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Expand 'virtual' schools, say lawmakers

TALLAHASSEE — More students could learn from a laptop in their bedroom rather than a whiteboard in a brick-and-mortar classroom under a pair of proposals in the Florida Legislature that would dramatically expand virtual school.

The most immediate change: Starting next year, students entering high school would have to take at least one online course to graduate.

Scores of students across the state already take Internet-based classes, often to make up credits for courses they found difficult. Particularly in rural counties, students turn to the Web for more exotic courses — such as Latin or Mandarin Chinese — that are not available at their schools.

But up to now, Florida has not required students to go online, though some districts have pushed Internet-based courses to save money on teachers and classrooms.

Among high schoolers who visited the state Capitol last month to protest budget cuts, one of the chief complaints was not getting to choose which classes they took online — such as physical education — and which ones they took sitting in front of a teacher.

Yet proponents say the push to grow online education is not fueled by cost cutting. Instead, their goal is to give students more choices with technology — a longtime goal of former Gov. Jeb Bush, who while in office ushered in aggressive reforms.

Last year, about 21,000 — less than 1 percent — of the state's 2.6 million public-school students took part in online education. That was an uptick from the previous year, and with enrollment projected to grow, virtual school is one of the only items in the House and Senate education budget proposals with increased funding.

Bush's education foundation has taken up the former governor's cause in Tallahassee. It took part in a news conference Thursday to promote the legislation, which cleared its first Senate committee earlier this week.

"We're walking around with BlackBerrys, with cell phones, with iPods, iPads," Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, told reporters. "The only place, unfortunately, where that technology has not been fully embraced is in our education system."

To that end, the bills by Flores and Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would:

• Allow full-time, online school for kindergarten through high school.

• Allow homeschooled children to take online classes without previously attending a public school.

• Open the door for private companies to set up virtual schools. That provision would also apply to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

Florida boasts a robust, state-run online school, though there are restrictions on the full-time participation of elementary students. Children can take classes directly from Florida Virtual School or its local franchises, including Hillsborough Virtual School.

The state school employs 1,000 teachers certified in Florida. All but about 50 live in the state, said Holly Sagues, the school's chief strategist and policy officer.

Under the proposed legislation, virtual school providers approved by the state education department would no longer have to be located in Florida. Teachers could be directing classes from anywhere in the world, as long as they are certified by Florida, another state or a national board.

Though an influx of new providers would threaten the state-run school's stronghold on online education, Sagues said Florida Virtual School supports the plan because the companies would still have to meet the state's standards.

"This bill doesn't change that at all," she said.

She also brushed off critics who question whether Internet-based classes provide the same quality education as being in a classroom with a live teacher. Students and their online teachers are supposed to speak by phone several times a month, Sagues said, and the school uses software to detect plagiarism.

The changes would still have school districts provide students with facilities to take tests for their online courses.

And any virtual provider that receives an "F" grade from the state would be disqualified from operating. Those graded "D" could get a one-year contract extension if they submit an improvement plan.

Patricia Mazzei can be reached at pmazzei@miamiherald.com.

Expand 'virtual' schools, say lawmakers 04/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 8, 2011 12:12am]

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