Florida expands virtual education with physical limitations

Florida expanded its virtual learning horizon today, even as it once again reminded us that age-old education boundaries won’t easily cede to global technology.

The bill that senators sent to Gov. Rick Scott, HB 7197, was a clear victory for online education, adding more public and private options. School districts will be required to give students access to at least three different providers for part-time and fulltime virtual programs. Florida Virtual School, the nation’s largest and most successful public virtual school, will be allowed to provide fulltime programs for all grade levels and part-time not only for high and middle school students but also for accelerated fourth- and fifth-graders. High school students will be required to take an online course for graduation. All providers will be held to similar academic accountability standards and will receive similar reimbursement.

Patricia Levesque, executive director of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s foundation and digital learning initiative, helped push the effort. “A decade ago, the idea of providing every student in Florida with a customized education was just a dream,” she said after the Senate vote. “But that dream can become reality through today’s technology. Increasing access to quality digital learning in our schools will bring Florida’s classrooms into the 21st century and prepare our students for success in today’s global market.”

The bill did contain reminders of the obstacles that remain. Legislative staff attorneys and education analysts refused to accept a broader strategy offered jointly by Florida Virtual and its private competitors that would have allowed both to operate statewide, giving simpler options to all students. They deemed, with some justification, that such an approach would be challenged and found unconstitutional. That’s because Florida’s constitution, like that of many states, apportions oversight of education based on the physical location of students and schools. That means school boards are in charge, even when they need not be.

So the compromise was predictable. The bill allows each of the 67 county school districts to approve virtual charter schools that, in turn, must restrict their technology to the geographical boundaries of each county. If Connections Academy wants to provide an online course to a student in Miami-Dade, it must gain approval of the Miami-Dade School Board and promise not to let that signal travel any farther without permission from any other county.

Virtual education may best illustrate the absurdity of allowing geographic boundaries to remain the driving force behind education policy, but the county-restricted virtual charter is not the only place the Legislature stumbled. Virtual learning is still viewed as something different and distinct from education in a district schoolhouse, so much so that budget writers demanded that the fulltime virtual program be available only to kindergarten or first-grade students or students who were in a public school the prior year. The rationale is the state can’t afford to pick up the tab for students who were previously in a private school or home school.

This is one of the more insidious ways that government budget analysts are allowed to rate learning options as essentially valid or invalid. Public education is universal in application, and any school district that turns down a student merely because he or she attended private school the previous year would be promptly sued. So why is it proper to turn down such a student who wants to attend a public virtual school? It’s not, and maybe one day these options will be viewed as truly part of the promise of public education.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.