In about the time it takes for a student to go from kindergarten to high school graduate, the Florida Virtual School has grown from a mere idea into the largest K-12 online school in America that is funded with public money. It enrolls 130,000 students and is poised to grow even bigger. But the stampede to virtual schooling is more about avoiding costs in traditional public schools and making money online than it is about student performance. It's time to require more accountability — and to realize that online schools aren't the answer to every question in education.
Florida Virtual School's cheerleaders argue that it educates students faster, better and cheaper than traditional schools. Faster and cheaper, perhaps. The school touts a bargain price, saying it saves $2,100 per pupil compared with regular schools. But better? As Tampa Bay Times staff writers Rebecca Catalanello and Marlene Sokol reported last Sunday, those performance claims often overreach, and true accountability — so valued by legislators in traditional public schools — is spotty at best.
With a $166 million budget, Florida Virtual gets money for each course a student passes, unlike conventional schools that are funded based on enrollment. But the virtual students are allowed to retake tests and send in new work to earn passing grades, a controversial "mastery-based" philosophy. While it makes sense not to let a student move on to more complex topics until basics are mastered, this "try, try and try again" approach can invite student sloppiness, particularly since more than 1 in 5 students surveyed said they were taking an online course to either raise a grade or for grade forgiveness. And another 18 percent were taking a course needed to graduate on time. Neither of these reasons smacks of high academic achievement. Only 8 percent were taking an online course because a subject wasn't offered at their school.
Education is about the message, not the medium. While some students gravitate toward online coursework, others will flounder, just as some courses work better online than others while many others benefit from direct human interaction in a classroom. Is the education achievement Florida wants to be known for that it has the largest public virtual school, which is so profitable that former Gov. Jeb Bush suggested to Gov. Rick Scott that it could be sold off for a huge gain like some profitable subsidiary?
Online classes can be a component of a solid education. But they should not replace a traditional in-person education any time soon, particularly merely as a cost savings. Until proper accountability is in place, it's hard to know how well the Florida Virtual School and other online classrooms are really doing.