By Rachel Higgins
Public education in the United States is suffering in many respects today, particularly where budgets are concerned. States are losing money across the board, casing many legislatures to make drastic cuts to K-12 educational allotments. Teachers are being laid off, and “non-essential” programming, like art and music, are being eliminated; taxes are being raised, and schools and parents both are looking for any and all ways of salvaging at least some semblance of normalcy for the children enrolled. Florida is no stranger to this dilemma. The reaction of many Florida education policy makers has been somewhat innovative, though. While many schools are seeing negative changes and steep cuts, huge growth is happening in the online space. Florida Virtual, an online public school, is fast becoming the biggest online learning institution in the country. The state’s efforts to integrate more technology and so-called “smart” devices into traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms may also bring significant long-term savings to the districts adopting them.
In Florida as in most of the country, the biggest problem educators face is that resources are simply drying up. According to numbers released by the state education department in the spring of 2012, more than $2.1 billion has been cut from state education spending since 2008. An additional 8 percent cut was implemented for the 2012-2013 school year, which works out to about $540 per student. This money is not exactly easy to come up with. Though each district is free to make cuts as it sees fit, sooner or later the ax tends to come down on teachers. This makes learning more difficult, and teaching for those who remain all the more stressful.
“It’s a strain on the kids, it’s a strain on the teachers and it’s a strain on the administration,” Declan Lyons, a Latin and French teacher in Florida’s Broward County, told National Public Radio’s State Impact in 2012. Lyons today teaches a broad “world languages” class with 37 students per section—conditions that are “far from ideal,” he said.
The state’s budget shortfall is not limited to the elementary and high school level, though is it often felt most profoundly there because the services must be provided free of charge. Florida’s university system is also coming under close financial scrutiny. The 2012 legislature agreed to $300 million in cuts from the state university and junior college funding plan, most of which is being offset by tuition increases. Tuition, of course, cannot be charged to K-12 students, which means that educators and policy makers must be a bit more innovative.
For many, technology and increased use of the free resources available online is proving a good way to make up the difference. A growing number of Florida elementary, middle and high school classrooms are turning to e-books that come at a fraction of the cost of regular textbooks, for instance. They are relying on electronic learning initiatives to reduce teacher load, and are striving for digital grading systems and standardized test platforms to cut down on administrative work without sacrificing the quality of the education being provided.
Virtual schools are another attractive option. Legislators have pushed over the last few years for a revitalization of the Florida Virtual School, an online educational program first established in 1998. Their efforts have largely paid off, as today the FVS is the largest state-funded online learning program in the nation, enrolling students for a fraction of the cost of traditional schooling.
“Florida education leaders have turned to Florida Virtual as a solution to overcrowded classes, limited course offerings and budget cuts,” The Tampa Bay Times reported in a 2012 article. “It is the darling of politicians enamored of its price tag; Florida Virtual bills itself as a bargain, educating for $2,100 less per pupil than traditional schools.” It also manages to make money, an anomaly in today’s crunched climate. Most of the dividends come from franchise opportunities and out-of-state tuition: the program is free for all Florida residents under 18, but a fee applies for those outside the state’s borders.
Students can choose to enroll in all of their classes online, or can just take a few at a time—often to supplement traditional course learning. Rather than sit in a crammed “world languages” class, for instance, a student can choose to enroll in Mandarin, Spanish, or Arabic online. Classes are often taken from home, but depending on the school can also be moderated in large “learning labs”—basically computer centers on regular campuses that are proctored, but do not offer any additional instruction.
The model shows great promise, particularly where cost savings and course opportunities are concerned. There remains some skepticism when it comes to actual efficacy of learning, however. It is often very difficult to gauge actual student learning and engagement in the online space, and assessment rubrics are far from standardized. The model is also “mastery based,” which is oriented around eventual success rather than initial letter grades. “Controversial in some circles, it allows students to redo assignments and tests they find more challenging before moving to the next concept,” the Times said.
There is no easy way to solve the educational budget crisis affecting most American schools today. Looking to technology, as Florida has done, is a promising way forward—but even that is not foolproof. The key is to find a system that works, then to remain vigilant and flexible to change and modify as needed.