TALLAHASSEE -- Florida schoolchildren and college students will soon have greater access to online learning programs, if Republican lawmakers have their way.
A flurry of bills moving swiftly through the House and Senate are seeking to expand virtual education, both in the public-school system and in higher education. One would enable out-of-state online education providers to qualify for public education dollars. Another would require Florida's top public university to set up a virtual branch.
The ambitious digital education agenda is a priority for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
"We're living in the 21st century; education is changing as we know it," Weatherford said. "Technology is changing Florida has an opportunity to be on the cutting edge."
But opponents, including teachers' unions and parent groups, have raised questions about the effectiveness of virtual education programs. They believe the proposed legislation is a move to further privatize education by allowing for-profit digital learning companies to compete for coveted state education dollars.
"I don't think this is about embracing technology," said Rep. Irv Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat. "I think this is about embracing money... It's not going to benefit our children. It's probably going to benefit for-profit companies and out-of-state schemers."
Online learning has exploded in Florida's public schools over the past decade.
The state-funded Florida Virtual School is by far the biggest, offering more than 120 online courses to about 130,000 students. Some school districts also contract with private online education companies. Those providers, however, do not receive direct funding from the state budget; they have agreements with and are paid by the districts.
Virtual learning companies have become players on the political scene. Providers from across the country have increased their contribution to campaigns and political committees in Florida, state campaign finance records show.
There has, however, been some controversy surrounding the expansion. Last year, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found that one provider, K12 Inc., had used improperly certified teachers and asked employees to cover it up. Opponents have also questioned the effectiveness of virtual learning programs, noting that research has been limited. Studies on test scores of online students versus face-to-face students are mixed.
Still, Republican lawmakers say they favor expansion because more digital programs mean more choices for students.
The first digital learning proposal passed in the House, 82-37, Thursday. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, would enable students to take classes offered at virtual schools based in other counties. It would also allow out-of-state digital learning companies to receive a larger share of state funding than in the past.
"We're stepping outside the box to compete with technology that exists outside the classroom," Diaz said. "We have to grab students' attention and keep them engaged, and this is one way to do it."
The education budget being considered in the House includes similar provisions, House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen said.
Both have met resistance from the Florida Virtual School. Representatives for the state's public online education provider say it stands to lose millions of dollars if the proposal becomes law because it will tweak the way online classes are funded.
Lady Dhyana Ziegler, a member of the FLVS board of trustees, likened the measures to "a direct and scathing attack on Florida Virtual School funding and course offerings."
Fresen, a Miami Republican, conceded that the Florida Virtual School would receive less funding per course. But he insisted that the changes would not hurt the school's bottom line, in part because the state is increasing overall spending on education.
"Nobody is a bigger fan of FLVS and virtual instruction than I am," Fresen said.
Fresen rejected claims that the policy change was driven by campaign contributions from out-of-state education providers, and said it was intended to increase competition. "For us to have a policy that limits out-of-state providers, in a virtual world that is supposed to be limitless, is counterintuitive," he said.
The Diaz bill would also require the state to maintain a comprehensive online listing of virtual courses, and allow students to receive credit for MOOCs (massive open online courses) in subjects culminating with a state end-of-course exam.
In the realm of higher education, the House is pushing a proposal that allow one state university to be named Florida's preeminent research institution based on student performance, retention rates, research spending, national rankings and the size of its endowment, among other factors.
The state's preeminent university would be required to establish a fully online arm.
Last year, the Legislature passed a bill allowing "preeminent" state research universities to raise tuition and fees at differentiated rates each academic year. Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it.
Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, a Miami Republican who chairs the higher education committee, said she expects the proposal to move forward. The online provision, she said, would help strengthen and grow Florida's top university.
"We want to be able to attract the best and the brightest in the U.S.," she said. "This would definitely help."