External Author Name: 
Liam Julian

Huzzah for Florida Virtual School (FLVS), which just turned ten! Such celebratory language is appropriate, for the Sunshine State, home to many school reform innovations, has yet again provided a successful model for reinventing k-12 education for the 21st century.

Those grumps at the National Education Association are trying to crash the party, though. The union is shocked, shocked, that some parents have the gall to become so involved in their children's education, helping them with their online lessons and all.

"There are concerns," NEA employee Barbara Stein told the Tampa Tribune this month, "about deputizing whoever happens to be at the kitchen table as a teacher." Klein fails to specify who, exactly, harbors such concerns, but we may assume that she sympathizes with the nameless disquieted.

Jean Miller, who directs the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at Florida's Department of Education, disputes Stein's depiction of Florida's online education programs. She told the Tribune, "In a virtual school, all teachers are certified in the state of Florida. You have a teacher confirming what students are mastering."

Okay, fine. But Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow has other "concerns." He criticized online education in general, saying, "School is much more than just an experience where you learn information." How so? Pudlow tries to clarify, but succeeds in muddling: "School is also a place where you learn about how different people are and how different people react." Like, to chemicals?

Enough. Let's turn away from word games and toward the data--which show that, at least for those of us who do think a school is a place where one learns information (and that, hypothetically speaking of course, children might "learn about how different people are" in lots of settings beyond a schoolhouse), FLVS is fulfilling its mission.

In 2005-2006, FLVS, which serves those in grades 6-12, offered over 90 courses for credit, and 31,000 youngsters enrolled in at least one of them (some of those students actually live in other states). What's more, the Florida legislature funds the online program on a per-pupil, performance basis--only when a student successfully completes a course does FLVS receive money.

It's difficult objectively to gauge the overall academic progress of FLVS students, who aren't enrolled in a set curriculum and may take many classes or few, in subjects as varied as Latin and macroeconomics. But if demand is any indication of success, FLVS is doing well: the number of courses completed by FLVS students soared from less than 10,000 in 2000-2001 to 68,000 in 2005-2006.

In addition to FLVS, Florida contracts with two full-time online schools: the k-11 Florida Connections Academy, and the k-8 Florida Virtual Academy, which were started in 2003-2004. The state's accountability system that year awarded Connections Academy a "C" and Virtual Academy a "B."

For the 2006-2007 school year, both earned "A" grades.  Florida's accountability system is able to track individual student progress, and at Connections Academy, 70 percent of the lowest-scoring quarter of students made gains in reading. At Virtual Academy, 73 percent did.

Their students need not be affluent; the schools send computers and printers to the families who need them. Critics have argued that poor students will be excluded from online education because their parents work during the day and the full-time virtual schools require much parental involvement. Yet forty-nine percent of Connections Academy students would qualify for free or reduced lunch at a traditional public school.

Virtual education also provides a much-needed escape for young people otherwise caught in unacceptable schools. The concern that online schools diminish students' social development is belied, in part, by the fact that the social atmospheres within many schools are insalubrious, sometimes even violently so. That youngsters who would otherwise be forced to endure such antics may, through Florida's several virtual academies, learn in a safe and focused environment is all for the good.

As for gifted kids, at real risk of being left behind by many of today's reforms, Florida's virtual education offerings are a true boon. The really ambitious ones can come home at day's end, log on, and take an extra course or two in subjects that their schools simply don't offer. Or they can attend a virtual school full-time, which allows them to work at their own pace and receive one-on-one instruction.

Youngsters residing in Florida's rural marshlands or thinly populated parts of the panhandle also benefit from increased virtual offerings. If a high school in Apalachicola doesn't have, say, a Latin class, it's no longer an impediment to the budding Tacitus scholar. Nor is it a problem if certain schools put forth only a paltry menu of A.P. courses; as long as they have an internet connection, anything is possible.

Ten-year-olds aren't supposed to drink champagne. But you can fill your flute and toast Florida's remarkable accomplishment.

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