Florida Mandates Virtual Schooling Funds

Published February 1, 2009

Opening up another education option, an innovative new law will take effect in Florida in the fall, requiring all of the state’s school districts to offer online K-8 schools.

“We want to empower parents to get involved in their children’s education,” said Sonia Esposito, director of school choice at the Osceola County School District. “[Online school] is just another opportunity, another choice for parents.”

Though several other states also have virtual educations programs, Esposito said, Florida has become a leader in providing them broadly and innovatively.

The new law is part of a larger legislative effort to give Florida families school choice, said former state Rep. Joe Pickens (R-Palatka), erstwhile chair of the state House of Representatives Schools and Learning Council, which produced the bill last spring.

The idea began in the late 1990s as a pilot program, funded newly each year and able to accommodate only a small number of students. The children’s scores on Florida’s standardized tests proved the pilot online schools were as successful as the traditional schools, Pickens said.

Stable Funding

Pickens said the new law makes three changes to the original pilot program. It makes the funding less limited, allows school districts to create their own online curricula or collaborate with an outside vendor, and lets school districts receive a portion of the per-student funding.

When lawmakers saw the success of the pilot online schools and parents’ demand for them, Pickens said, they decided to move it to a more stable funding formula that would incorporate the program into the state budget.

The new law also gives school districts more authority over the programs’ curricula. Esposito said the districts can either develop their own curriculum or contract out, tailoring a program that meets students’ needs and teaches them in accordance with the state’s benchmarks and standards.

“It’s just like another public school, except that it’s online,” Esposito said.

Balancing Interests

Pickens said the new authority allows larger, more sophisticated districts to take on the involvement they may desire without keeping the smaller ones from contracting with online curriculum vendors.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Pickens said, the new law lets the money follow the student. Before, districts missed out on the funding when a student opted to take classes online.

While some costs were saved, typically there weren’t enough students attending online schools for the districts to eliminate a bus route, a building, or even a teacher—and in some cases, before the new law passed, districts reported they actually lost money on children attending online schools.

“You balance the districts’ interest, if it is valid, with creating educational opportunities,” Pickens said. “We’ve done something very, very forward-thinking.”

Happy Parents

Under the new system, the school districts will get the funding, and if they can provide the online education without spending the full sum allotted for each student, they can keep the money and reinvest it in the bricks-and-mortar schools.

The online schools give parents another choice, Pickens said.

“I think it’s better for both kids and parents,” Pickens said. “Some of the testimony and communication I had from parents and from students who had availed themselves of the program was pretty powerful. [We] give children more public education options than the traditional bricks-and-mortar school.”

Esposito said the online education program has given Florida a good reputation on the subject.

“Every state is different, but I know that many states look at Florida to see the innovative things that we are doing out here,” Esposito said.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.