By Katherine Mackey and Michael B. Horn
In the fall of 1997, the Florida Department of Education (DOE) awarded two Florida school districts, Orange and Alachua, a $200,000 “Break the Mold” grant to co-develop an online high school to serve students throughout Florida. The districts assembled a team, which adopted a new mindset and asked, “If we didn’t have to follow the rules that already exist [for schools], what would they be?”*
Through trial and error and a focus on building an education option for students whose needs were not being met, the team established what became the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), the nation’s first statewide, Internet-based public school. FLVS enrolled more than 70,000 middle and high school students during the 2008–09 school year.
Evolution of a funding model
After the $200,000 grant ran out, the Florida Legislature took over the funding of FLVS. It first funded FLVS as a line item in the state budget, which meant that the online school did not compete directly against local school districts for their per-pupil funds. Because the line item was a fixed amount, however, it limited artificially the number of students that FLVS could enroll.
In 2003, the Florida Legislature voted to include FLVS in the state funding formula for K–12 education and approved a performance-based program in which the school would only receive per-pupil funds for those students who successfully completed and passed their courses. A performance-based funding system made FLVS more accountable in some respects than brick-and-mortar schools, and it also enabled the school to escape seat-time restrictions and thereby preserve the flexibility that was key to online learning.
Teaching for FLVS
Teachers work from home and communicate with students and parents primarily by means of telephone and email. Although teachers and students have little or no face-to-face interaction with each other, the school has cultivated a “high-touch” learning environment where teachers engage students not only in one-on-one learning, but also in group sessions and tutoring. FLVS hires and retains teachers based on their performance. The school is able to enforce this rule by issuing annual contracts to all of its employees instead of granting them tenured positions. FLVS limits the number of students each teacher is responsible for instructing to ensure that teachers will be able to give enough quality time to each of their students.**
Because online learning was virtually nonexistent and there was little in the way of online content and curriculum when the school began, FLVS had no choice but to integrate backward and create its own curriculum and content so that it could offer Internet-based courses. The school designs its courses around Florida’s state educational standards and revises one-third of them each year in order to keep its curriculum current.
FLVS opened in January 1998 with 77 enrollments*** in six courses. By 2008, enrollments exceeded 154,000. The first students who enrolled in the school’s courses were primarily from rural and urban districts. They enrolled generally because a course was not offered at their brick-and-mortar school or because it was offered at an inconvenient time for them.
In 2000, the Florida Legislature established FLVS as an independent educational entity and created the FLVS Board of Trustees. This legislation gave the online school the same legal authority and autonomy as any other school district in Florida so that it could establish a business model and create its own contracts.
Performance of students
Although no control-group type studies have yet been conducted that test whether students learn better from FLVS courses than from traditional classes, students who completed Advanced Placement (AP) courses at FLVS received higher average scores on 2008 AP exams than did Florida students overall and outscored the nation in several subjects.
* Glenn Kleiman, “Interview with Julie Young,” Education Development Center, Inc., 2004, http://www.neirtec. org/setda/young.htm#.
** Historically, FLVS had limited the number of students each teacher was responsible for instructing to 150 (approximately 25 students per course). Due to budget cuts, that number rose during the 2009-10 school year.
*** An enrollment is defined as any instance of a student taking a half-credit course; one student, therefore, can be responsible for several enrollments.