POLITICO | By Andrew Atterbury | June 24, 2021
One Florida county’s online student enrollment skyrocketed during Covid. Now the virtual school landscape has changed.
TALLAHASSEE — Months before the Covid-19 pandemic uprooted education across the nation, a small county in South Florida already had a fully operational virtual school open to students anywhere in the state — and parents took full advantage.
Offered through Hendry County District Schools, the Digital Academy of Florida saw its enrollment skyrocket due to the coronavirus, leading the county to serve nearly as many kids in its in-person classrooms as online students from beyond county lines. Hendry County at one point had 99 percent of its full-time virtual enrollees logging in from elsewhere in Florida, a distinct outlier compared to the rest of the state.
But now, this virtual school and others like it have new restrictions on how much they can expand in the future. And emerging programs face even tighter virtual enrollment caps that are set to take hold next month.
State lawmakers say this under-the-radar policy shift, approved by the Legislature during the 2021 session, was necessary to rein in the enrollment surge that hit virtual charter schools and similar programs during the pandemic. Digital campuses that serve students outside of their county would be better off under the Florida Department of Education instead of local school districts, according to state education policymakers.
Yet opponents decry the new limits as “almost unbelievable.” Groups that typically praise Florida’s school choice stance argue the change ultimately restricts online options for parents and students. That flies in the face of the expansive policies for private and charter schools typically backed in the Sunshine State, critics say.
“This is really the first time that a state had open enrollment for full-time virtual school and went back,” said Jeff Kwitowski, vice president of public affairs and policy communications at Stride K12 Inc., which runs the Hendry program. “The fact that it was Florida is kind of shocking.”
In Florida during the pandemic, the vast majority of K-12 students attended school in-person either part-time or full-time. Still, full-time virtual school enrollment more than doubled statewide this school year, rising from 59,802 students to some 131,128 students even as Gov. Ron DeSantis required every district to offer in-person classes.
The state’s longstanding online K-12 program, Florida Virtual School, saw its student headcount rise by 42,260 students to 91,485 in 2020-21 including franchise agreements with school districts. Meanwhile, some 21,504 students attended online classes created by their local schools, according to Department of Education data from October.
Thousands of other families ended up finding digital education options elsewhere, namely virtual charter schools or similar programs operated through county school districts, such as Hendry.
These online schools are managed by large companies like Pearson or Stride that contract with local school boards in the same fashion as a bricks-and-mortar charter school. To that end, school districts are allowed to charge a fee up to 5 percent from virtual schools for operating costs.
Lawmakers during the 2021 session, led by state Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay), the House education budget chief, took an interest in the spreading popularity of online charters and “virtual instruction providers” like Hendry County’s Digital Academy of Florida.
Statewide virtual charters, cleared to open through a 2017 law, were deemed a redundant option by some House members with Florida Virtual School’s already available to nearly every student in Florida.
The online schools are effectively “laundering students” from one county to another, swinging millions of state education dollars in the process, Fine says.
“I don’t want to take away anybody’s choice,” Fine said in an interview. “I just think we need to do it in a structured way.”
Virtual schools in three particular counties jumped out to lawmakers during the legislative session: Hendry, Duval and Osceola. For all three, more than 20 percent of their enrollment came from outside school district lines.
Hendry, located just east of Palm Beach County, is the most glaring example of booming growth.
Hendry’s online school enrolled some 6,490 students in 2020-21 and nearly all of them — 99 percent — live elsewhere in Florida. That headcount, marking a jump of 4,810 students in one year, comes close to the small county’s typical in-person enrollment of approximately 7,400 students, according to Department of Education data.
By almost doubling its enrollment in short order, Hendry County’s education budget swelled unlike any in Florida over the past three years.
The school district is set to receive $89.9 million in total K-12 funding in 2021-22 to match its enrollment influx, a 67 percent increase compared to 2018-19. During that same timespan, the budget for schools in Broward County, one of the largest districts in the country, rose by less than 4 percent.
Further, Hendry’s education budget grew by more than 17 percent, 13.5 million, in the 2021 spending plan recently approved by lawmakers while school districts on average saw a decrease of .66 percent, according to state data.
“At the end of the day, we are trying to provide an alternative education option to meet the needs for individual students,” Michael Swindle, superintendent of Hendry County School District, said in an interview. “Obviously, it’s working.”
The legislation — steered by Fine and signed into law by DeSantis in the state budget — caps enrollment for virtual programs in Hendry and beyond.
For agreements coming after June 30, districts can only enroll half as many virtual students from outside the county as online students who reside locally. This language will prevent any new program from reaching the enrollment heights of Hendry, with the majority of Florida students expected to attend in-person classes next fall.
Additionally, the bill scaled back a rule that required every school district to offer students at least three virtual education options. Districts now must provide one online choice, which in many cases is likely to be the state-run Florida Virtual School.
In one piece that directly affects Hendry, the new law stipulates that a school district can’t enroll more virtual students from outside the county than its total pool of local students. That would give the Digital Academy of Florida room to add fewer than 1,000 students, a ceiling that came as a shock to school leaders.
“We want to be here to serve every family,” Clark Berry, head of school at Digital Academy of Florida said in an interview. “With this cap, we have the potential of having to turn folks away.”
One school choice advocacy group, the National Coalition of Public School Options, was taken aback by the Legislature’s decision to cap virtual education options this year. The change is “almost unbelievable,” according to the group, given that state lawmakers pumped millions of dollars into expanding private school voucher programs in the same budget.
“The fact these massive steps backwards on educational choice and empowerment for so many Florida families occurred in the same session where other big steps forward were adopted for other families not only defies any explanation, but is in dire need of correction,” the group wrote in a statement calling for the policies to be reversed.
Lawmakers say online education policies will continue to be explored in Florida next session. In the meantime, though, state leaders are pushing for schools to return to “normal” operations in 2021-22, leaving an uncertain future for virtual enrollment.
Next school year can be a “reset” for parents to decide if online education is best for their children, said Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. (R-Hialeah), a school choice advocate in the Legislature.
“We want to continue to provide choice, but we have to make sure and measure that the products out there are providing the best education,” Diaz said.