by Holly Sagues
Florida Virtual School began as an idea developed in the Florida Legislature. With a $200,000 “break the mold” grant, a small group was charged with attempting something truly disruptive: create the nation’s first online public school. From those early moments 16 years ago to present day, Florida Virtual School has changed the landscape of public education in Florida and nationwide. In 1997, FLVS had 77 students. In fiscal year 2011-12, we had more than 149,000 students in Florida alone.
Florida Virtual School keeps the student at the center of every decision we make. Seeing every student as an individual is one of the key reasons so many FLVS students achieve and exceed expectations. With our students in the center, FLVS has concerns with the way the language of two Florida House bills, HB 5101 and HB 7029, account for student access and opportunity.
The language used in these bills changes the lens through which the Legislature sees student funding. It moves from addressing unique student needs to a “one-size-fits-all” model that pits district against district. Essentially, the proposed language caps the amount that can be spent on an individual student to a single full-time equivalent (1.0 FTE). This dollar amount is static, and it does not change based upon the number of courses a student successfully completes.
Each student has individual reasons for taking FLVS courses, reasons that vary from acceleration to credit recovery to grade forgiveness and others. Most FLVS students are concurrently enrolled in a brick-and-mortar school, and many take FLVS courses in addition to their six- or seven-period day.
If HB 7029’s and HB 5101’s changes are implemented, the FTE associated with a student taking a full load at a zoned school will be divided between the two (or more) providers of that student’s education, based upon the individual district’s FTE calculation, which varies based upon district. The bill language says “proportionately” but this word is incorrect because FLVS already receives a reduced amount compared to brick-and-mortar schools.
For example, a student at “Excellent Brick-and-Mortar School” is an accelerated student and wants to take an Advanced Placement course that isn’t offered at her zoned school. Enrolled in six classes at her zoned school, she enrolls in FLVS to take AP Psychology to potentially improve postsecondary college readiness and bolster her college applications. “Excellent Brick-and-Mortar School” now must share their earned 1.0 FTE with FLVS. The breakdown looks like this:
Excellent Brick-and-Mortar: 6/7 of the 1.0 FTE (calculated using the district’s FTE formula)
Florida Virtual School: 1/7 of the 1.0 FTE (calculated using the VEC formula)
As students become more motivated to graduate or be competitive in college applications, they may enroll in more than one extra class. (About 50 percent of our students in fiscal year 2011-12 took more than one course). Using this funding model, there’s only 1.0 FTE to be shared, so the 1.0 FTE must be divided by the number of courses the student takes. In this model, every student is valued at the same amount.
But, students aren’t all the same, and their education is not one size. That’s why opportunities like FLVS and other providers exist – to provide students, parents, and districts a choice for how best to structure and pursue individual educations. As mentioned previously, this is not a direct cut to the Virtual Education Contribution (VEC), by which FLVS and all virtual school funding is calculated. It is, however, a reduction in the amount FLVS receives per course provided.
As a result of the proposed language, FLVS will incur a loss of $182 for every 7th period a student takes, and $217 for every 8th period a student takes.
The impact to FLVS courses may include:
• Decreasing the number of required discussion-based assessments (oral exams)
• Decreasing the frequency of teacher-student-parent contacts (to which the Florida Legislature posits an increase and minimum standards)
• Decreasing student collaboration
• Decreasing the number of live/synchronous lessons
• Decreasing teacher and helpdesk availability, and/or
• Increasing class sizes significantly
FLVS cannot accept the current proposals because they make an unlevel playing field even more unequal. The proposed changes may drive districts to limit student access to online courses. The funding model may decrease the quality of virtual education in Florida, increase academic integrity issues while decreasing passing scores on district, end-of-course, AP, and other exams. Currently, FLVS students consistently score above the state average in common summative assessments.
The Florida Legislature created FLVS as an innovative school district that did, indeed, “break the mold.” FLVS and district virtual programs save the state money by being funded at a lower level and only if the student successfully completes the course. FLVS provides a way for students to retrieve credits so they can graduate on time, eliminating the need for a fifth year of high school.
FLVS supports innovative changes to systems; however, we cannot support the language of these bills in its current form. We look forward to working with the legislative leadership to develop a solution that will benefit all of Florida’s stakeholders.