A proposal to scale back Florida's successful virtual school has incurred the wrath of the powerful homeschooling community and drawn national scorn from education reform advocates.
"Virtual schooling is one of the really promising innovations that has happened in K-12 in the past 10 years, and Florida is the leading state," said Bill Tucker, managing director of the Washington D.C., nonpartisan think tank Education Sector. "That's why some of these proposals in the Legislature are really puzzling and troublesome."
The Senate wants to cut as much as 15 percent from Florida Virtual School's $116 million annual budget. Lawmakers also want to reduce the types of courses the school offers, and limit the number of alternate providers that could step in to fill the void.
"I don't have enough money in the budget to afford everything going on in the public schools," said Senate Education Appropriations Committee Chairman Stephen Wise, who is spearheading the legislation.
Wise acknowledged the item is a likely bargaining chip as the House and Senate look for compromises to balance the state's budget. Key House members have signaled strong support for the online courses, which more than 84,000 students take each year from the comfort of their own personal computers.
"The only reduction that the Florida House is considering is eliminating class-size funding for the virtual program," said Rep. Anitere Flores, chairwoman of the House Education Appropriations Committee. "Our position, and we're going to hold strong on to that position, is to fund virtual school."
If the Senate proposal were to emerge untouched, it would scale back virtual offerings to just core high school courses, meaning no more summer programs, enrichment or credit recovery courses. Homeschooling blogs across Florida have criticized the idea.
Researchers, too, view Florida's system as a model because it offers unprecedented access to a wide range of courses and has grown steadily without incurring the political sparring other education changes have created.
"When I talk to people in other states (about online education), they say, 'We want to be like Florida,' " said Tucker, who wrote about Florida Virtual for the cover of the influential magazine Education Next. "Yet Florida doesn't. That's the irony of the whole thing, isn't it?"
Wise, a Duval County Republican, said he does not want to hurt Florida Virtual School, but with money tight, the state needs to prioritize. It doesn't make sense to continue to give online courses full funding while money for mainstream schooling dwindles, he said.
At the very least, Wise said, the state should limit the number of state-paid online credits so that they don't exceed that of a full-time student in a public high school.
His proposal prompted a major lobbying effort from Florida Virtual itself, as well as its backers.
"We are just trying to educate (lawmakers) as to … how detrimental they could be to our program," said Holly Sagues, chief strategist and policy officer for Florida Virtual.
She warned that the upshot of Wise's effort would be fewer courses available to students who might otherwise have no access to such classes.
"We would definitely lose students and teachers if this passes," Sagues said.
Skardon Bliss, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools, lamented that effects on small public and private schools who can't offer a wide range of classes.
If Florida Virtual can't provide them, Bliss noted, the bill allows only a handful of select other private firms that he said don't rise to Florida Virtual's quality level.
"The Florida Virtual School is the best thing that has come out of public education in Florida for years," he said.
Those watching the House and Senate debate from afar were heartened to know that the proposal might not live to see the end of session. But they also worried that the gamble might not pay off.
"That's clearly playing with students' future. … These things shouldn't be political bargaining chips," Tucker said. "It's a pretty high-stakes game to be playing."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.