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Fla. Online School Target of Cuts From Legislators

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s highly-successful online school is battling proposed cutbacks at a time when state legislators are bragging about boosting money for schools by more than $1 billion.

Supporters of the Florida Virtual School, including U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, warn the cuts could affect the quality of operations at the school, which offers courses to nearly 150,000. By one estimate, the legislative changes could result in a 14 percent funding reduction.

Webster, who championed the creation and expansion of the school when he was a state legislator, said Florida Virtual School has already endured additional cuts in the last few years when Florida was mired in the recession.

“Although the cuts currently being considered for Florida Virtual School may appear insignificant on their own, when coupled with the recent reductions over the past several years, they will reach a magnitude that will have a large impact on the quality and effectiveness of the virtual school program,” Webster said.

Florida Virtual School, which grew out of a pilot project, now offers more than 120 courses free to students who live in Florida. One of its students was Aly Raisman, a member of the successful U.S team in gymnastics. The school employs more than 1,000 teachers.

Lawmakers are looking at a complicated change in funding that would cut how much the school receives for teaching individual courses.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami and House budget chairman, defends the change because he says Florida Virtual School is now getting a financial advantage over other school districts because of the current funding formula.

Fresen has also contended repeatedly that lawmakers aren’t cutting the overall funding for the Florida Virtual School. But school officials have pointed out that in order to get the extra money the school would have to increase the number of students it serves by more than 20 percent.

In some ways, Florida Virtual School may be a victim of its own success. One lobbyist representing a private company offering online courses complained in a legislative meeting that the state needed to make changes because it “levels the playing field.”

But lawmakers aren’t just looking at changing the amount of money that could go to the school.

Another proposal could open the door for private companies from outside of Florida to offer courses that compete with Florida Virtual School.

A handful of private companies are already authorized to offer online courses by the Florida Department of Education, but those companies must use Florida-certified teachers and maintain administrative offices in the state.

The move by Republican legislators to change the rules comes as one private vendor has come under fire.

A draft report on an investigation by the Florida Department of Education found that one company already offering courses in the state produced inaccurate records. K-12 Inc. reported students being taught by teachers who never interacted with them.

In a written statement, K-12 Inc. blamed the problem on record-keeping errors. The company pointed out that more serious allegations made against them including the use of noncertified teachers were not substantiated by the department’s inspector general.

DOE recently went ahead and certified K-12’s Florida operation for another three years before the inspector general report was finished.

Tiffany Cowie, a spokeswoman for the agency, said DOE approved K-12 Inc. because they have been successful in offering online courses for a number of years. Cowie said the department will “monitor” the company to make sure it is following state requirements.

When asked about DOE’s decision, Fresen said he would leave it to the agency to defend its screening criteria.

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