The Florida Virtual School is doing more with less under a new law that cut its funding while expanding online learning to every school district in the state.
A national leader in virtual education, the Orlando-based school has seen its budget reduced by nearly 10 percent with more cutting set for next year, while most other public schools in Florida have received a modest increase.
Enrollment, though, is expected to go up at least 50 percent. A small part of that is from expanding the school’s scope to include full-time virtual students from kindergarten through the 12th grade under contracts or franchise agreements with most of the state’s 67 school districts.
The bulk of the increase is coming from its customary role of providing dozens of supplementary online courses to middle and high school students enrolled in regular schools—a program now dubbed “Florida Virtual School Classic”—by operating as a statewide 68th school district.
“We’re not just coping, we’re embracing it,” said Sarah Sprinkel, the director of Florida services for the school, which also has students outside the state. The new law phases out—over two years—the state funding Florida Virtual had been getting to meet class-size limits. Regular public schools are still getting class-size money.
“We really worked diligently to make the point that class size was not about walls and bricks and desks, that it was really about teacher-pupil ratio,” said Florida Virtual’s president and chief executive officer, Julie Young.
That argument failed to sway budget-conscious lawmakers, who see online teaching as a way not just to enhance education, but also as a cost-cutting tool.
As a result, the Florida Virtual School will lose $22 million—half this year and the full amount next year—leaving it with an annual budget of $122 million this year.
Ms. Young said her school joined other districts in planning for a threatened spending cut of at least 10 percent this year, but federal stimulus money is helping other districts avoid that reduction.
That exercise, though, is helping Florida Virtual deal with the lost class-size money. Ms. Young said the school also has saved $1 million through self-insurance for employee health coverage, increasing pupil-teacher ratios as it is exempt from the state’s class-size limits, outsourcing some services, and urging staff members to find ways to cut costs.
“The limitations have pushed our creativity,” Ms. Young said.
Before the cut, the private budget-watchdog group Florida TaxWatch had estimated Florida Virtual spent about $1,000 less per full-time-equivalent student than conventional schools do. That will now probably increase to about $1,500, Ms. Young said.
Most of Florida Virtual’s students are part-timers who attend regular schools while taking one or more online courses. The school gets state funding for each half-credit enrollment.
Ms. Young is anticipating about 250,000 half-credit enrollments this school year, compared with 175,000 last year. She’s expecting to serve as many as 190,000 students overall, an increase of about 60,000.
Most will be taking “classic” classes, ranging from American history to Chinese. Students can enroll at any time and continue at their own pace.
The new state law requires all districts to have full-time online programs; most are contracting with Florida Virtual, which also has a private partner for the elementary and middle school grades, to provide that service. Some districts employ their own online teachers but have franchises to use Florida Virtual’s curricula. Other options are to contract with private vendors or a combination of contracts and franchises.
Sept. 11 was the deadline for enrolling full-time online students in districts with Florida Virtual contracts—45 districts for kindergarten through 8th grade and 51 for high school—except Sarasota, which is getting extra time because it signed up later, Ms. Sprinkel said.
She said Florida Virtual’s contract enrollment is getting off to a modest start, with about 250 full-time high school students and 1,000 in the lower grades so far. Those classes are open only to students who attended public schools last year.
The full-time participants must attend online classes for 180 days during the school year and take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test just like other public school students. They also can take part in sports and other activities at public schools.
The state previously offered full-time virtual teaching in kindergarten through 8th grade through contracts with two private vendors. Those have been dropped, but one of the vendors, Connections Academy, is partnering with Florida Virtual.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Funding Cuts Compel Florida Virtual School to Get By With Less