A weekend interview with Skardon Bliss, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools
As Florida lawmakers fight over the state's education budget, the fate of Florida Virtual School has come into play. Proposals call for the distance learning program to scale back its course offerings, and would allow other private providers to step into the void. Several groups, including home school parents and independent schools, have risen to oppose the changes. FCIS executive director Skardon Bliss spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his organization's perspective on Florida Virtual School.
What part of the Florida Virtual legislation are you most concerned with?
There are really two parts. That is where the funding is set up so it will be in competition with private providers who are basically curriculum programs rather than actual teaching with certified Florida teachers behind them. So it will be the quality of the program which the private providers will be able to offer less expensively because they don't have the staff and the Florida requirements. And with the funding streams from the Florida school districts, they get to keep what's left of the FTE from what they pay any one of the private providers or the Virtual School. Obviously they're going to go with the cheapest program to keep the most money for the districts. Also, this bill limits the Florida Virtual School to the core curriculum.
What's wrong with that? I've heard a lot of people complaining about that.
Well, the core curriculum is just English, math, the basic requirements for graduation. They wouldn't be able to offer the elementary programs, they wouldn't be able to offer all kinds of extra things, fine arts and stuff like that they do.
And those things benefit the students in ways that their schools can't provide? Is that the argument?
They benefit all kinds of kids. This program is one of the most successful in Florida. It's nationally recognized. It's got certified teachers. I've met some of the teachers and know the principal of the school. It's a quality school. It's accredited by SACS. And it's a Florida thing. It's not good public policy, I don't think, to have our tax dollars going to things that are going to be administered out of the state when we've got such a high quality program. The Florida Virtual School is the best thing that has come out of public education in Florida for years. ...
To put the funding of it at risk in order to benefit some private providers that have been approved is questionable and it's not good public policy.
So how does this affect your interest and the schools you work with?
We have 150 schools statewide serving about 75,000 kids. Of those schools, at least 75 have high school programs. So if you're doing the Florida Virtual School, that cuts out those kids taking an extra AP course, a second language - things they might not be able to get at school. Then there are 350,000 kids in non-public education in Florida. ... This limits their ability to access this, if they put the Florida Virtual School out of business or they restrict their funding to the point where it's really going to not be effective. Some of the sponsors of the bill ... are friends of private education. We've worked with them at length in the past. But we just don't agree with them on this one.
Isn't it just a matter of everyone needing to take their share of cuts and so Florida Virtual has to take its share, too?
Well, that would be fine if they weren't going to funnel the money to private providers outside the state. There are three or four of these companies that have been approved to offer this.
So I guess the next step is to keep after the Legislature?
We just keep talking to them. The bill is in a conforming bill now. ... The House and the Senate are going to try to form some language. We've been talking to some of the people on the committee. We hope they'll see the light of our position, which is, we think they should fully fund the Florida Virtual School without putting it in competition with the private providers.
It seems that a lot of national education groups have been watching what's happening with Florida Virtual. They think it's, like you said, one of the most promising programs around. Why do you think the Legislature, which created it, would fiddle with it so much?
Well. Everybody has an interest somewhere. Let's put it that way.