LAND O'LAKES — Despite anticipated budget shortfalls, the Pasco School Board agreed to spend $896,400 this spring to establish a summer program for Pasco eSchool.
The expense might seem large for a new offering, superintendent Kurt Browning acknowledged. But not taking this step could cost even more.
Lawmakers changed public education funding laws so that, starting July 1, districts stand to lose hundreds of dollars for each online class a student takes with Florida Virtual School. Last summer, Pasco students completed 7,500 Florida Virtual courses.
With that impact in mind, Pasco eSchool, the district's online education program, made an aggressive push to enroll local students in the local program. It now has more than 3,000 summer course enrollments in process.
And Florida Virtual officials noticed. As the number of Pasco students dropping out of Florida Virtual courses to re-enroll in Pasco eSchool rose, the Orlando-based online school started to suggest that Pasco was denying choice to children and families.
Florida Virtual's liaison to the district sent emails to eSchool principal Joanne Glenn pointedly questioning the changes.
Florida Virtual spokeswoman Star Kraschinsky said via email that questions from parents prompted the inquiry.
Glenn defended the moves and gave Florida Virtual documentation on the transfers.
"FLVS is continuing to exert a significant amount of pressure and make accusations against us for 'denial of choice,' " Glenn told Browning in an e-mail.
She denied any coercion was taking place.
"I certainly don't want any parents to feel they were strong-armed into taking our courses," Glenn said. "I feel like, if we offer a great program and great access to our students, families are going to choose us."
She also didn't blame Florida Virtual for defending its turf.
The state virtual school has seen its course approvals flatten this summer, after years of steady growth, as districts react to the funding changes. Lawmakers made clear during session they did not want Florida Virtual to retain what they considered privileged status.
Christina Russell, director of virtual instructional programs for Hillsborough schools, said her district hasn't had such a direct confrontation with Florida Virtual. Hillsborough does not offer broad virtual summer options.
But as the school year nears, Russell said, the district — like others — expects to more directly compete with Florida Virtual for students. State law requires every district to offer online schooling.
"We will try to figure out how to keep more of our kids," Russell said.
Pinellas schools are not offering summer virtual courses.
Glenn said the funding battle was inevitable after lawmakers altered the formula. She noted that a similar dispute is occurring between districts and community colleges over the costs of dual enrollment.
In both cases, the underlying concept is the same.
The state moved to cap the amount it spends per student in public education, regardless of where that student takes courses. If students complete a full six-period day at their regular school, for instance, and then also enroll in two virtual courses, their funding is split into eight pieces and divided according to where they earn each credit.
If they take nothing extra, all their funding stays with the district that serves them.
"With the new legislation, school districts will have very little incentive to require students to take additional online courses from any provider," Kraschinsky said. "The unintended consequences of the Legislature's new funding model that will impact all school districts including Florida Virtual School, is denied choice."
Glenn planned to meet with Florida Virtual officials July 1.
Browning told her to stand firm, and offered to bring his political contacts including House Speaker Will Weatherford into the conversation.
"I will not allow FLVS to push us," he wrote, "when all we are doing is serving our students."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]