Legislation further undermines Florida's public school system

Florida's relentless drive to privatize public education scored another victory on the final day of the Legislature's session when Republicans approved the expenditure of public school funds on classes offered by online learning companies. While applauding the measure as a win for school choice, GOP lawmakers conveniently ignored troublesome aspects to privatization.

A virtual learning company, K12 Inc., has contracts with 43 of the state's 67 school districts, including Manatee and Sarasota. Last year, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting discovered the company employed teachers without proper certifications and then asked workers to cover up the fraudulent practice.

The draft report of an investigation by the Florida Department of Education's Inspector General confirmed that K12, the nation's largest operator of online schools, employed three instructors who lacked proper state certification to teach some subjects.

The new legislation not only expands privatization -- currently, a small number of private companies hold FDOE authorization to offer online courses -- provisions allow companies to circumvent part of the vetting process to gain approval on a trial basis. That represents another unsettling element to this measure.

K12, which contributed $21,000 to GOP candidates and another $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida ahead of the last election, and other private online learning companies have been lobbying the Legislature hard for greater access to public funds.

Legislation also reduces the per-student allocation for Florida Virtual School, the public entity that has been expanding exponentially as the state transitions toward a greater reliance on virtual education. Students completed 116,000 FLVS courses during the 2007-2008 academic year, and the total ballooned to 315,000 in 2011-2012.

But per-pupil funding plummeted over the past four years from a high of $6,500 in 2007-2008 to $4,800 last year. Another 14 percent reduction is expected under this new legislation. FLVS had expected a budget increase of $45 million but now anticipates only an additional $9 million, which will force the virtual school to increase the teacher-to-student ratio to handle 80,000 new enrollments.

Online learning will become more prevalent in the future, too. Starting with the 2014-2015 academic year, all statewide end-of-course tests will be administered via the web.

This year, another segment of the privatization of education became embroiled in scandalous disclosures of fraud and loose oversight. Last year the Legislature voted to continue funding private tutoring after the federal government eased regulations requiring private instruction for poor children in Florida's worst schools.

But a Tampa Bay Times investigation found the program had sent public funds to criminals operating tutoring companies and even let companies accused of fraud to remain associated with school districts. Lax state oversight should not be tolerated in any program.

Even as subsidized tutoring came under fire during the recent session, several lawmakers with connections to the industry attempted to insert language in a virtual education bill that would have allocated $80 million in federal education money to private instruction companies. The amendment duly failed.

But this episode illustrates the lengths to which certain legislators will go to advance privatization, sometimes under self-serving circumstances and even with a program mired in scandal. There is little shame in Tallahassee.

The online education bill undermines Florida Virtual School in favor of the enrichment of private enterprise at taxpayer expense. While Gov. Rick Scott has yet to sign this legislation, that's a forgone conclusion given his general support for privatization.

Education should be in the public realm -- held answerable to stakeholders, not stockholders.