Virtual charter schools are ramping up in the Sunshine State with three Florida Virtual Academies expected to open next fall, bringing the total number of schools in the charter network to eight.

School boards in Clay, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties signed off on the academies last month. The schools will have local non-profit governing boards that partner with Virginia-based K12 Inc., one of the nation’s largest providers of online education.

The concept of virtual charters was approved by the Florida Legislature in 2011, part of the Digital Learning Now Act that also required public high school students to take at least one online course. Also, state law requires larger districts to provide students with at least three options for virtual instruction, which include a district-run program; a franchise of Florida Virtual School or a contract with another online provider; or an agreement with another district, state college or virtual charter school.

Osceola County became home to the first Florida Virtual Academy charter school in 2012. Since then, other academies have gained approval in Duval, Broward, Pasco and Palm Beach counties.

“Many states have a variety of digital learning options, including district-based online programs, virtual charter schools, and other models,” said K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski. “Each has its own characteristics and distinct offerings, giving families more options and choices.”

Miami-Dade County also has a virtual charter, Somerset Virtual Academy. The school, operated by Academica, a for-profit charter management company based in Florida, started enrolling students in grades 6-12 in August of 2012.

In Hillsborough, school officials unanimously approved the Florida Virtual Academy application. But they also expressed concern about how the K-12 virtual school would collaborate with the district’s own virtual academy, which also contracts with K12 Inc. for curriculum. District staff said details still must be settled, but recommended approval.

In Pinellas, where the board finalized its contract with the academy, debate among members centered on K12 Inc., according to The Tampa Tribune.

The Florida Department of Education investigated the for-profit company earlier this year for, among other things, allegedly using teachers who were not properly certified in the subject they were teaching (an issue common in school districts, too). Kwitowski said the investigation confirmed an internal review, which found minor record-keeping issues and a couple of teachers who were teaching out of field.

“When we had first heard of the concerns … we immediately and proactively contacted the (Florida Department of Education),” Kwitowski said.

More recently, K12 Inc. was at the center of a battle royale between two heavyweights in ed reform, Whitney Tilson and Jeanne Allen. Tilson, an investor who serves on the board of KIPP charter schools, acknowledged K12 as innovative and pioneering, but took issue with the company’s aggressive student recruitment and, in his view, lackluster academic results. Allen, president emeritus of the Center for Education Reform, countered that Tilson was making sloppy assertions based on limited and misleading evidence.

In the end, Pinellas board members voted unanimously to move forward with the charter application, but some said they did so reluctantly. “I think that we try to follow all of our charter schools, and I think this one we should follow very, very closely,” said board Chairwoman Linda Lerner, according to the Tribune.

The school is set to open next August. It eventually will serve 592 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

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