Reeling from big drops in student enrollment, officials with the nation’s largest provider of online learning noted their woes Wednesday before the Florida lawmakers who inadvertently set the decline in motion.
Holly Sagues, chief policy officer for the state-funded Florida Virtual School, told the Senate Appropriations Subcomittee on Education that the highly regarded program, growing steadily until a few months ago, experienced a 32 percent drop in pre-enrollments in July, compared to the previous summer.
In August, course requests continued to fall, dropping 10 percent to 15 percent compared to the same time period a year ago. The decline is tied to a new legislative funding formula, approved in the spring, that cut state dollars to both school districts and Florida Virtual School. FLVS anticipates a $40 million loss.
“We are still estimating where we are going to wind up,’’ Sagues said.
Lawmakers offered little comment. They expect to get more specific enrollment numbers for Florida Virtual School and other online providers in January.
Under the old funding formula, districts received their full per-student allocation even when that student was taking one course through Florida Virtual, which also received funding for the student. Now, the district receives six-sevenths of the allotment and FLVS gets one-seventh. The pie gets even smaller when students take more online courses.
Lawmakers, including Sen. Bill Galvano, who chairs the subcommittee, have defended the new formula, calling it more prudent and equitable. But they also have asked the Department of Education to look into whether the change has caused some unintended consequences.
Sagues contends it has. She listed examples from even before the new formula went into effect July 1. That’s when some students were told they couldn’t sign up for FLVS classes, and others were told they would have to pay for the courses. “There was kind of a stop of students enrolling across the state because no one really knew how it was going to work,’’ she said.
The hit came in the spring, at the peak of FLVS’ pre-enrollment season for fall.
“We have had to cut back quite a bit for course development and offerings so that we could meet our budget,’’ Sagues added. The program also cut 177 full-time teachers and support staff in August. Since then, the program’s predicament has attracted national attention, with experts pointing to a new trend in online education that has states moving away from funding a single virtual school to allowing students to choose from multiple providers.
It’s not yet known whether overall student enrollment in online options is down, or whether students previously in Florida Virtual School have migrated to other providers. DOE officials are looking at online enrollments for Florida Virtual and the districts, some of which have contracted with FLVS to operate franchise programs.
Lawmakers expect to review a report in January that tracks the numbers.
“I want to revisit this and make sure we are identifying the trends properly,’’ Galvano said during the meeting.