Florida public online school gets small budget increase

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMay 2, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- School districts, teachers and parents are celebrating the $1 billion addition to the state’s education budget.

But not everyone is happy with their slice of the pie.

Florida Virtual School, the state’s public online school, says it will actually come up about $26 million short due to a proposed change in the state’s education finance formula.

FLVS was expecting to see its $200 million budget increased by $35 million next year to cover the cost of 80,000 new enrollments, CEO Julie Young said. But the increase will be closer to $9 million.

That’s because under the new formula, online providers will receive fewer dollars for every part-time student they enroll. As a result, FLVS will have to increase its teacher-to-student ratio and eliminate part-time graders and curriculum specialists, Young said.

“We like to say that FLVS is a place where every student has a front row seat,” Young said. “But with a budget cut this steep, teachers will have less time with individual students.”

Florida Virtual School offers more than 120 online courses to about 130,000 students. Students can enroll full time, or take one or more classes in addition to their coursework at a bricks-and-mortar school.

If the funding formula is changed, Young said, the school might also have to scale back on its elective offerings and slow the development of new courses such as social networking.

The change would also hurt school districts, which would take in less money for students enrolled in one or more virtual classes. In Miami-Dade, that could amount to a $10 million reduction, according to early estimates.

Young, the virtual school CEO, said the change is already discouraging school systems from enrolling students in virtual classes.

This past month, guidance counselors statewide blocked students from enrolling in 8,881 virtual courses, according to data provided by FLVS. The figure is almost double what it was last April.

The year-over-year change was most dramatic in Leon, Palm Beach and Broward counties, according to the data.

Bharat Thackar said Plantation High in Broward County would not let his son take FLVS’s summer course in Advanced Placement computer science.

“The principal said he had gotten a directive that the kids cannot be signed up for Florida Virtual School,” Thackar said. “He said it was a budgeting issue.”

Thackar pushed the issue, and was ultimately able to get his son in the class.

Christopher McGuire, who oversees virtual education programs in Broward County, said the district was “not flat out denying enrollment in Florida Virtual School.”

“But with all of this uncertainty about how the funding changes will play out, some principals are feeling anxious about how this will affect their budgets,” McGuire said.

State lawmakers have repeatedly rejected claims that the budget will hurt virtual education. They say the changes to the education funding formula are necessary to level the playing field between traditional schools and the Florida Virtual School.

“It’s not hurting the program if there is some inequity in a program and that inequity is corrected,” said Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

Rep. Erik Fresen, Galvano’s counterpart in the House, pointed to the fact lawmakers did not cut per-student funding for full-time virtual students. He also noted that Florida Virtual was still getting more money than last year.

“That’s not a reduction,” the Miami Republican said. “It’s just not as much as they were expecting.”

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