Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Education

Florida Virtual School lays off hundreds as enrollment plummets

It sounded as though she was reading from a script, Christopher Metzger thought, as the woman on the other end of the line told him he was losing his job.

Metzger, who lives in Tampa, had taught biology at Florida Virtual School since April. He had never spoken to this woman before, who was calling from Lakeland. She said the online education giant no longer had the funding to support his position.

Florida Virtual School told this to 625 part-time teachers in the past few weeks. On Monday, they read the script to 177 full-time teachers. It was the first round of layoffs in the 16-year history of the school, which offers online courses to hundreds of thousands of students seeking to catch up or accelerate their learning at regular K-12 schools.

The school says its first-ever layoffs were necessary because FLVS is experiencing another first: an enrollment drop. Of 32 percent.

As of July 23, 12,028 students had pre-enrolled in online courses for August and September, down from last year's pre-enrollment figure of 17,878.

"There are many reasons why our enrollments may be impacted," said Tania Clow, an FLVS spokeswoman. "At this time we do not have statistical or anecdotal data to explain the decline."

But FLVS, the state's Education Department and others have pointed to changes made last session by the Florida Legislature. Under the previous funding formula, a brick-and-mortar school would receive a set amount of funding for each student. If a student took additional courses at FLVS, the state would provide additional funding to the virtual school for each credit.

Now, a student's "set amount" must be spread between the student's home school and the online school, meaning the brick-and-mortar school and FLVS both get less money for each student who takes an online class.

State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami and chairman of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said the state was giving FLVS and other online providers more than their share of education dollars under the old funding formula. He dismissed the idea that school districts would discourage students from taking online classes.

"Nothing in the recalibrated formula leads to a financial condition where districts need to reject kids from going into virtual," Fresen told the Times/Herald last month. He did not return calls seeking comment.

No one at the Florida Department of Education is looking into the enrollment drop, department spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said. "It seems apparently related to the legislative change with funding. And there are lots of choice options now. There are districts offering virtual schools. There are virtual charter schools."

JoAnne Glenn, the principal of Pasco County schools' virtual "eSchool," said the legislation has prompted her district to consider more deeply which students should sign up for FLVS.

"There has definitely been an increased focus on making sure, No. 1, we are recommending students for virtual instruction who are likely to complete the courses successfully," Glenn said.

Pinellas County School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said she was surprised by the enrollment drop and was not aware of any efforts to discourage students from signing up for FLVS.

Pinellas, like Pasco, runs its own virtual school staffed by local teachers. Last year, it enrolled 279 full-time students, and 167 part-time students.

The Hillsborough County public school system also runs its own online-course program and is in the process of "begrudgingly" approving a virtual charter school, said School Board member Candy Olson.

"I'm not surprised," she said, referring to the steep enrollment drop at FLVS. "I think virtual schools offer a lot of opportunities but maybe not as many as people thought."

Olson said she believed that online classes made it easy for students to cheat, and she was skeptical of some course offerings, such as physical education.

Students sign up for FLVS for a variety of reasons. While some are seeking to make up a class, others are looking to accelerate into a more advanced course. Some students turn to online coursework because they are traveling or ill.

The layoffs of 625 part-time teachers leaves a staff of 36. Full-time teachers were less affected, with 1,231 instructors and instructional support staff keeping their jobs.

Metzger, who was writing his dissertation when he got the phone call, said he would be fine. A former teacher in Lee and Orange counties, he said he was worried about his 50 biology students.

He had been teaching some of them for several months. They sent him frantic emails asking what was going on.

"It's sort of like someone walking into your classroom and saying, 'You're out,' then taking your students and dumping them into a huge class," he said.

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