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Vote on vouchers a virtual letdown

Advocates dreamed of bulking up alternatives to public school, but legislators delivered just one new choice: online learning.

Published May 25, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - When the legislative session began, supporters of school vouchers had high hopes of expanding tax-supported choices for students in Florida.

But the budget awaiting a final vote Tuesday contains just one new choice program: an online school for students in grades K-8. Up to 1,000 will learn full-time at home next year, using PCs and printers paid for by taxpayers.

Republicans say it's another way to better serve students. Democrats say it's another risky venture that siphons money out of public schools.

The idea of virtual schools attracted momentum in Florida because of pressure on lawmakers to reduce class sizes and nudges from two companies prepared to profit.

One company was co-founded by William Bennett, a former U.S. education secretary, the drug czar under the first President Bush and the best-selling author of The Book of Virtues. Bennett's Virginia company, K12, runs online schools for 6,000 students in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arkansas, Colorado and California.

Bennett discussed the concept in a meeting with Gov. Jeb Bush about two years ago. A K12 executive came to Florida this spring to meet with state Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, who sees the $4.8-million project as a way for students to expand learning opportunities.

"I really think this is something that we ought to try," Pickens said. "It gives students, especially rural students, another place to avail themselves of courses."

The companies say online learning is good for students who have medical problems, reside in isolated areas, have artistic or athletic pursuits and want flexible schedules, or are ostracized by others.

Lawmakers attached several conditions: Courses must follow state standards, teachers must be certified in Florida, and students must take the FCAT and have attended public school the previous year.

The two vendors who will operate the program under state contracts - possibly Bennett's firm and its rival, Connections Academy, part of the Sylvan Learning Centers group - will get $4,800 per student, according to language written into the budget.

Representatives of both companies intend to seek contracts from the Florida Department of Education, though both said $4,800 is less than they are paid in other states.

Charles Zogby, a former Pennsylvania education secretary who is a K12 executive, said that state pays an average of $6,200 per student.

Florida, Zogby said, "is at the lower end. We still believe, if given the opportunity, that we can deliver a very viable, first-rate academic program."

Democratic lawmakers and the union representing teachers call the program a "virtual voucher" and another example of Republicans diverting public money into private education ventures.

Democrats said the $4.8-million expenditure is especially ill-timed when Florida public schools are cutting programs and personnel.

"It's another chip away at using public funds for a private education, and it's not going to address school crowding," said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach.

Ryan said $4,800 is too much. Public schools will get about $5,500 per student, including transportation and electives, he noted.

The K-8 virtual school is modeled after the Florida Virtual School for high school students, which began five years ago and uses a public school curriculum. Some Republicans worry about expanding it to 5-year-olds.

"I have to tell you, virtual schools for kindergarteners bothers me," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. "Virtual schools are wonderful for middle and high schools."

Teacher unions also dislike online schools.

"It sounds like a cross between homeschooling and vouchers in many ways," said Marshall Ogletree of the Florida Education Association. "If you've already made the decision to homeschool your child, it's not a whole lot different, except the state is going to buy your computer for you."

Ogletree worries that the online school will get more and more money in future years without having to prove its validity.

One of the potential vendors disagrees.

"This is absolutely not a voucher program," said Barbara Dreyer, director of Connections Academy in Baltimore, which runs online schools in Colorado and Wisconsin.

She said her company uses the same books and worksheets as public schools.

"The only thing we would ask is actually look at the results and look at the kids who are served," Dreyer said.

Pat Heffernan of Floridians for School Choice, a Miami group that supports vouchers, described the Legislature's work this year as "piecemeal progress."

"Each year, we seem to have put a few more stones in the stream," Heffernan said, "and I think that's happened again this year."

But Heffernan also said critics' fears are misplaced. Even if vouchers were open to everyone, most parents would still choose public schools, he said.

"Parents will normally make the best choice of schools for their children. If you give them that choice, at least 80 percent will choose public schools," Heffernan said.

- Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 25, 2003, 01:30:37]

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