The Palm Beach County School Board plans today to urge state lawmakers to repeal a new funding approach that slashed dollars for the state-run Florida Virtual School, spawning wholesale teacher layoffs from the program just as a new school year begins.
The demand from county officials is part of rising push-back across the state over what critics say is the latest bid to further privatize public education by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature.
Palm Beach County lost $5 million formerly used for online education with the change in how state cash is distributed, officials said.
“We’re hearing this criticism from a lot of school boards,” said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
“Virtual education is the fastest-growing business in education and these private vendors are smart,” he added. “They want a piece of it and know how to get it. They didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.”
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, chairman of the Senate’s education budget subcommittee, said that changing how online dollars were calculated was not designed to favor private companies.
But he acknowledged the change has reduced dollars for Florida Virtual School, the taxpayer-financed program founded in 1997.
“There has been a financial impact,” Galvano said.
The online school laid off 237 full- and part-time instructors in late July and early August in response to a dramatic decline in enrollment, which stems from the new funding method.
Another 625 adjunct instructors, also considered part-time employees, were already let go in July.
All told, the cuts amount to about 13 percent of Florida Virtual’s full-time staff, and 86 percent of part-timers, officials said.
The staff reductions followed a 32 percent drop in online class enrollments at Florida Virtual for the new school year.
School officials said the new funding formula has removed any incentive for school districts to steer students to Florida Virtual.
Until July 1, when students took six courses in their own school and one through Florida Virtual, the district received its full per-student funding while the virtual school drew an additional one-sixth of the dollars.
Now per-student funding is capped and essentially divided into shares for seven classes per student. For each online class the student enrolls in, the traditional school loses a seventh of its funding, but the virtual school also receives less — the equivalent of one-seventh of the traditional school’s funding instead of one-sixth.
“There is no lack of support for virtual education from the Legislature,” Galvano said. “But we didn’t want any single student getting more than another single full-time equivalent. We’re trying to be good stewards of taxpayer money.”
Critics during the legislative session said the move was aimed at blunting Florida Virtual’s reach and giving private companies a better chance to fight for the $200 million state taxpayers spent on the school.
The funding change was spearheaded by House Education Budget chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, a land-use consultant whose company has built charter schools for Academica, where his brother-in-law is CEO.
Academica is Florida’s largest for-profit charter school company and, through the firm and its construction unit, spent $238,000 in last fall’s political campaigns, including $60,000 to the Florida Republican Party.
Ron Book, a lobbyist for V Schoolz Inc., a Coral Gables e-learning company where South Florida entrepreneur H. Wayne Huizenga is a key investor, told lawmakers this spring that it was time for private companies to share in the state funds going to Florida Virtual.
Huizenga is a major donor to Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Republicans.
“You continue to foster a semi-monopoly in the world of virtual education,” Book testified at a committee hearing where he promoted the formula change. “What you have before you…levels the playing field.”
Besides steering students to Florida Virtual School, most Florida school districts, including Palm Beach County, operate their own online programs. Some of these district programs are franchises with Florida Virtual, contracts with one of the five private companies currently approved by the state or a combination of both.
Palm Beach Virtual School (http://www.palmbeachvirtual.org/), for instance, is a franchise of Florida Virtual School but also offers a number of other programs through different online providers, such as K12 Inc. and Edgenuity.
In 2011, the Legislature required all high school students to complete at least one course online, a move that added numbers and incentive for private virtual providers.
Chuck Shaw, chairman of the Palm Beach County School Board, said the board isn’t necessarily looking to go to bat for Florida Virtual. Instead, Shaw said he thinks school districts just should get enough money from the state to at least meet the added online requirement.
The revamped funding approach punishes districts – and Florida Virtual, Shaw said, adding that the state online program had been doing a fine job.
“We keep hearing more and more that education is for sale in this state,” Shaw said. “I’ve got no problem with somebody making a profit. But I want to protect our tax dollars.”
Staff writer Allison Ross contributed to this story.
This fall’s enrollment for Florida Virtual School dropped 32 percent from last year, causing the public online school to lay off 86 percent of its part-time staff and 13 percent of its full-time employees. School districts are less inclined to refer students to Florida Virtual because of a formula passed by the Legislature last year that cuts money to the district for every Florida Virtual class a student takes.