Bill to Expand Florida Online Education Moves Through Legislature

Two bills currently moving through Florida's Republican-dominated House and Senate could see the state — which is already leading the nation when it comes to online learning — embrace the format even more fully. The first measure would allow out-of-state online education providers to qualify for state funding, while the other would see a virtual campus added to the state's public education system.

Wesley Chapel's Will Weatherford, the House Speaker, has previously said that an expansion of online education in the state has been on his agenda for a while. He sees online education as yet another stepping stone to a digital society fulfilling the technological promise of the 21st century, and he is doubly-proud of the fact that Florida has taken up the banner of progress and has taken it further than any other part of the country.

But opponents, including teachers' unions and parent groups, have raised questions about the effectiveness of virtual education programs. They believe the proposed legislation is a move to further privatize education by allowing for-profit digital learning companies to compete for coveted state education dollars.

"I don't think this is about embracing technology," said Rep. Irv Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat. "I think this is about embracing money. … It's not going to benefit our children. It's probably going to benefit for-profit companies and out-of-state schemers."

Online education came to Florida in a big way with the launch ten years ago of Florida Virtual School, a public school accessible to all Florida students and offering more than 120 online courses. At least 130,000 students are currently enrolled in FVS either part- or full-time, but any districts that feel that the mass online academy isn't enough of an option can also contract with third parties to offer classes FVS doesn't – although such partnerships are not funded directly by the state.

The growth of online learning in the state has also led to online education providers playing a bigger role in the state's elective politics. Companies involved with digital learning and related fields have recently begun throwing more money at office candidates and their political action committees, according to finance disclosure forms mandated by Florida law.

Nor has the expansion come entirely without controversy. At least one provider, K2 Inc., was recently subject to an investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting due to the fact that the company wasn't using properly certified teachers in its online schools, contrary to the agreement it made with the state and the local districts.

There also remain questions about the effectiveness of of online learning as test results comparing online learners and traditional students don't show anything definitive as of yet.

Still, Republican lawmakers say they favor expansion because more digital programs mean more choices for students.
The first digital learning proposal passed in the House, 82-37, on Thursday. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, would enable students to take classes offered at virtual schools based in other counties. It would also allow out-of-state digital learning companies to receive a larger share of state funding than in the past.

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