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Virtual schools poised to go viral in Florida

Florida Virtual School grow 20 percent a year as legislature starts requirement for online class to graduate.

The calls from students usually start just after 9 a.m. for teacher Kim Bouchillon.

“Hi Sara,” she chirps into the phone, responding to a student asking about the date of the next language arts oral exam. “I’m getting ready for live lessons. Are you able to come today?”

Welcome to Bouchillon’s virtual world. A world where the face-to-face, brick-and-mortar classroom is replaced by phone calls, emails and a computer screen. A world where Bouchillon, a Florida Virtual School teacher, teaches sixth-grade language arts to students across the state from the comfort of her suburban Lake Worth home.

But even as the online education realm is exploding in popularity, Florida Virtual School is poised to take a punch that it says could potentially mean cutting jobs of virtual school teachers like Bouchillon, from legislation that would change the way the state’s largest virtual education provider is funded.

Proponents say the bill, which is awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, is meant to level the playing field because the virtual school has an advantage over traditional school districts with the current funding formula.

But Florida Virtual, or FLVS, says the changes will hurt its bottom line, and is forcing it to look at increasing its virtual class sizes, cutting back on its offerings or laying off some instructional staff.

“This is a time when there’s (an additional) billion dollars going into education,” said Julie Young, chief executive officer of FLVS. She estimates that FLVS will lose $36 million next school year with the funding formula change — although it is still expected to get more money next year than this year.

The formula changes would also affect school districts, which have come to rely on online course providers to help manage class size restrictions, tight school budgets and other requirements affecting the classroom, as well as provide students more course offerings. Under the new funding formula, districts would take in less money for each student who is enrolled in one or more online classes.

The Palm Beach County School District estimates about a $5 million hit because of the legislation, said Chief Operating Officer Mike Burke. He added that the changes may be incentive for the school district to ramp up its own virtual education program in order to keep more of the money in-house.

“It is going to change how we do business in terms of virtual ed,” lobbyist Vern Pickup-Crawford told the school district’s Budget Advisory Committee last week.

“The legislature wants more competition with Florida Virtual, and this bill will do it,” Pickup-Crawford said. “The upshot is it does open the gates to us using providers other than Florida Virtual. We will be doing our own shopping around.”

FLVS said the change discourages school districts from allowing students to sign up for FLVS classes. It said that its data show that school guidance counselors stopped 567 Palm Beach County students last month from enrolling in a virtual class, a figure that is nearly three times as large as it was in April 2012.

Burke expressed skepticism that county schools are deterring students from taking FLVS classes, but acknowledged that there’s more competition now for money tied to students.

No one has ridden the booming online education wave better than FLVS. With more than 1,000 teachers, and offering more than 120 courses to both full- and part-time virtual school students in kindergarten through 12th grade, FLVS taught nearly 150,000 students last school year.

Proponents say the online education industry is ripe for competition. Its companies have become political players in Florida, providing a steady source of campaign dollars, mostly to Republican candidates, The Palm Beach Post recently found.

These companies appear to be getting their money’s worth.

In addition to the funding formula change, lawmakers, this past session, passed legislation that removes restrictions on students taking virtual classes in another county and opens the door for out-of-state and private online learning providers to receive a bigger share of state dollars.

Meanwhile, Scott just signed into law a bill that sets up the University of Florida to offer bachelor’s degrees completely online.

And that follows other successful efforts in recent years, including a mandate that every public school student take at least one online class in order to graduate, and the 2011 authorization of the creation of virtual charter schools. The Florida Virtual Academy at Palm Beach County is expected to open in the fall, becoming the first virtual charter school in the county.

“We’re looking at a shifting time in education,” said Debra Johnson, principal of Palm Beach Virtual School, which has 230 full-time students and thousands of others taking some online classes part-time. “There’s a move to give students a variety of options to serve their needs.”

FLVS’ Bouchillon is a cheerleader for virtual education.

To her, the concept seems perfectly natural: Students are able to get individualized learning, can work at their own pace and have access to classes they may not have in more traditional school settings.

She has also taught at traditional brick-and-mortar schools in Palm Beach County — teaching elementary students for a decade at Meadow Park in suburban West Palm Beach and New Horizons in Wellington.

“Do I miss the classroom? I still feel like I’m still there,” Bouchillon said, glancing up from her computer at her kitchen table.

But despite the increasing stature of virtual education in recent years, its effectiveness compared to traditional classroom learning is understudied, some say. And what studies there are have been mixed.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education found that for the comparison research that exists, overall, “students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction,” but cautioned against over-generalizations, given the scarcity of research.

However, a 2012 study by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado found that students in virtual schools run by private management companies were less proficient on standardized tests compared with students in brick-and-mortar schools.

Bouchillon and other FLVS teachers are on call from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. Most teachers have about 150 students at a time. Bouchillon, who is a “lead teacher,” has only about 30, in order to give her time to help and coach other virtual teachers.

Much of her day consists of emails and phone calls to keep in contact with students, their parents and guidance counselors. Part of teachers’ evaluations are based on how frequently they get in contact with their virtual students, who live in counties across the state.

“When I taught in public school, a call from a teacher was typically not a good thing,” Bouchillon said. “This way, you really get to know the parents and students. I know the parents of these students more than I knew parents of students in my (traditional) classroom.”

Bouchillon said she loves working for FLVS. But she noted that, regardless of who provides it, it’s clear that virtual learning is becoming a dominant player in the education world.

“You take one class and find, ‘Hey, that was cool,’ ” Bouchillon said. “It’s not just expanding because the Legislature said it has to.”

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