Virtual Learning in Florida Schools

by : Patricia Hawke

The kindergarten through 8th grade virtual school was created in the Florida schools in 2003. It was sold to lawmakers as a great way to save money, offering coursework to replace on-campus teachers and classrooms at a savings of $700 per student. Only students who had attended the Florida schools the previous year were eligible to participate at a cost to the Florida schools of $4,800 per student. The savings over physical classroom instruction for the Florida schools was expected to be $700,000 with a 1,000 student enrollment in the virtual school program.

Though in theory the money saved by the Florida schools was substantial, someone forgot to tell the rules to Jim Horne (then education commissioner). He allowed kindergarten and first grade students, who had never attended the Florida schools previously, to enroll in the virtual school. These newly eligible students accounted for 27 percent of all students enrolled at a taxpayer cost of $4,800 per student. All projected savings were lost, and it ended up costing the Florida schools an additional $653,000, according to a March 14th article in the Palm Beach Post.

The Florida schools have found the virtual school a success, even though a costly one in the beginning. All participating students must meet the Florida Sunshine State Standards and must take the state-required Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

In March, the House education committee approved HB 799, which expands the K-8 virtual school program. If passed by the Senate, all home and privately schooled children in Florida will be allowed to participate in the virtual school program with no cap on the number of students enrolled.

Currently, the virtual program is limited to 1,384 students at a $5,200 per student cost for a total of $7.2 million funding cost to the Florida schools. Though few privately schooled children are expected to enroll (a parent must be present during use of the program), there are currently 52,000 children in Florida being home schooled. The expanded program, which provides parents with a computer, books, software and online access to teachers, could easily cost the Florida schools about $312 million with a per student cost increase to almost $6,000.

Such a cost to the taxpayers and the Florida schools may force lawmakers to place an enrollment cap on the virtual school program. Backers believe the Senate will insist upon it, since they expect a tight budget this year.

The bill also requires all program providers to be nonprofit. Current contracted providers are the Virginia-based K12 and Maryland-based Connections Academy. The Florida subsidiaries of these two firms are currently making a transition to nonprofit status in compliance with HB 799. Though the subsidiaries will be nonprofit, they will be allowed to continue purchasing supplies and equipment for the virtual school program from their for-profit parent companies. The bill does not require competitive bidding by these providers.

The expanded virtual school bill, HB 799, is sponsored by Representative Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel). He believes that the parents of home and privately schooled children pay taxes, and their children should have equal opportunity to participate in this state-paid program of the Florida schools, too.