Florida expanded its virtual learning horizon today, even as it once again reminded us that age-old education boundaries won’t easily cede to global technology.
The bill that senators sent to Gov. Rick Scott, HB 7197, was a clear victory for online education, adding more public and private options. School districts will be required to give students access to at least three different providers for part-time and fulltime virtual programs. Florida Virtual School, the nation’s largest and most successful public virtual school, will be allowed to provide fulltime programs for all grade levels and part-time not only for high and middle school students but also for accelerated fourth- and fifth-graders. High school students will be required to take an online course for graduation. All providers will be held to similar academic accountability standards and will receive similar reimbursement.
Patricia Levesque, executive director of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s foundation and digital learning initiative, helped push the effort. “A decade ago, the idea of providing every student in Florida with a customized education was just a dream,” she said after the Senate vote. “But that dream can become reality through today’s technology. Increasing access to quality digital learning in our schools will bring Florida’s classrooms into the 21st century and prepare our students for success in today’s global market.”
The bill did contain reminders of the obstacles that remain. Legislative staff attorneys and education analysts refused to accept a broader strategy offered jointly by Florida Virtual and its private competitors that would have allowed both to operate statewide, giving simpler options to all students. They deemed, with some justification, that such an approach would be challenged and found unconstitutional. That’s because Florida’s constitution, like that of many states, apportions oversight of education based on the physical location of students and schools. That means school boards are in charge, even when they need not be.