Last Friday, on April 16, 2011, a bill passed the Florida legislature’s House appropriation’s committee which would substantially open the door to public funding of virtual learning not only for students enrolled in the state’s public schools to take online classes from the state’s virtual school, but also from other sources. According to the article, “Charter Schools To Be Allowed To Go Virtual As Florida Expands Online Public Education:”

The [House version of the] bill allows taxpayer-funded charter schools to open full-time K-12 “virtual” charter schools in which classes can be taught on a computer by an instructor located elsewhere. It also requires students to take an online class before graduating from high school, beginning as soon as 2011. School districts would also have to offer full-time and part-time virtual instruction to students, through their own programs or by contracting with a third-party provider approved by the Department of Education.

That bill must eventually be reconciled with a Florida Senate version which would go even further, potentially providing public funding for K-12 students enrolled in private schools as well as home school settings. In addition, contracted virtual school companies would not have to operate within the state of Florida. Whether or not contracted teachers would have to be licensed by the state of Florida as professional educators is not addressed in the article:

A similar Senate bill (SB 1620) allows for a much bigger expansion of state-funded virtual schools, permitting a virtual school company from outside of Florida to offer K-12 instruction to any student in the state, even private school and home-schooled students, with the state picking up the tab.

Florida is considered a model for virtual education by many, including some of our leaders in Oklahoma. The Florida Virtual School paradigm is quite different from an open ended, almost free-for-all menu of virtual school choices which some of these PROPOSED bills in the Florida legislature would usher in. It is not entirely clear to me what the endgame agenda for public education is for leaders like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. His Foundation for Excellence in Education touts an official reform agenda filled with buzz words like “rigorous academic standards,” “standardized measurement” “outcome based funding” and “data driven accountability” which continue to become mainstream vocabulary words for leaders around the nation discussing education reform. While I am an ardent supporter of blended learning and certainly agree we need to embrace opportunities to leverage virtual as well as blended learning, I am not entirely comfortable embracing the agenda of reformers like Jeb Bush because I don’t understand what the full vision of his proposals would look like for public education. I’m not sure anyone does, and that is a problem.

The “accountability movement” and “the standards movement” is now mixed with the “K12 virtual schools movement” in ways which serve to obfuscate the agendas of prime movers behind proposed legislation. I fear many of those agendas are those highlighted by Dr. David Berliner back in April of 2006. Many vendors and investors are keen to open the coffers of public education to private companies who can receive substantial portions of state public education dollars under proposed “education reform” legislation. While it’s clear these changes would be great for private investors, entrepreneurs and corporations, it’s far from clear these changes will benefit our highest performing students or our lowest performers. There is very little talk about addressing the challenges of poverty in our schools amidst this talk of virtual schools, accountability and standards, and the operating assumption seems to be that more threats as well as punishments will somehow coerce teachers as well as students in all schools to magically realize educational excellence.

A critical focus we do NOT have today in many educational reform discussions is school leadership. More than ever, we need school leaders who understand the issues and provide strong leadership for our communities (including those without a seat at the ‘reform agenda table’) in these times of change. The legislation linked in this post has not become the law yet in Florida, but I strongly suspect it’s a sign of things to come in many parts of the nation.

Homework on the beachphoto © 2010 Ingo Bernhardt | more info (via: Wylio)

Hat tip to Will Richardson for sharing this article link.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/sharonelinthefirst sharon elin

    Interestingly, Florida Virtual School is now aligned with Pearson Education. In fact, the arm of Florida Virtual School that is offered to students outside of Florida now takes second billing in their name: “Pearson Virtual Learning powered by Florida Virtual School.”
    ( http://www.pearsonschool.com/index.cfm/index.cfm?locator=PSZtLo )

    Pearson is no monster and offers high quality educational products, but it is a huge force to be reckoned with. It is an experienced and giant for-profit corporation that has enormous clout, political influence, and financial power in the world of public education — most notably as a longstanding vendor in standardized test production, education software, and textbook publication and distribution.

    I am a K-12 online course designer for a district in Virginia, and while I’m excited to see the advancement of virtual learning mandated by state legislatures, I have mixed feelings about big-daddy corporations flooding the playing field and pushing into the market. Their foothold will undoubtedly gain a monopolistic advantage over districts that are new to the field and want to have local control over the content and delivery of their curriculum.

    Like Florida and many other states, Virginia is mandating that online courses should be available in K12 public schools. The Virginia Dept. of Education recently opened an application process for vendors and districts that want their K12 online courses to be approved for statewide use. Our district applied, and perhaps one or two other districts applied — but guess who we’re “competing” against? Pearson and other corporations such as K12 Inc. ( http://www.k12.com/ ), who have a decidedly well-funded and experienced advantage over newbies like us who are just starting out and who are nut funded by profitable coffers. We have not yet learned the outcome of this application, but we know we’re up against formidable contenders.

    My mixed feelings stem from wanting these corporations’ professional experience and specialized focus on the one hand, but wanting local district control of courses on the other hand. Online courses are not an instantaneous endeavor; it takes years — and specialized skills and knowledge — to develop courses and establish them as curriculum-worthy, yet the state legislators have issued the mandate to be effective almost immediately. Companies such as Pearson and K12 who have been on the playing field for years already can rush in and claim the market before anyone sees them coming or understands what they’re doing.

    There is the possibility that this can become a positive, win-win partnership with corporate companies who serve the education field, but I am a bit of a skeptic because I’m jaded by the entire standardized testing movement and the textbook companies’ profit-focused marketing. Now, with online learning, it should be an interesting ride for us local pioneers, trying to keep up with the big boys on our ponies while they kick up the dust on their fast-moving steeds.

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