Private voucher schools hit by funding change to Florida Virtual School

Sherri Ackerman

In a new twist on the legislative funding changes crimping Florida Virtual School, private schools that accept state-funded McKay Scholarships for special needs students may now lose money when McKay students take FLVS classes.



Private schools learned last week about the possible fallout, which could result in students dropping Florida Virtual School courses or parents paying for what traditionally has been offered for free.

Many of the 1,200 private schools that accept the scholarships, which on average range between $3,977 and $7,019, don’t charge parents more for tuition, said Robyn Rennick of The Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools. So they likely will withdraw students from FLVS courses or ask parents to make up the difference.

“Was this really what the Legislature intended when they changed this statute – hurting the parents of kids with disabilities?’’ the coalition asked in a notice to school operators Monday.

Of the roughly 27,000 students who receive McKay Scholarships, 790 are enrolled in FLVS classes. At many of the high schools that accept the scholarships, students are taking driver’s education and health courses offered by FLVS, Rennick said.

FLVS officials, who have watched enrollment plummet since the funding change, said they’ve already heard from private school administrators who say the proposed cuts will cause financial hardships and lead to withdrawal of students currently enrolled in FLVS.

“This is yet another unintended consequence of the new funding model – denied choice for children with disabilities working hard to get the best education they can possibly get,’’ Florida Virtual School spokeswoman Tania Clow said.

Department of Education officials plan to discuss the issue Friday morning during a regularly scheduled internal meeting. They declined comment Thursday.

According to the McKay Coalition, private schools received a DOE notice Monday that said their quarterly payments, due in November, would be docked retroactively depending on the number of students currently enrolled in FLVS courses.

Rennick said DOE has since decided to hold off on the deductions – for now – but the cuts still could affect quarterly payments in February and April. “It’s kind of like the boulder rolling downhill,’’ she said.

The new funding formula was sponsored by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and approved by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year. It was created to prevent the state from paying for the same students more than once when they take online courses through state-funded Florida Virtual School.

Under the old model, districts received their full per-student allocation even when that student took one course through FLVS, which also received funding for the student. Now the district gets six-sevenths of the allotment and FLVS gets one-seventh. The more FLVS courses a student takes, the less money both the district and Florida Virtual receive.

The change triggered a big drop in FLVS course enrollments. The nation’s largest online course provider, FLVS was on track for solid growth this year due, in part, to a new state requirement that every high school student take at least one online course before graduating. Instead, it’s FLVS’s local franchises with school districts, which don’t generate as much money, that have seen enrollment spike.

The funding change does not affect homeschoolers or private schools that accept tax credit scholarships. The latter program is administered by Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that co-hosts this blog.

Lawmakers never discussed McKay Scholarships being part of the new calculation, Rennick said. The DOE has interpreted the law to include the McKay program because, like district schools, its funding comes from the Florida Education Finance Program, she said. But since a portion of scholarship money already remains in the district, she said, why can’t money for FLVS classes come out of those dollars?

“We don’t mind paying our share,’’ Rennick said. “But we think we’ve been hit twice.’’

Former Florida Sen. John McKay, who led the charge to create the program more than a decade ago, said it’s not uncommon for new legislation to have unintended consequences.

“When it does occur, it’s not typically difficult to reach out to legislators and say, ‘We made a mistake, let’s put this on hold,’ ’’ said McKay, who advised coalition members to contact their strongest supporters to intervene. “It seems apparent to me that this is not what the intention was.’’

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Doug Tuthill November 1, 2013 - 10:15 am

Increasingly it appears public education in Florida will need to adopt some type of flexible spending account that is well regulated and controlled by parents. A one-size-fits-all state funding formula is not going to work well in an education system in which customization is the norm.

Allison Hertog November 2, 2013 - 11:49 am

I agree with Doug 100 percent. When there are several school options for parents as there are in Florida (virtual, vouchers, tax credits, charters, etc), student choices vary as a function of the natural complexity of human beings themselves. It only makes sense to embrace a new model of education funding, such as an education savings account being used successfully in Arizona or maybe a “backpack” funding model.

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