Growth of virtual schools in Florida spurs debate on funding

TALLAHASSEE, Florida – The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a surge in student enrollments in virtual education, highlighting competition among Florida providers – and sparking debate over whether lawmakers should change the how public schools are funded as more and more students take online courses.

“It’s a good question that a 45 year old funding formula that was designed in a world with no school choices of any kind, no elective schools, no charter schools, no virtual schools, no private schools, it was “you’re going to go to your neighborhood school and love it”, does this funding formula still work in a world where more and more “What families have a choice? I would say they don’t,” House PreK-12 Appropriations president Randy Fine told the News Service of Florida in an interview Thursday.

Florida students have several virtual school options. The state offers full-time or part-time education through Florida Virtual School, the oldest and largest online provider.

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Students can also enroll in virtual charter schools, and school districts can contract to use the Florida virtual school model, create their own virtual schools, or contract with private virtual providers.

Because virtual education has no defined boundaries, families can choose to enroll their students in virtual schools anywhere in the state.

But during the legislative session that ended in April, lawmakers capped the number of out-of-district students a county school district’s virtual program can accept.

Under the amendment, the number of foreign students enrolled in a district’s virtual program cannot exceed 50% of the number of enrolled virtual students living in the district.

The new policy applies to contracts signed after June 30 and has not been applied retroactively.

Last week, Fine raised concerns at its House panel about students enrolling in virtual district schools outside the counties where they live. Fine, for example, said 96% of students enrolled in the Hendry County District Virtual School last year were from different counties.

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The approximately 5,700 students who attended the Hendry County Virtual School represented about 42% of the total student population in the district.

“School districts are being created for the benefit of families and children who live in this district. It is their main beneficiary. And when 40% of your students are not even from your school district anymore, and it could easily exceed 50%, are you actually working for the good of the families you serve? ” Well said.

Fine said he drew attention to the situation involving Hendry County to illustrate “problems” with the Florida Education Finance Program, or FEFP, which is the primary system for funding public schools.

“Students are funded by state and local funds. Each of these (virtual) students who come from another county in Hendry County bring their public funds with them, but they don’t bring their local funds with them. So local Hendry funds need to be spent on far more students than there are actually families taxed in Hendry County, ”Fine said.

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Fine said examining the FEFP and how it funds virtual schools will be the focus of the 2022 legislative session, which begins Jan. 11. But he said: “what we are going to do about it remains to be seen”.

In the meantime, he called his concerns about funding virtual schools “laundering” students statewide.

“Should virtual schools be run in school districts where students are to be laundered?” Or should it be centralized and done statewide? Fine said, floating the idea that all virtual school options should be “centrally managed” and accessible on a statewide platform like the Florida Virtual School.

Jim Horne, former state education commissioner and state senator, said he agreed with Fine that funding for schools may need to be modernized to accommodate education Virtual. But he rebuffed Fine’s framing that districts like Hendry “launder” students through virtual schools.

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“The waters get a little muddy when you go virtual, because the virtual knows no borders. That’s the beauty of virtual education, you don’t have jurisdictional boundaries drawn around a mythical county line, ”said Horne, a lobbyist whose clients include Stride, Inc., an education provider. virtual private.

Horne recalled watching the advent of virtual education in the state and the growth of the Florida Virtual School in the early 2000s. Over the next two decades, lawmakers opened the door to increased competition by allowing other suppliers to enter the market.

“Frankly, each has made everyone a better place,” Horne said of the virtual school providers who have moved to Florida.

Horne has defended the Hendry County Virtual School, arguing that the district is doing what previous legislatures have encouraged: compete.

“Hendry has stepped up dramatically and offered their little program statewide, and they’ve had huge success. We get the impression that in some ways they are being punished or misaligned with their motives. We have heard comments that they are laundering students. If meeting the needs of parents in Florida is laundering the students, then they are laundering the students, but they are doing what everyone has asked all of our leaders to do, ”said Horne.

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Horne, who is a certified public accountant, said he understands that a rapid increase in enrollment in a district’s virtual program will give lawmakers a break to the state budget. But he does not agree with the capping of out-of-county students in district virtual schools.

“This is probably the first major educational policy reversal in a very long time. Generally speaking, we are continuing to move forward, making giant strides, particularly with private checks. It’s the first time I can remember, taking a big step backwards, ”he said.

As lawmakers are poised to review funding and enrollment in county virtual schools, the Florida Virtual School has launched a program to expand beyond state borders and internationally.

Florida Virtual School this month launched a program called FlexPoint Education Cloud, which allows schools and districts in other states and around the world to contract with the Florida-based provider for their online program.

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“Shortly after I arrived here in 2019, we started discussing the option of having an outward facing brand for outside of Florida. And the pandemic kind of fused everything together, so the idea at the time was to finally make it happen, ”Florida Virtual School president and CEO Louis Algaze told the News Service this week.

Algaze said schools in states like Alaska have contracted the virtual school for the curriculum and teacher training. With the revenue generated from these contracts, Algaze said Florida Virtual School can improve its services.

“We generate income outside of Florida, we bring it back to Florida and we use it to improve our program, to update our program,” Algaze said.

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Perry A. Thomasson