With campaign promises already kept on eliminating tenure for teachers and switching them to merit pay, Florida Gov. Rick Scott is now seeing other pieces of his education reform rolling through the Legislature.
One taking shape would authorize virtual charter schools and statewide virtual education programs, with open enrollment for any student.
A bill (SB 1620) filed March 3, 2011, by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, would allow virtual charter schools, meaning full-time, online-only classes for kindergarten through grade 12 through a charter school. A similar House bill (HB 7197) on digital learning filed by Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is also in committee in that chamber.
Online statewide classes are not new to Florida. The Legislature set up the Florida Virtual School more than a decade ago, in 1997, as a pilot project. The school now offers more than 90 courses for students in grades 6 through 12, giving priority to children who are home-schooled, in poor-performing schools, in rural or inner-city areas with limited class offerings. You can read more about the school on the Florida Department of Education website.
In addition, since the start of the 2009-10 school year, each school district is required to offer full-time online classes through what DOE calls the Virtual Instruction Program, or VIP. "This means that students from elementary school through high school have an option to take all of their classes online," according to the DOE site.
In the 2009-10 school year, the VIP classes had the equivalent of about 2,500 students enrolled, and the Florida Virtual School had about 18,600, according to the Senate Education Committee staff's analysis of Flores' bill. That's about 21,200, not quite 1 percent, of the 2.6 million full-time equivalent students enrolled statewide.
"You're checking Gov. Scott's promise and I'm not sure what he said, but this is not a new issue or a new bill," Flores said in a phone interview April 12. She said representatives of online providers, school districts, charter schools and parents' groups met during the summer of 2010 to come up with the proposal.
Flores' bill could expand both online offerings and the providers. Among the provisions:
• Allows the Florida Virtual School to offer classes at lower grade levels, K-5.
• Eliminates the requirement that online instruction providers have an office in Florida and that their administrative staff be Florida residents, and allows the instructors to hold teaching certificates issued in other states.
• Permits each district to offer VIP classes, instead of requiring them to do so. Flores said that change was at the request of school districts because some felt the requirement was a burden while others were deeply involved in online classes.
• Requires all public school students entering ninth grade beginning in the 2011-12 school year to take at least one high school class online to meet graduation requirements, even if they are not involved in either VIP or the Florida Virtual School.
• Permits "blended learning charter schools,” a mixture of online classes and brick-and-mortar classrooms.
While greatly expanding online classes in Florida, however, the bill would not create a single statewide online charter school. In that limitation, it's not quite what Scott promised. Flores said some House members considered a 68th school district a "constitutionally gray" area.
"We get to the same point without offering a statewide charter," she said.
The bill has wide support, including Education Commissioner Eric Smith, who praised the Senate Education PreK-12 committee after it passed there April 5. The Florida Chapter of the National Coalition for Public School Options released statements by supporters that included the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida. Former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future also is promoting the legislation, according to the Miami Herald.
As for Scott himself, "I haven't heard that he's not in favor," Flores said.
The bill is still moving through the Senate Rules and Budget committees, and four weeks remain in the session. While it avoids creation of a statewide virtual charter school, it would allow public, private and home-schooled children to participate in statewide online programs. For now, we rate this promise In the Works.