Florida to take closer look at course choice funding, access, accountability

Sen. Brandes
Sen. Brandes

Florida is moving ahead with plans to bring school choice to the class level, but will study the issue before taking a deep dive.

The heart of a “course choice” proposal by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, (SB 904) was rolled into a digital learning bill (HB 7029) and passed by the House on the final day of session last week. It’s expected to be signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

The bill directs the Florida Department of Education to hire a contractor to review the state’s approach to online learning and make recommendations on funding, access and accountability. It also says the new course choice program will be up and running in 2015-16.

“We’re taking a measured approach to implementation,” Brandes said. “We want to implement based on data, based on science and research. We’re really going to allow the data to drive how we go into this.”

The DOE must hire a contractor by Aug. 30. The contractor’s report is due to Gov. Scott and legislative leaders next February.

In the meantime, Brandes said, the bill authorizes the state to go ahead and begin authorizing “massive open online courses” (better known as MOOCs) in four subject areas that require end-of-course exams: Algebra I, biology, geometry and civics. The state Board of Education must come up with rules detailing how potential providers would apply and be approved.

The bill says providers must have “prior, successful experience” offering online courses, as evidenced by learning gains, but also says the DOE may conditionally approve applicants who don’t have that. Renewal would hinge on performance.

Course choice is hailed by some education reformers as the next wave in the movement to better tailor learning to individual students. The hope is that by opening the door to more providers, students will have a bigger menu to choose from – and a better chance of finding a good fit.

“My argument is we want to give our kids the best,” Brandes said. “If the best comes out of a private institution, let’s give our kids that. If it comes out of a public institution, that’s wonderful. Not all knowledge is contained in Florida. If our goal is to expose our kids to the best in the world, let’s give them every option.”

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.