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Mandatory Virtual Classes for High School Students Bugging Cash-Strapped Districts

| September 7, 2011

Motherboarders. (© Guy Billout)

A new state law that requires Florida high school students to take a class online is causing cash-strapped school districts to spend millions on new computers.

And it’s caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which said Thursday it is calling on school districts to ensure that students who do not have Internet access at home aren’t at a disadvantage when it comes to being able to take online courses.

“We are concerned about issues of access,” said ACLU spokesman Baylor Johnson. “There is a digital divide in this country and Internet access is limited by economic means.”

The new law requires entering high school freshman beginning this year to take at least one course online prior to graduation. School districts say to meet this new requirement, it means spending money on new computer labs so that students who do not have the Internet at home are able to take online courses.

“This could be considered an unfunded mandate,” said Chris McGuire, the principal of Broward Virtual School.

While most schools already have computer labs, McGuire said, the new law could force districts to buy additional computers and set up more labs for students that can only take the class while on campus.

“We don’t have a good indication of how many students have Internet access at home,” McGuire said, so districts have to estimate how many students will want to use a computer on campus during school hours.

Pam McAuley, the manager of instructional programs at the Hillsborough County School District, said the new requirement would place a burden on already crowded computer lab space.

“As we stand right now, there are no funds to add more computers or lab space,” McAuley said. “We are going to have to get creative site by site and see what kind of lab space they have.”

This shift from merely requiring districts to offer online courses as an option to mandating that students take an online course prior to graduation is a huge policy change, educators say.

In Broward County, which educators say offers one of the best virtual education programs in the state, one study reported that at most, only 20 percent of high school seniors graduate having taken an online course.

This means thousands of students who ordinarily wouldn’t have taken online course are now required to.

School officials also say there is confusion as to whether special education students are also required to take an online course. “A lot of online courses aren’t built to a lower reading level,” McAuley said.

Florida Virtual School, a state-supported virtual school program that some districts contract with to offer their own virtual classes, said its most popular high school courses include algebra, geometry, Spanish, and a health and physical education class. The school is funded by the state through student enrollment and course completion.

“We expect to see increased enrollments and we are already seeing that with the start of the traditional school calendar,” said Senior Director of Instruction Jodi Marshall. “We currently serve hundreds of thousands of students, however we still serve a small part of the population. We’re excited to have a new audience.”

In Escambia County, school officials say they are working towards getting the word out to all entering freshman and their parents that taking an online course is now mandatory.

“It is what it is, and there are concerns, but we will work through them,” said Norm Ross, a deputy superintendent for the Escambia County School District.

Ross said there are “companies jumping for joy who want to take advantage of this.” The bill that instituted the requirement was heavily lobbied by for-profit virtual education providers.

Virtual education companies are a fast-growing industry as more states embrace online education. It is championed by Republican lawmakers as a way to give flexibility to school districts and students.

It is also touted as a way to help students preparing for the shift in three years to online-only standardized tests.

Critics of online education say that it makes cheating on assignments and tests easier and for some students, the material is more difficult to understand when delivered over the Web.

Marilyn Myers, the principal of Duval Virtual Instruction Academy, said there will be a “capital cost,” for districts. She estimated the cost of retrofitting a classroom into a computer lab is between $30,000 and $50,000 and that almost every middle and high school in the Duval County School District would need an additional lab.

“As principal of a virtual school, I am a big supporter of it,” Myers said. She said it prepares students for taking online courses in college. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Myers said.

–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida

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4 Responses for “Mandatory Virtual Classes for High School Students Bugging Cash-Strapped Districts”

  1. Shane says:

    Wait a minute here… Why does it matter if students have internet access at home? If this is something that is now REQUIRED for them to do for school, it should be done at school. How many news reports do we see about homeless kids who are given food to take home with them so they can eat when they are not in school? These kids need to be considered. As it says, internet access can equal economic times. Guess what, the economy sucks and some people cut what they can to make other bills. I hope that this gets added to the County Commissions list of unfunded mandates that they are sending to the Governor so maybe he will help in getting funds for this program since he cut so much of education already…

  2. Parent says:

    Will Flagler County graduates in the class of 2016 be required to take online classes? My older son is a 2011 graduate of FPC and did several online classes. Personally, I think it was an awful experience and am not in favor of my second child having to do this. I have heard of parents doing the work for the students and can tell you for a fact my son made up so much BS to fulfill his assignments. I am quite sure that if my second child is required to take an online class to fulfill graduation requirements it will be the simplest class possible just to get it over with. Online education is a good idea but is not for every student.

  3. Jim Guines says:

    The school system started a program, Make-it-Take-It, which had as its goal to put a computer(used) in every home of students. Someone needs to survey or check if or not this goal was completed or how many got computers.

  4. palmcoaster says:

    One more step to privatization of our tax funded school education and for profit for these “virtual suppliers businesses”. I am totally against it! More of privatizing for profit from our hard earned taxes as is the conservative agenda.

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