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Changing Course: Non-Traditional Education Alternatives.

February 15, 2011 | WMFE - Florida's new governor, Rick Scott, is an advocate of "school choice." He says he wants to eventually find a way to allow more students to opt out of public school and receive vouchers to attend a private or charter school or for parents to home school their kids. As part of WMFE's week-long series "Changing Course," we're looking into some of those alternative education choices.

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2011 FETC Conference

The Florida Supreme Court struck down a previous attempt to establish a statewide voucher system and Gov. Scott doesn’t seem inclined to push for vouchers in the upcoming legislative session.

But advocates for public school alternatives and those who would profit from such a move are increasingly optimistic.

Under the model proposed by the governor’s education transition team, the state would give parents about $5,500 a year to educate their children however they wish.

Home schooling parents could use that money to purchase some of the rapidly multiplying variety of high tech educational products.

The recent Florida Education Technology Conference in Orlando featured many of those new resources

Hundreds of vendors could be found hawking their wares in the massive exhibition hall at the Orange County Convention Center.

A vast array of products was available, from interactive whiteboards to a hand held device that projects Power Point lessons for home schooling or small classrooms.

Jim Hickey, who represents Learning Dot Com, said his company’s interactive, video-based instruction products are more effective than traditional books in reaching today’s tech-savvy kids.

“It’s storytelling, to a certain extent, and I’ll give an example of that.” Hickey said, “We can sit here and watch George Washington crossing the Delaware as we’re hearing and reading about it instead of the traditional way of just getting text.”

The governor’s education transition team strongly recommends more emphasis on that kind of virtual education.

Among other things, they want to remove the cap on the number of credits a student can accrue online and provide some kind of monetary assistance for parents who want to use virtual resources in home schooling.

Another of the exhibits at the recent FETC promoted the resources available from the Florida Virtual School, based in Orlando. Founded in 1997, the non-profit is one of the veterans of Internet-based education.

Julie Young, the schools’ president and CEO, said her organization was far ahead of the rest of the state in offering online education alternatives.

“We’re excited because what we’ve been living by and speaking about for the last 14 years, we’re starting to hear education leaders and politicians and decision makers talking about personalized instruction, talking about giving children options.” Young said.

Those expanding options for the future of education could create more of a hybrid model where students attend classes at a traditional school for part of the week but blend that with home schooling and online courses.

That’s quite similar to what’s happening now at a private, Christian school in Winter Park.

Students at the International Community School attend three days a week and are home-schooled another two days. The school’s Chief Administrator Robyn Terwilliger said that hybrid approach works well for her students and their parents.

"Kids are learning at a much faster rate and the efficiency of this model really feeds into that.” Terwilliger said, “And I think parents want more control. Parents want a piece of what their children are doing and they really like a model that gives them an opportunity to be a part of their children’s lives.

If Governor Scott eventually succeeds in expanding education vouchers in Florida, Terwilliger said her school and many of its parents and students would benefit.

"Oh, I think it would be great because that’s the drawback many parents have, just the financial component of being able to do something like this.” Terwilliger said. “So having the extra income from the state, which parents are already paying through their tax dollars, would be great and would be beneficial to these parents.”

Other private schools have said they don’t want to take money from the state if it means they would have to comply with state standards and submit to scrutiny from the state Department of Education. 

But some education experts worry that private, charter or home schools might not be held to the same level of accountability as public schools.

Elizabeth Heins is a professor of Education at Stetson University in Deland.

"I think you have to be careful when you say ‘I’m going to dispense money to all these different organizations and groups and families and whatever.’”  Heins said, “We’re all using the same money, it’s taxpayer money. So, as a taxpayer, I would want to know if my money is going to go to this charter school, how will you assure me that the children in this school are getting a quality education.”

The governor’s education transition team doesn’t specify what kinds of schools might be considered as appropriate alternatives to the public school system.

But its report recommends that families be allowed to consider all available options.

They may have to wait though because, at least for this year, Governor Scott says he will focus on other changes to the state’s schools.



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