Expansion Of Charter, Virtual Schools Poised To Become Law
May 5, 2011
The Legislature on Wednesday approved two major education reform proposals that authorize significant expansion of charter and virtual schools.
But advocates for public schools say the measures drain dollars away from traditional schools, favoring charter schools and virtual programs which do not have to meet the same rigorous standards as public schools.
Only Gov. Rick Scott’s signature stands in the way of the bills becoming law and all indications are that he will likely sign them. “These bills expand choices for students and their parents, giving them a chance to get the education that best suits the needs of the student,” said Scott spokesman Lane Wright.
Increasing options for parents beyond traditional public schools is a high priority of Republicans, who are expanding upon a legacy of school reforms that began with Gov. Jeb Bush in the late 1990s.
Indeed, Bush weighed in over Twitter on the passage of the bills on Wednesday, as the legislative session enters its last couple of days.
“Florida is one step closer to transforming education for 21st century,” Bush said, using Twitter shorthand, on Wednesday. “Thanks to Florida’s leaders for expanding access to customized education.”
The charter school bill (SB 1546), passed by the House in a 87-27 predominantly party-line vote, establishes a system that allows highly rated charter schools to expand enrollment and add new grades without having to seek approval from school districts. A school that has received an “A” or “B” grade in the last three years would qualify as highly rated. It also grants these schools longer 15-year charters.
The virtual school bill (HB 7197), passed the Senate in a 27-12 predominantly party-line vote, and allows charter schools to offer full-time or part-time virtual school classes, if approved by the school district.
It also requires all high school students to take one online class prior to graduation and permits children as young as five to take full-time virtual classes paid for with state funds. It expands the number of grades the Florida Virtual School offers and requires districts to offer more virtual instruction programs.
Bill sponsor Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said it promotes the kind of interactions children are used to – on computers and the Internet. “It’s a step in the right direction to make sure that we as the adults catch up to the way our kids are learning,” Flores said. Many Democrats suggested it was unfair to push technology on to students who may not have equal exposure to computers at home.
Some critics of online education also question the quality of instruction, with tales of students taking open-book exams and copying homework answers from the Internet. Virtual schools say they have stringent quality standards.
Even some Republicans marveled at the wide-ranging impact of the virtual school bill.
“I wish that the increase to virtual schools would have been more modest,” said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.
During debate on the charter school expansion, Democrats said they were troubled by the push to increase charter schools rather than help failing public schools. “This bill takes away from traditional public schools and gives an unfair advantage to charter schools,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami.
Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, said the bill carves out favors for charter schools. “We need to fund low-performing schools,” Gibbons said, not make it easier for charter schools to expand.
But Republicans said the bill rewards charter schools that are performing well.
“The reason I like this bill is because it allows us to copy success,” said Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville. “There are good charter schools and there are bad charter schools. We are able to emulate the good charter schools.”
A common criticism of using state funds to support private, virtual or charter schools is that they are not held to the same standards as public schools in terms of testing, class sizes, merit pay and other requirements.
Florida School Board Association Executive Director Wayne Blanton said “as long as everybody is on a level playing field,” these expansion plans are fair. But Blanton said public schools are subjected to more oversight.
For instance, the new teacher merit pay law may not apply to some teachers of virtual programs.
The virtual school bill permits hiring of adjunct instructors, who are exempted from the new merit pay law that requires tying teacher pay to test scores, according to Florida Education Association lobbyist Ron Meyer.
“Once again, while the public schools in Florida are held to prescribed standards, charter, voucher and virtual schools – all of which are funded with public dollars – are not required to meet the same standards,” Meyer said.
By Lilly Rockwell
The News Service of Florida