TRINITY — When Florida lawmakers required public school districts to provide local online course offerings, they decided the programs would be open only to students who had spent at least one full year in the public schools.
Wendy Howard and her daughter Jessica, who was being home-schooled last year, decided that wasn't fair.
They began a petition drive a year ago to change the law, and this year they've persuaded some high profile lawmakers — Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami — to carry a bill for them.
Wendy Howard spoke with the Times about her family's effort to open up the state's virtual education law.
I remember a year ago you and I were talking about how you weren't really sure how the process works. Now you have two pretty strong lawmakers from outside your district carrying the bill you hope to get passed. How did you get there?
We're not the only ones that wanted to see this fixed. I'm seeing there are a lot of people who have this near and dear to their heart, to see the virtual education where the public school options are fair to all children.
You must have found each other some way. Was it because of the story that came out and the petition you were working on?
It is. Thanks to the stories, yes, the national coalition found us and it has helped us to bring the virtual families together.
What is the main thing you are finding everybody has in common as far as your desires for virtual education?
Parents want to have choice. They want continuity in the curriculum that they're using. There are some families we're finding that have a deadly peanut allergy and because of that they couldn't meet the one-year prior public (school) requirement. They were told they weren't eligible for the program. There are kids that we've met that are Type 1 diabetics, where the blood sugar has to be monitored. They can never meet these requirements. They want to have the ability to have the public school option but still make sure their child is safe.
So now you have this moving forward. Are you finding the support in the Legislature is growing? Because last year I remember you couldn't get it into any legislation.
I'm finding that there is a lot of support. We had the opportunity over the last few weeks to go and speak before some of the committees and show some of the lawmakers how the virtual school works.
That has been helpful?
I think it has been very helpful. They could see how the teachers and the students interact. And then to have a student walk up and say, "I was in that class. It was pretty amazing. The technology is amazing." And I think it was a great opportunity for the lawmakers to see just how wonderful the technology is.
I remember one of the big concerns was about cost. Because nobody knew how much money it was going to cost to expand the virtual school public option to anybody who wanted to get into it, including private and home-school children. Are you running into that at all this year?
I am sure that is going to be an issue. My thought is, we're all paying into the system. We should all be able to access it. As families continue to lose jobs, more and more kids are coming from the private school sector. It would be less expensive for them to have a virtual school option than to put them in a brick and mortar. It's a less expensive option. They're going to come into the system anyway. Let them have the least expensive option so it doesn't cost as much.
What have you and Jessica been doing for the past year of her education? Has it been virtual?
But not the public option?
No. We were given a scholarship this year so that way we could show lawmakers how it works. She is using one of the state-approved vendors but on the private side. ...
Okay. By a private school? Or by the Legislature?
I don't know. I was just told Jessica was able to enroll. ... It was a blessing for us.
And it's working well for her? She and you and the whole family are finding that it's beneficial?
It is night and day. It is so wonderful. We have flexibility. She has her e-classes where she logs on with her classmates and her teacher and they go over concepts and they can raise their hand and they can interact with each other. It gives us the flexibility of family time, which we need. Jessica could meet the one-year public school requirement. But one of the things she has said to me is, Mom, if we don't stand up for the kids who can't, then who will?
How does it work in terms of meeting other kids from school?
We are up to 27 kids on our block. Some go to private school, some go to public school. As far as meeting some of the classmates, she has not physically met the kids in her class. However, we are meeting the virtual school families from across the state. When she gets into the public system she'll be able to have the opportunity to meet some of the kids in her class. We've run across that quite a bit at some of the events that we're hosting, where for example when we went to Orlando a couple of weeks ago, there were a couple of kids from the same class and they got to physically meet one another. We went bowling and had a blast.
Did you ever figure that you would go from taking a petition to karate class and getting signatures from a handful of people to touring the state and leading a cause like this?
Never in my wildest dreams. This has been an amazing journey to change the law. And Jessica has said to the lawmakers this is her conviction. It's standing up for what's right even when others don't. That was one of the things that we had the opportunity to talk about on the House side a couple of weeks ago.
So what's next?
Well, we're going to really support this legislation. We are extremely excited about Sen. Thrasher and Rep. Fresen's bills. We're going to support them in any way we can and let lawmakers know this is a wonderful tool for kids that don't necessarily fit inside the box and that need the family flexibility or have health issues. We're just going to keep letting them know.
Do you have a way for people to continue to show their support, either as a petition you're still running or something like that?
If you go to publicschooloptions.org/florida, Jessica's petition is still in there. We're letting families know we are still meeting. ... We're planning our big Capitol Day for April 14. We're going to bring all the families we've met across the state together to show our support to lawmakers and thank them for all of their help.
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.