Florida education commissioner assures school leaders, families that parental choice will remain top priority

The state’s top education official today stopped short of announcing a decision regarding online learning programs for the second half of the 2020-21 academic year but stressed a commitment to education choice.

The governor will take nothing less than full parental choice,” Richard Corcoran said during the Florida Board of Education meeting. “From the top down in this state, that will absolutely happen. There is no flexibility for anything but that.”

Corcoran said the department is continuing to work with all stakeholders and expects to make an announcement at the end of the month.

His remarks followed rumors that he would use the board meeting to announce a final decision on whether to end a July emergency order that allowed districts to offer online remote learning programs that tied students to their schools. The order promised full funding to districts based on student enrollment if they also provided in-person instruction five days per week to families who wanted it.

The order also temporarily waived a provision in the law that required K-12 students attending private schools on scholarships to receive instruction at brick-and-mortar schools as a condition of receiving state financial aid. The waiver drew sighs of relief from private school leaders who feared some families’ choice to pursue online learning would result in the loss of scholarships for their students.

The order is set to expire Dec. 31, leaving school officials and families uncertain as to how a decision would affect their fate when instruction resumes in January. A decision not to extend the order would force students at public and private schools back to campus, though they could leave their district schools and enroll in asynchronous e-schools or Florida Virtual School if they want to continue online instruction.

Board member Michael Olenick said any decision should be consistent with school choice, adding that his fifth-grade grandson who attends an online program tied to his district school is thriving.

“He has daily interactions with his teachers and his classmates,” Olenick said. “If you take that away from that fifth-grader and force him to Florida Virtual School, he will lose that sense of community; he will lose that daily interaction.”

The Florida Association of District School Superintendents also encouraged Corcoran to extend the order through the rest of the school year.

“We agree with Commissioner Corcoran and the governor that face-to-face instruction is the best way to deliver instruction,” the group said in a statement. “However, there are some parents and students who do not want to return to school while we continue to deal with the challenges of COVID-19. Continuing the innovative learning model for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year with full funding will allow districts to provide direct instruction for all students, including our most vulnerable, in these trying times.”

Wakulla County Schools Superintendent Robert Pearce, acting as spokesman for the superintendents’ group, said the online programs developed during the pandemic will benefit students long after it ends.

“There were good things that came of that,” he said. “We have every intention of continuing our district learning platform.”