.
The school receives payment from the state after a student has completed a course. “This model is self-sustainable,” says Shearon Arnott, the director of district accountability for FLVS. “I don’t think you’ll see us pushing for some alternative method of funding.”
The funding model means that the school is paid for the actual number of students it serves (as long as they’re successful in their courses), unlike many other state virtual schools, which receive set, line-item funding based on predictions of future enrollments, says Matthew Wicks, the vice president of strategy and organizational development for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, based in Vienna, Va.
“A fixed appropriation might increase over time, but it creates a cap on how many students you can serve,” he says. In the FLVS model, he notes, “the funding is related to the number of students.”
In addition, under Florida law, all students in the state have a right to take courses from FLVS, without being dependent on school districts to approve such a move, Wicks says. “They’re not faced with the situation of local schools saying they’re not going to allow a student to take a course” with FLVS, he says, as is the case in some other states.
The fact that FLVS won’t receive payment unless a student completes a course successfully also plays into the ability of the school to garner support from lawmakers.
“The competency-based aspect of their funding creates a level of accountability and changes the playing field,” Wicks says. “In my view, it’s how we should be thinking about accountability and funding elsewhere.”
But Arnott says FLVS is looking for a bit more equity in this area. Even if a student ends up dropping a class after a few months, she says, the online school has still invested teacher time and resources in that student.
“Traditional school districts aren’t paid upon successful completion; they’re paid when students show up,” Arnott says.
FLVS builds accountability and safeguards throughout its program on both the teacher and student sides, says Robin Winder, the director of student learning for the school. Teachers must be certified in their subject areas; they are supervised by an instructional leader who, during their first year, monitors their teaching on a nearly weekly basis.
Instructional leaders perform monthly “walk-throughs” with teachers to look at data collected, including call logs and student feedback to ensure teachers are responding to students quickly and leading online discussion properly. Teachers must be available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week and must answer emails and phone calls from students within 24 hours.
FLVS teachers provide monthly progress reports to parents and do phone assessments of students to help prevent cheating. The school also uses plagiarism-detection software and has an academic-integrity department reviewing such issues. FLVS also does random or targeted proctored tests, requiring students to take exams in face-to-face settings.
But Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, a state union for educators with more than 140,000 members, says there remains very little real evidence that FLVS students are absorbing information in a way that’s equal to or better than face-to-face education.
“No one knows whether the students are benefiting from the program,” Pudlow wrote in an email, citing news reports, including a Jan. 8, 2012, article in the Tampa Bay Times that asks whether FLVS students are really performing academically as well as school officials claim.
Winder says FLVS is just beginning to give end-of-course exams that will be compared with the same exams being given in traditional schools to allow for greater data collection and comparisons. For example, on the 2010-11 Algebra I end-of-course exam, 10 percent more FLVS students scored in the high average category compared with students in the rest of the state.
Florida Virtual has taken a creative approach toward increasing revenue in other ways, at the behest of state lawmakers who in 2001 enacted legislation to encourage the school to pursue other forms of income. Revenue from Florida Virtual’s Global Services division goes back into the digital school, whether it’s to support research and development or hold conferences.
The Global Services division sells FLVS full-service courses outside Florida, for $400 for a half-credit class. Global Services also sells FLVS content, professional-development courses and training sessions, and other services to schools and districts across the country and internationally. A 2010 deal struck with education publisher Pearson, whose U.S. division is based in New York City, has Pearson selling FLVS products throughout the United States.
Right now, all that amounts to only about 1 percent of FLVS’s revenue, but Claudine Townley, the director of global services, says the plan is to grow that side of the business.
But Pudlow views it as a bit unfair that the virtual school is making a profit from a program that was developed using public dollars.
“The startup and the clientele and the advertising have all been funded by the taxpayer,” he says, adding: “It is difficult to say if they have it right or wrong.”