Hit reset on state's virtual voucher

Published March 19, 2007

The Internet offers extraordinary potential for learning, but Florida needs a reality check before it starts pointing more 5-year-olds toward their home computer. What, exactly, is the state getting for its $5,200 per student?

The K-8 virtual school voucher was written into the budget four years ago after lobbyists for online education companies persuaded lawmakers to experiment. Now some lawmakers want to remove enrollment limits even though no one really knows how well it works. Some of the older students are scoring well on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but so far the Department of Education has produced little more than a survey of parental support.

Testing aside, the kicker with the K-8 virtual voucher is that it works only if the parent serves as full-time teacher. As the Florida Virtual Academy advises: "Parents or other responsible adults can expect to work with students for up to 5 hours per day to maintain a typical school year's pace for accomplishing lessons associated with assigned grade levels."

The state, however, pays these for-profit online companies as though they run actual schools with classrooms and playgrounds and cafeterias and buses. The voucher, $5,200, exceeds what the state pays for education at many real schools. By comparison, the Corporate Tax Credit voucher for poor students is $3,750. The prekindergarten voucher for 4-year-olds is $2,560. How can lawmakers defend the difference?

Two key Senate Education Committee leaders, Stephen Wise and Don Gaetz, are promising a close examination this year of how all the state's online education works. Their interest is welcome. They no doubt will find that certain types of courses and certain students, particularly those in high school, work well with online curriculum. But K-8 virtual vouchers, particularly those serving children who have yet to learn how to read, are dubious at best.

For the youngest children, the K-8 vouchers are serving primarily as a curriculum aid for home-schooled children. As such, the success or failure depends almost entirely on the hard work of the parents or guardians. Yet the companies are the ones pocketing the profits.

The home-school students may well deserve free curriculum and materials from the state, but lawmakers are being played for fools if they think it costs $5,200 a student to do so. Some House members even propose to pay these companies by subtracting money that would otherwise go to public school districts. As government contracts go, this one is quite a racket.