A public-private accord in Florida with jaw-dropping implications for online learning

A Florida House committee was treated Tuesday to a high-level discussion of digital learning that included the likes of former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise and national education reformer Tom Vander Ark, but the showstopper came from a different duo with a jaw-dropping accord. The policy director for the nation’s leading public virtual school and the president of a leading private virtual education company told lawmakers that competition is the best way to give students new online opportunities.

No, we’re not making this up.

Sitting around that committee room table were Holly Sagues, chief policy officer for Florida Virtual School, and Barbara Dreyer, president and CEO of Connections Academy. Florida Virtual is far and away the nation’s most successful public virtual school, whose 213,926 courses last year represented three times the rate of the next closest state. Dreyer and one of her own private competitors, K-12 Inc., have found common ground with Florida Virtual on a plan that would introduce statewide private providers for all forms of online learning.

They have agreed to a plan that is animated by two basic objectives. First: “To provide students throughout Florida with as many quality online education options as possible and to make those options available to every student regardless of where they live or whether they attend a district school.” Second: “To bring more consistency in the qualifications, funding, and accountability applied to all public and private providers.”

House K-12 Innovation Chairwoman Kelli Stargel is showing clear interest, and substantial legislative groundwork has been laid. Some two dozen online advocates worked collaboratively over the past eight months around those objectives and were able to avoid the acrimony and division that has characterized previous efforts. Their product could make Florida a national model in the arena of online education and includes:

  • Authorizing the state Board of Education to select private companies meeting certain standards to provide online courses or fulltime online education statewide – in direct competition with Florida Virtual School.
  • Bringing consistency to the qualifications, funding and accountability applied to all public and private providers. Some districts currently contract with private companies to provide fulltime virtual programs, and there is currently wide disparity, particularly in funding.
  • Removing the mandate on school districts to provide fulltime programs themselves and letting students choose from Florida Virtual or the private providers.

The implications for legislation in this state this year are obvious, but the example being set by the Florida Virtual School is something that deserves its own form of awe. This is an innovative public school that has developed markets in other states and nations, and it is showing a disarming level of institutional confidence. At a time when many public educators are conditioned to see private options as an assault on their turf, Virtual School president and chief executive Julie Young is saying, essentially, bring it on. Maybe her real savvy is simply to make sure they all play by the same rules, but her moxy is something to behold.