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Florida Poised to Expand Online Providers

Lawmakers in Florida, long a hospitable setting for virtual education, are on the verge of opening the door further to online providers, while also encouraging "MOOCs" in K-12.

A measure sponsored by state Rep. Manny Diaz, a Republican, which recently cleared the legislature, would loosen requirements for the experience required for virtual providers, according to the most recent draft of the legislation.

Normally, online providers in Florida need to have shown "prior, successful experience offering online courses" in elementary, middle, or high schools, to operate in the state. But the bill changes that, stating that providers without prior experience may be conditionally approved by the Florida Department of Education, which would review their records after a year.

The measure would also expand the pool of eligible applicants who could offer online courses to include massively open online courses, or "MOOCs." To date MOOCs have resided primarily in higher education environments, though there are some signs of a shift into K-12 settings. The MOOC provider Coursera, for instance, recently announced a partnership with teacher colleges and other institutions to offer online professional development for educators.

To date, the biggest and best-known provider of online education in the Sunshine State is the Florida Virtual School, which has seen the number of course completions by students rise fairly dramatically, to 314,593 today. Other, private providers also operate throughout the state, including K12, whose operations have come under criticism from some local officials recently.

The Miami Herald reports that the legislation would clear the way for other private companies providing virtual education to do business in the state. During the legislative session, backers of the new legislation depicted it as a way to break up the "semi-monopoly" of the Florida Virtual School, in the words of one lobbyist making that argument.

But the passage of the measure in the waning hours of the legislative session, not to mention the bill's overall content, provoked a major fight on the floor of the Florida Senate, according to the Herald.

The newspaper quoted one lawmaker, Sen. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat, as blasting the bill as "another way to privatize our public schools."

But Rep. Diaz argued that his bills was "not about private business."

"What we're doing here is not replacing Florida Virtual, by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "We're trying to provide more access to our students, especially those students who advanced and learn better by this modality."

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