Florida Prepares to Fight Another Online Charter Battle

Just how much of a hot-button issue online charter schools have become in Florida could be plainly seen from the amount of money their supporters and foes poured into last year's political campaigns, the Palm Beach Post reports. While online charter school companies and related advocacy groups spent more than $2 million in the period leading up to the fall's election, teachers unions spent close to $4 million to promote their point of view on virtual schools and other policy proposals.

The fight is only expected to get more pitched during the next legislative session, as current Governor Rick Scott seeks to continue down the path laid down by his predecessor Jeb Bush by expanding online charters throughout the state.

Bush, who has been considered an education reform pioneer both during and after his tenure as governor, first brought online charters into the state over strong protests by teachers unions and other members of education establishment. Speaking in November, he anticipated that any attempt to expand access to them is bound to meet with opposition.

The union and several parent groups say the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that go to charter schools, online efforts and to the state's tax credit scholarship program started under Bush merely redirect money to private and often for-profit interests that could, instead, be used to improve public schools.

But for those promoting more education overhaul, Florida is seen as fertile ground.

Expanding online charter access won't be the only online education issue in front of Florida lawmakers this year. House Speaker Will Weatherford has once again put forward the idea of creating the first fully-digital state university, a concept that is currently being studied and considered by higher education officials.

Nor is Florida the only state in the country looking at ways to expand or bring online charters to their students. According to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, nearly 2 million students are enrolled in at least one online course nationwide.

Online charters most often operate as regular brick-and-mortar charters – independently run yet funded with public money. Although a number of online charter networks are operated by private for-profit companies, more than a few a run by the states themselves.

Online courses started popping up in high schools in the 1990s as a way to offer specialty courses in rural areas or districts that could not afford extra staff members. Full-time online schools started being pitched in the early 2000s. Online offerings vary from course recovery and dual-credit single courses, such as Cyber High in some California school districts, to advanced placement courses not available at some smaller districts Programs such as California Virtual Academy and FAME Public Charter offer full-time classes, where all of a student's classes are taken via the Internet.

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