Alaska’s new, Florida-based virtual school is not sitting well with some educators

Alaska Education Commissioner Michael Johnson discusses the new statewide virtual school on Wednesday at a news conference with Gov. Mike Dunleavy. (Creative Commons photo by Office of Gov. Mike Dunleavy)

As Alaska educators scramble to adjust lessons to the new reality of online teaching, some are blasting a decision by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration to launch a new virtual school in partnership with a Florida program that was recently rocked by scandal.

The Florida Virtual School, which was recommended to Dunleavy’s education commissioner by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, had enrolled about 80 Alaska students by Friday. But some educators say they were offended and shocked to get the news of the state’s $525,000 contract with the school without advance notice.

“The ‘4th quarter solution’ that is suggested through the purchase of this Florida version of distance delivery is seen as an insult to most, if not all, teachers in the state who have been supporting their students,” Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss wrote in an email.

Alaska Education Commissioner Michael Johnson is defending his department’s one-year contract with the Florida Virtual School, saying the state-run school has a long track record and has worked with Alaska schools. The new partnership will expand options for students stuck at home right now, especially those enrolled in small schools, he said.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic that we’ve never been in before,” Johnson said. “It’s a well-respected public school, and we are trying to find as many options as we can.”

Alaska’s school buildings are closed to students until at least May 1, and teachers are delivering lessons remotely.

The state’s contract with the online Florida school includes three parts:

  • Alaska students in kindergarten through 12th grade can register now to take online classes through the Florida Virtual School for the final part of the school year. The classes are free to students, and taught by Florida-based teachers certified in that state.
  • Staff from the Florida Virtual School will train up to 50 Alaska teachers to move their own classes online.
  • The Florida staff will also help the state transition to Alaska-based educators teaching the classes.

Johnson said Alaska students can use the classes as supplements during the rest of the school year, or as graded courses. No one is forced to use them, he said.

The coronavirus response is unfolding differently in every community, he said, including those wrestling with virus-related travel issues.

“It’s really been inspiring to see how teachers have responded and are filling in these gaps,” he said. “And so it’s not intended to say that somebody’s not doing what they should. It’s just trying to put as many options for students on the table as possible and, where it works and where it’s helpful, then it’s there.”

But the head of Alaska’s statewide teachers union is objecting. Tim Parker, the president of NEA-Alaska, said he’s fielding many questions and concerns from educators across the state.

“People did not see this coming,” said Parker, whose union represents more than 12,000 Alaska public school teachers and support staff. “There’s a lot of questions lingering out there.”

Parker said he heard about the new Alaska Statewide Virtual School on Tuesday — the same day the state’s education department sent a press release about it, and the first day students could register for the Florida classes.

Bridget Weiss smiles as she's congratulated on her appointment to interim superintendent of the Juneau School District at a meeting of the Juneau School Board on Aug. 6, 2018. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)
Bridget Weiss, the superintendent for the Juneau School District, at a meeting of the Juneau School Board on Aug. 6, 2018. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Weiss, superintendent of Juneau schools, said she’s disappointed by the lack of transparency and communication from the state. Teachers are working harder than ever for their students, while school districts continue to struggle with thin budgets, she said in her email.

Also, she said, the state and school districts have put a lot of effort into developing Alaska-specific cultural standards, and having teachers trained on them.

“This seems to be in direct conflict with hiring a Florida virtual school to teach our students,” she said.

Parker said he didn’t see a specific need for the new program right now.

“We’re in a crisis, and teachers and educators are meeting the needs of the students that they have,” he said. “I’m not sure having a teacher in Florida is going to improve the situation at this point in time.”

Parker said he also has concerns about the cost of the program and the state sending money out of Alaska, along with the Florida Virtual School’s recent management scandal. Florida’s education department released a report last year that said the school was plagued by “recurring leadership crises,” and needed a new board and new ethics standards.

Anchorage School District spokesperson Alan Brown said Thursday it was too soon to say how the new online classes would tie into the state’s largest school district, and its students’ work in the final weeks of the school year, which is scheduled to end in late May.

He said the school district already has robust online offerings, including its own iSchool, which was built years ago using the Florida Virtual School platform. The Florida classes have since been mostly replaced with Anchorage school content, Brown said. But he added that the district realizes the new school is “a tremendous resource for the state.”

The Florida Virtual School was created in 1997 as Florida’s first internet-based public high school and has grown into a statewide public school district, offering more than 190 online courses. It enrolls more than 200,000 students. Most of them are from Florida, but there are others from across all 50 states. The school told NPR in late March it was looking at doubling its enrollment by the end of April.

Johnson said that Bush, the former governor, first connected him with the online school.

“I was having a conversation with him last fall, and just talking about the unique aspects of Alaska and he said, ‘You know what? You ought to talk to Florida Virtual School and find out more about them,’” Johnson said.

Johnson said he spoke with the school then, and the education department contacted the school again recently. He said virtual schools aren’t a new concept for Alaska.

Mike Hanley, former Alaska education commissioner, fields questions from members of the House Finance Committee, March 17, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

Another superintendent, Mike Hanley, said he’s grateful for Johnson’s work and the new resource.

Hanley is a former Alaska education commissioner, and he’s currently the superintendent of two school districts that serve small communities — the Chugach School District and the Aleutian Region School District. The districts’ largest school has just 60 students, he said.

“It doesn’t surprise me, having sat in that seat, that a lot of people — for whatever reason — have found concerns with it,” he said about the virtual school. “I don’t have concerns with it.”

Already, he said, a teacher in the tiny Aleutian Islands village of Atka is having her 10 students sign up for the new online classes. In small schools, he said, teachers are often instructing students in multiple grades, and it takes a lot of time to repackage all of those classes in a new way with school buildings closed.

“The materials that teachers may have been using are not necessarily easily transferred to an online model. If you were using a textbook, if you were using hands-on materials, if you were using worksheets for some areas of math or whatever it might be, you can make copies all day long and send over a PDF. But those are not necessarily interactive,” Hanley said.

“The idea that you’ve got something that is addressing the same standards that you were addressing, but it’s already online — that in and of itself has value,” he added

Hanley said teachers using the online classes will have direct contact with students, using the online curriculum, and will determine whether students have done the work to earn credit.

Alaska’s contract with Florida Virtual School runs through February 2021, with the state agreeing to pay the Florida school up to $525,000.