Funding cut for virtual school?

Measure studied in Tallahassee

Published: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 9:06 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 9:06 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE --- A change to the way funding for the Florida Virtual School is calculated passed a pair of House committees Wednesday, despite criticisms that the changes would deeply reduce funding for the online institution.

Coupled with a change to the requirements out-of-state providers have to meet in order to provide online education in Florida, the revision of the funding formula for the 16-year-old program could open it up to new competition by making it a less financially attractive partner for public school systems.

In a budget-related bill that passed the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee (PCB EDAS 13-01) and an online education measure that passed the House Education Committee (HB 7029), lawmakers essentially did away with an incentive for public schools to work with the virtual school.

Currently, a school district and the Florida Virtual School each get roughly one-sixth of the cost of educating a student for each online course that student takes. Under the new legislation, the public school and the Florida Virtual School would split one-seventh of the cost.

The change would in many ways bring the virtual school closer to its online competitors, who must split one-sixth of the cost, and would split one-seventh under the new bill, with public schools.

But the virtual school says that would slice its funding by 14 percent per course and exacerbate a situation that already sees the virtual school get less per student than public schools receive, according to supporters. Suzanne Martin, a member of the virtual school's board of trustees, said the move would particularly hurt rural students who might not have access at their traditional school for advanced programs offered by the online program.

"This anti-choice, anti-opportunity language hits rural students in a familiar place," Martin said. "They know what it is to have stumbling blocks placed before them. ... Please don't throw another stumbling block in their way with this bill."

Rep. Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who chairs the education funding committee, said the House proposal was distinct from the budget proposed by the Senate and Gov. Rick Scott because it doesn't technically slice per-student funding.

And other supporters of the change, including lobbyists for competitors, said the new funding formula would simply make the school compete.

"Of course Florida Virtual doesn't want this bill, because it levels the playing field," said Ron Book, lobbying for VSCHOOLZ, Inc., an online education company owned by H. Wayne Huizenga Holdings.

The budget bill passed the funding subcommittee unanimously; HB 7029 was approved by the House Education Committee on a party-line vote. Democrats on that panel also complained about removing the requirement that out-of-state companies have an office in Florida.

Rep. Carl Zimmerman, D-Palm Harbor, encouraged the committee to consider offsetting the advantage of Florida Virtual School by coming up with additional funding for other providers.

"I'm actually in support of the idea of leveling the playing field for other online schools, but not at the expense of gutting public schools or Florida Virtual School," Zimmerman said.

But Republicans were also pointing to a side effect of the change: Fresen said it "unwittingly actually allowed for more money in the FEFP,." the basic overall school funding formula.

That brought cheers from Scott, who said it would allow the House to take up his call for higher pay for state teachers.

"Our teachers have a proven track record of delivering results for students, and they are educating future generations of Florida workers," Scott said in a statement issued by his office. "This is a terrific step forward in our effort to ensure all Florida public classroom teachers get a $2,500 pay raise."

Fresen said the House was still working on the details of its teacher pay increase. House leaders have indicated they would prefer performance-based raises as compared to Scott's across-the-board approach.

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