A budget bill in the House has the potential to end many virtual school options and funnel students into Florida Virtual School.
Current law requires school districts to offer at least three virtual school options to students within their district, though the statute also allows out-of-district students to enroll with no limit on the number of out-of-district students who could enroll.
Essentially, the law allows a county school district to set up a statewide virtual school. Only a handful of school districts have done so, and most of them are large districts, such as Duval and Hillsborough.
But a couple of small school districts have entered the field. The most notable is Hendry County.
Hendry is one of the least populous counties in the state, with about 40,000 residents. Hendry is best known for its agricultural community. The school district, historically, is not as noteworthy.
The Hendry school system is relatively small. A few years ago, there were between 6,000 and 7,000 students overall. But that number has soared since Hendry County launched a virtual school.
The virtual option has become exceedingly popular exceptionally quickly, at least on Hendry’s scale. The pandemic has only accelerated its growth. Now, more than 6,000 Florida students are enrolled in Hendry’s virtual school – nearly doubling the size of the district in short order.
It’s unclear why Hendry County of all places is drawing in thousands of out-of-district students, but the answer appears to be word of mouth. Parents, especially parents of minority and special needs students, are starved for options and Hendry takes all comers.
By all accounts, parents and students are satisfied with the program.
But HB 5101 would stamp it out.
The education budget bill would cap the number of out-of-district students a county school district-run virtual school could accept by requiring at least half of enrolled students live within the county.
The provision would threaten virtual enrollment in all districts, but large districts would be more able to absorb the hit.
In Hendry, however, the cap would limit the county virtual school to just a couple hundred students, making it financially unviable.
A virtual school requires infrastructure, equipment, internet connectivity and employees, most of which are expenses that don’t shrink commensurate with enrollment.
With only a couple hundred students, Hendry’s school district would go under. Especially considering the complex method by which virtual schools are paid.
Similar to brick-and-mortar schools, virtual schools are funded on a per-student basis. They aren’t funded at the same level, as there are no building maintenance fees or other costs unique to in-person instruction. It adds up to about $2,000 less than the per-student allotment received by traditional schools.
In addition to capping the number of out-of-district students, HB 5101 would give districts an out by replacing the requirement they provide three virtual options with a requirement that they provide one.
In most counties, the sole option would be Florida Virtual School.
For most students, FLVS is a perfectly acceptable option. It also has high enrollment numbers allowing it to easily cover fixed operating costs and absorb losses – if a handful of students went back to in-person schools, it wouldn’t wreck their budget.
But what works for most, doesn’t work for all.
That has seemingly been a core tenet of the school choice narrative the Legislature has embraced for the past two decades. Even this Session, lawmakers are considering a massive expansion to school choice vouchers.
The author and main supporter of HB 5101, Brevard County Rep. Randy Fine, has said the bill was drawn up to stop some shady behavior among virtual school vendors.
Outside of Fine’s vague insinuation, no virtual school has been accused of paying districts directly before, during or after a student enrolls.
FLVS educates about four out of five virtual school students in the state, and Fine’s bill would likely boost them to a near – or virtual – monopoly by suffocating smaller schools with strict enrollment caps.
While most current virtual students would be able to attend FLVS, it would not be able to take all of them.
Unlike in-person schools and some virtual school alternatives, FLVS doesn’t accept all applicants. It has GPA requirements and testing requirements. Perhaps the most prohibitive requirement: Students must provide their own computers, internet, email addresses and phones.
The enrollment criteria filters out the state’s poorest students, many of whom are minorities. FLVS enrollment data reflects that. Nearly 83% of FLVS students are White; just 8% of FLVS students are Black.
Next to those bills, HB 5101 seems like a 180 on school choice and would institute something of a double standard.
There are some concerns with virtual school funding that advocates on each side of the school choice movement agree should be addressed, such as whether school districts are using funds collected through local taxes to fund the education of out-of-district students.
Whether the state should adopt a so-called “one size fits all” approach to virtual schools is a policy that, as of now, appears to have a constituency of one.