TALLAHASSEE -- Private online learning companies will get a better shot at Florida public school funding under a bill that won approval on the final day of the legislative session.
Though the vote garnered little attention from outside observers, Republicans hailed it as among the years most important victories for school choice.
We want to open up access and give our kids the very best, said Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, who sponsored the bill in the House.
But Democrats were outraged that the final action took place on the last day of session and only hours after lawmakers reduced the funding for Floridas public virtual school.
Taken together, critics said, the moves were a clear effort to privatize public education.
If you want to get at the largest portion of the state budget that has not been privatized, it is education, said Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union. Thats what this is all about. This is about allowing outside vendors to get a piece of the action.
School choice debates are often among the most contentious in Tallahassee.
For nearly two decades, the Florida Legislature has been expanding choice options, ranging from privately managed charter schools to voucher programs. In 2011, the Legislature made it a requirement for all high school students to complete at least one course online, creating a guaranteed market for online learning services. Virtual schooling took center stage again this year.
Currently, students can enroll full time in the public Florida Virtual School, or use the program to satisfy the graduation requirement. School systems can also open their own franchise of Florida Virtual, and have the option of contracting with a handful of state-approved private virtual learning providers.
Some of those private providers have recently come under scrutiny . Last year, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found that K12, an online education company that does business with 43 Florida school districts, had used teachers with improper certifications and asked employees to cover up the practice.
K12 and other providers were active in Tallahassee this year.
During the last election cycle, K12 made $21,000 in campaign contributions to Republicans in statehouse races, and gave $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, state elections records show. Both K12 and Kaplan, which has also done business with the state, hired high-profile lobbyist Jim Horne, a former state senator who also represents Associated Industries of Florida.
Horne did not return calls seeking comment.
V Schoolz, an e-learning company backed by South Florida entrepreneur Wayne Huizenga, had power-lobbyist Ron Book leading its efforts. During committee meetings, Book urged lawmakers to break up the semi-monopoly held by Florida Virtual School.
The proposal the Legislature passed would allow private providers to bypass some of the vetting process and be approved on a trial basis. It would also open the door to out-of-state providers, which have historically been disallowed.
The bill also allows the state education department to study Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, for consideration in the future.
During an intense debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, likened the idea to letting the outstanding [providers] from around the world come to the state of Florida, and allowing our teachers and students to decide whats best for them.