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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Online learning plan out of line

Published Apr. 11, 2013

The Legislature's stampede to significantly expand online learning for students in public schools has nothing to do with offering more options and meeting unmet needs. It has everything to do with creating opportunities for well-connected, for-profit providers to make money at the expense of public schools. This is another effort to please special interests under the pretense of progressive education reform, and Floridians should not fall for it.

Florida already offers plenty of opportunities for students to take online classes. The Florida Virtual School, which is funded by the state and has reasonable checks and balances, offers more than 120 online courses to nearly 150,000 students. Many school districts also run their own virtual schools as well. Yet legislators are prepared to drain money from the traditional public school classroom or the Florida Virtual School and pour it instead into the pockets of for-profit and largely untested virtual school providers.

The House already has passed HB 7029, sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, that would enable out-of-state digital learning companies to grab a bigger share of state funding. It also would allow students to receive credit for some MOOCs (massive open online courses), an idea better suited to college students than high schoolers.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has proudly sponsored SB 904, which passed out of committee this week with only one no vote. It would create the "Florida Accredited Courses and Tests" initiative, with the glib acronym FACTs. The bill wants officials to be "flexible in interpreting and implementing" requirements to "encourage creative, innovative, resourceful and forward-thinking practices." Sounds good, except for accountability.

Anyone from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Joe's Not Too Bad Geometry Course could seek to offer a "Florida-accredited course." Only the course itself, not the person or group offering it, would require accreditation. The state education commissioner would approve each course, but there are no criteria for meeting approval. Would he simply say yes or no on a whim?

Brandes says this is a way to offer students the widest choice possible and believes that pilot funding programs could creatively underwrite these courses and free money for traditional public schools. But no matter how many courses a student takes in a regular classroom or online, the bill proposes capping state per pupil contributions at the equivalent of one full-time student. That means that virtual class payments could come out of a traditional school's share, not be added on top.

There is an obvious place for virtual learning in a digital world, and Florida already has a vigorous virtual learning school that always can be expanded. But online classes should not be diverting public money for public schools into the pockets of lightly supervised for-profit operators. That's a bad bet for students and for taxpayers.

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