The fastest growing public school district in Florida doesn't have football, school lunches or busing. It doesn't get a grade from the state, and it operates free of the rules and scrutiny that dog most public schools. • Students in this district conduct frog dissections without ever stepping in a science lab, take PE without ever going into a gym and learn how to drive without ever getting in a car. • They do all of it online.
In less than 15 years, Florida Virtual School has become the largest state-funded online K-12 school in the nation, an enterprise with a $166.3 million budget and close to 1,500 employees and 130,000 students. It offers more than 110 courses, from core subjects like algebra to electives such as Chinese and guitar.
Florida education leaders have turned to Florida Virtual as a solution to overcrowded classes, limited course offerings and budget cuts. It is the darling of politicians enamored of its price tag; Florida Virtual bills itself as a bargain, educating for $2,100 less per pupil than traditional schools.
And it makes millions. How many public schools can say that?
"I think we have already made a huge impact in Florida, and that's only going to continue to grow," says Florida Virtual board chairman Bob Muni.
But in a state that puts a premium on standardized testing, there is no clear, across-the-board measure to compare the performance of Florida Virtual students to those in brick-and-mortar schools.
• In promotional literature and more, Florida Virtual touts a 2007 "independent analysis" by Florida Tax Watch that showed online students "outperformed their counterparts" on the state's FCAT. When the Tampa Bay Times asked for complete testing data over several years, school officials could provide only partial data for one academic year. State education officials never responded with data either.
• While traditional schools are evaluated on graduation and dropout rates, Florida Virtual cites "completion rates" as a measure of strength. Underlying that calculation is a philosophy that stands in contrast to most public school classes: Students can resubmit work and retake tests to earn a passing grade. Also unlike traditional schools, which are funded based on enrollment, Florida Virtual gets money for each course a student passes.
• The firmest figures Florida Virtual offers are results from the college-caliber Advanced Placement exam showing that over time, online students have done about as well or better than the state average in most subjects. Students, however, were not required to take the exam until 2010, making comparisons hard.
Julie Young, Florida Virtual's CEO, admits it has been difficult to get a grasp of how students stack up on other tests.
"The reality of it is, we get as many scores as we can," Young said. "We never get them all."
The school hopes that the state's recent move to end-of-course exams will eventually provide better data. According to the school, its students did better than the state average on the first Algebra I test administered by the state last year.
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The lack of data comparing online learning to face-to-face instruction goes beyond Florida Virtual. Limited research shows that students tend to perform better in "blended" environments — face-to-face and online instruction. But federal and state education officials have warned that more rigorous research and accountability is still needed on K-12 online learning.
A report released Friday by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado said students in virtual schools run by private management companies have been less proficient on standardized tests than their traditional counterparts.
While the benefits of online learning remain murky, one thing is clear: Florida Virtual enrollment is booming and its bottom line along with it. Last year, lawmakers approved expanding Florida Virtual, infusing it with $119 million in tax revenues and requiring every student take one online class to graduate. Its profit-making arm, the Global School, already sells courses outside Florida, reaching 49 states and 57 countries.
In a recent letter of advice to Gov. Rick Scott, former Gov. Jeb Bush suggested selling the school: "It is government owned and paid for and makes significant money," Bush wrote.
It's poised to make even more.
A fledgling partnership with educational merchandising giant Pearson Education Inc. is expected to generate $20 million for the school over the next five years, Young said. The two companies are so sure of their product they offer clients a "virtual success guarantee" that "80 percent of your students will achieve a passing grade — or your money back for those students that do not!"
Muni, Florida Virtual's board chairman, uses the word "evangelize" when he talks about the school's future. "The next thing is the impact we will make on the nation and then potentially on the world," he says.
How it works
Florida Virtual already has nearly three times as many course enrollments as the next largest state-run virtual school, according to an annual industry report called Keeping Pace.
Since the beginning, students drawn to Florida Virtual have tended to fit into three categories: homeschoolers, struggling students looking to make up lost credits and accelerated students hoping to build their GPAs.
Caitlyn O'Donnell, 18, of Valrico was a sophomore at Durant High when she enrolled in her first Florida Virtual course. She chose math and hoped it might help her graduate sooner.
"It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be," said O'Donnell, now a senior. "Everything is there for you. Everything is point blank right in front of you."
Not bound by walls or a roof, students like O'Donnell are connecting with teachers nationwide, many working from their homes in other states. A foreign language instructor in Valencia, Calif. A health teacher in Fairmont, W.Va. A math instructor in Green Valley, Ariz. And so on.
Virtual School teachers are on call from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., can work year-round and may handle about 150 students at one time. They are evaluated partly on the frequency of contact with their students.
Susan Kranitz taught in a classroom for six years and now teaches English from her home in Lakeland. She phones her students, one after another, loading her sentences with praise, reminders and specific instructions.
"I noticed that you just turned in some work this week," she tells a public school student in Miami-Dade. He's enrolled in a Florida Virtual through a "virtual learning lab," housed in a classroom at the school. When he is in the lab, a proctor circulates through the room to make sure computers are working and order is kept.
But all the actual teaching is supposed to come courtesy of his online curriculum and his teacher, Kranitz, 34.
Virtual learning labs like this one have been the target of some criticism, especially from the local teachers union. Union leaders argue it's tantamount to warehousing students in classrooms without doing what all schools are required to do: teach.
Florida Virtual leaders, meanwhile, say their instruction is more individually catered to student needs than most of that found in traditional schools.
"I know that you're probably having semester exams there," Kranitz tells the student in Miami-Dade. "But I just want to encourage you to keep on submitting work."
In the best-case scenario, self-motivated students work their way through the course without much prompting from a live teacher.
Sometimes, though, teachers have to chase students down. Kids who start courses may let days or weeks lapse without logging in or progressing — and without answering their teachers' calls or messages.
And sometimes students find connecting with their teacher a challenge.
O'Donnell had success in the first few courses she took.
Then, she said, her teacher for precalculus went on maternity leave, and she was reassigned to a teacher who never called her back. She said she was told her assigned teacher shared an office with three other instructors. It was the other teachers, she said, who responded to her questions.
Brittany Taylor, 17, transitioned to online classes her sophomore year because she found herself easily bored and distracted in the classroom. She said the courses started off easy. But the heavier the load, the harder it got.
"Not everybody can handle it," Taylor said. "For me, it was fine in the beginning. . . . Then I found myself playing phone tag with the teachers and I didn't like that."
Florida Virtual leaders take pride in the high percentage of students they count as "completes" — those who finished their courses with a passing grade of 60 or above. Between 2006-07 and 2010-11, according to the school, 81 percent of Florida Virtual's courses were completed successfully.
But that figure doesn't reflect the thousands of students who enroll in courses but drop them within the school's 28-day penalty-free period. According to Florida Virtual's figures, 66 percent of students who enroll in a course don't finish it. The rest stick with it, and 81 percent of those pass.
Young, Florida Virtual's CEO, calls the school's educational model "mastery-based." Controversial in some circles, it allows students to redo assignments and tests they find more challenging before moving to the next concept.
"Why would I want them to move on until they've mastered this piece which is going to help them understand future content?" said Young.
To gauge how well that approach has been working, Young said Florida Virtual staff has worked with local districts and the state "each year" to get its students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
It has been hard, though, because the state's reporting system does not allow Florida Virtual easy access to those scores, Young said.
She said Florida Virtual has never published the results, which are incomplete.
The Times asked repeatedly over two months for the data to conduct an analysis. Florida Virtual was only able to provide results from 2009-10. And as they warned, they were incomplete. For example:
• Out of 306 10th-graders who took English I and II, scores for only 20 were provided. Of those, 40 percent scored at or above grade level in reading.
• Although 1,267 students took algebra, scores for only 607 were available. Of those, 79 percent scored at or above grade level in math.
In the same interview, Young pointed to AP scores as another way Florida Virtual has tried to track student performance.
At first glance, scores show that Virtual's students perform about as well or better on AP exams on average as students do nationally. But between 2004 and 2009, the percentages of Florida Virtual pupils enrolled in AP courses who took the course-end exam was only between 54 percent and 65 percent each year.
School leaders in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties reported well over 90 percent of students taking the test.
In 2010, Florida Virtual began requiring students to take the AP exams in the subjects it offers and participation jumped to 80 percent. Passing rates are higher than the state average in those courses, but raw test data provided by the school shows it's not quite as high as its promotional material suggests. In 2010, for example, the Times found that 52.8 percent of students passed while the school reported 60 percent.
Inconclusive test results don't bother Patricia Levesque, executive director of two foundations led by Bush that push the digital learning agenda nationally.
It's the path educators need to take to remain relevant and competitive, she said. One industry estimate, for example, projects that half of the nation's high school classes will be delivered digitally before 2020.
Online is "the way our kids are learning at home," Levesque said.
The whole package
Florida has a long history of offering online learning options.
"More students take online courses in Florida than any other state," according the Keeping Pace report. All of the state's school districts are now required to offer students online courses, whether through a Florida Virtual franchise, their own virtual school or other options.
Companies like K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, both of which serve Florida, also have long seen the potential for profit in the online learning arena through digital charter schools, virtual private schools and more.
Florida Virtual's for-profit venture, the Global School, brought in $23.4 million in revenue between 2006 and 2011, according to the school.
In late 2010, Florida Virtual's board of trustees voted unanimously to enter into a profit-sharing contract with Pearson Education Inc. to market the school's products globally.
"We had districts and states all over the country going, 'Why should we reinvent what you've already done, why can't we just buy your courses and services?'" Young said. She credits Bush among the leaders who saw Florida Virtual's out-of-the-box potential.
Today, "Pearson Virtual Learning Powered by Florida Virtual School" is used in 49 states. The profit split under the new business deal?
Florida Virtual gets 45 percent and Pearson, 55 percent.
Muni, the board chairman, believes Florida Virtual is positioned perfectly to offer students the best online learning experience.
"It's not just the content we have online. It's how we have created the whole package," he said. "It's not just the black dots on white paper, so to speak, its the whole thought process and philosophy behind what makes it work."
The societal element
Florida Virtual's latest expansion is intentional, legislated, and showing little sign of slowing. But the move toward virtual learning remains stalked by a level of societal discomfort. Adults who grew up in classrooms with blackboards and bound books worry about societal lessons children might absorb when so much learning takes shape before a computer screen.
And online learning may not be for everyone.
That's noted in a draft study by SRI International, a California-based research institute. Researchers analyzed completion rates, standardized test scores, and course grades for Florida Virtual and traditional students in two core classes — Algebra and English. On average, those online performed better.
But that edge disappeared when researchers looked at just one semester of an online course. They found lower-achieving and free-and reduced lunch students who were online dropped out at a higher rate. The small sample size prevented generalizations, researchers said, but feedback from high school teachers "suggested that motivation, technical aptitude and the availability of informal academic supports were likely to play roles in student success online."
As much as technology is improving or replacing school instruction, there are many classroom dynamics that are hard to duplicate, such as a student being inspired by their peers, said Cecilia Rouse, a Princeton University professor who specialized in the economics of education.
"If you look at the technology, it is not as much of a slam dunk as you might think," she said.
Times researcher Natalie Watson and staff writer Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or email@example.com.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where SRI International is based.