Nationally Renowned Virtual School Saved at 11th Hour

Published June 1, 2009

Hundreds of people gathered at the Florida Capitol in late April to turn in 5,500 petition signatures protesting budget cuts that would have slashed millions of dollars from the Florida Virtual School. And as the legislative session drew to a close in late April, their efforts were rewarded: Funding was restored, using $2 billion in federal stimulus money.

Without the federal funds, the situation would have been dire. The cuts—suggested by lawmakers as part of a plan to balance the budget without raising taxes—would have hamstrung a popular program that has served as a model for other online schools nationwide, supporters of the program say.

“The future of schooling will be online schools,” said Tallahassee resident Donda Combs, whose 17-year-old daughter is using FLVS to help her graduate early. “This isn’t just a trend; this is the future.”

Budget Woes

Florida faces a $1.1 billion hole in this year’s budget and an expected $2.3 billion shortfall next year. In April the state House passed House Bill 5005, cutting $18.9 million the program was receiving from the class-size funding portion of Florida’s education funding formula.

FLVS supporters were even more concerned about a Senate proposal approved in April, Senate Bill 1676, that cut only $8.4 million in actual funding but reduced FLVS course offerings to the bare minimum.

Pols’ Claims, Actions Conflict

Supporters scratched their heads over political leaders who claimed to support the program yet voted for such deep cuts and stifling restrictions.

Henry Boekhoff, FLVS co-chief financial officer, points to comments by state Sen. Stephen Wise (R-Jacksonville), chairman of the Senate Education PreK-12 Appropriations Committee, which unanimously passed SB 1676 on April 1.

“Sen. Wise has said publicly this bill is designed to enhance virtual education. It’s just that 98 percent of the people have no clue how this is going to do that,” Boekhoff said.

Wise’s comments also baffle Bill Tucker, managing director at Education Sector, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education policy think tank in Washington. In an April 8, 2009 Education Next article, Tucker praised the program for its rapid growth “without the polarizing rhetoric or bruising battles of other reform efforts.”

Tucker also saw the dichotomy between lawmakers’ statements of support for FLVS, recognized as the national model for online learning, and their actions.

“They say they want more choices, and this is choice,” Tucker said. “There’s got to be some other agenda, but I don’t know what it is. This is clearly restricting choice, and makes very little sense from a practical or ideological standpoint.”

Virtual Learning Effective, Frugal

Growing participation in the program, coupled with its savings to the state, argued strongly against lawmakers’ initial choice to cut funding.

A November 2007 report by Florida Tax Watch Center for Educational Performance and Accountability tracked the growth of the program, from its opening in 1997 with 77 enrollments in five high school courses, to its current 113,900 enrollments by 88,000 unique learners in more than 90 courses. The study concludes that at its current pace FLVS will exceed 200,000 enrollments by 2010.

The Tax Watch study also reports the virtual school saves $1,000 per student compared to traditional schools and produces higher test scores in math and reading.

One reason for those results is “considerable investment on the part of FLVS instructors,” the authors wrote. Teachers of online students grade assignments, enter results in students’ individual online grade books, send an average of 38 personal e-mails to each student during each course, and are available by both e-mail and telephone on weekends.

Those opposed to cutting the program’s funding say FLVS’s entire value—not just what it costs or saves in dollars—should be considered.

“I prefer to look at it in terms of value, which is both in terms of what you are getting as well as what it costs,” Tucker said. “If you’re GM, they’re not cutting back on their hybrids and battery-powered cars. They’re not cutting back on their future.”

Elective, Advanced Courses Threatened

The Senate’s bill would have forced FLVS to offer only core courses. All elective courses, including computer science and foreign languages, would have been eliminated. The bill would have discontinued credit-recovery and grade-forgiveness options for students who fall behind and want to catch up.

Because homeschooled students and those still enrolled in traditional public schools use FLVS to supplement their education, eliminating electives would have reduced overall FLVS enrollment by 24 percent.

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

For more information …

“Final Report: A Comprehensive Assessment of Florida Virtual School,” Florida TaxWatch Center for Educational Performance and Accountability, November 2007:

“Florida’s Online Option,” by Bill Tucker, Education Next, April 8, 2009: